Bio-technology the only way to combat world hunger: Experts

October 20th, 2011 - 12:35 pm ICT by IANS  

Chicago, Oct 20 (IANS) Bio-technology needs to be adopted more widely to combat the spectre of global hunger, said agriculturists from all over the world, policy experts, senior US officials and Fortune 500 companies who came together at a global farmers’ conference in Des Moines, Iowa.

One of the keynote speakers at the event, Jose Fernandez, assistant secretary in the US Bureau of Economic, Energy and Business Affairs set the tone of the discussions at conference, “The next generation: confronting the hunger challenge of tomorrow”.

Fernandez said agriculture production systems are under pressure as never before.

“The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that a doubling of agricultural output will be needed by 2050 to feed a population of more than nine billion people. That doubling of production will need to occur despite challenges caused by climate change, including water shortages and increased salinity of soil,” he said.

Other speakers noted that innovative science and collaboration are essential to addressing global food security.

“At the end of the day, no one country, company, government or foundation can meet the global food security challenge alone,” said DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman.

“We have to work together through public-private collaborations and through a harmonised, science-based regulatory system to ensure farmers and consumers can benefit from new technologies.”

In a ceremony later at the State Capitol, John Kufuor, former president of Ghana and Luiz Inacio Lula Silva, former president of Brazil were honoured with the World Food Prize for creating and implementing government policies that alleviated hunger and transformed the lives of the poor.

The award was instituted by Nobel Peace Prize winner and father of the Green Revolution Norman Borlaug. Past recipients have included India’s M.S. Swaminathan and Muhammad Yunus of the Grameen Bank, Bangladesh.

Vijay Kapoor, a farmer from Karnal in India’s Haryana state, was the sole farmer from Asia invited to attend the conference.

Kapoor told IANS that his participation in the conference helped reaffirm his belief that bio-technology would help increase productivity, as well curb crop diseases in countries like India, faced with a rapid population growth and shrinking arable land. It also gave him an opportunity to compare notes with farmers from the West.

“Attending the global farmers conference gave me an opportunity to see where we (in India) are compared to farmers the world over,” said Kapoor, adding that BT (bio-technology) crops was the only option of increasing production in countries like India.

He said he found the opposition in India to BT crops misplaced.

“The United States has had BT crops for the last 16 years. Food regulatory authorities are far more stringent there than in India and yet they have not found adverse effects on humans,” he said.

Giving the example of BT cotton, which has been allowed in India since 2002, Kapoor said: “In Haryana, Punjab and Gujarat, pests affecting cotton had, over the years, grown resistant to pesticides. Moreover, there was a rise in incidences of cancer among cotton farmers as a result of a heavy use of the pesticides. With the planting of BT cotton, the use of pesticides has been reduced. Less pesticide residue is found in irrigation water and consequently even the groundwater samples show lower pesticide contamination.”

Indian farmers can adopt BT rice to fight pests like the brown plant hopper which now causes significant damage to rice crops, Kapoor said.

While the US was way ahead of India in agricultural reforms, Kapoor said that a panel of experts at the conference acknowledged that India had surpassed the US in agricultural research reaching the farmer.

“In Haryana, for instance, we have an agricultural development officer who is responsible for five villages. We also have Krishi Vigyan Kendras where farmers can call a toll free number for advice. Farmers can also get text messages on their mobile phones on issues like the best time for sowing and the best variety of seeds. All this is available at no cost to the farmer, while in the US, the farmer has to pay for such advice. A discussion at the Iowa State University concluded that India is ahead of the US in this area,” he said.

According to Kapoor, besides dramatically raising productivity, BT crops could reduce the contamination of groundwater, a rapidly depleting resource in India. He echoed experts at the conference who said that water conservation could be a critical issue worldwide.

“The next global war could well be over water resources and we need to do whatever we can to conserve it,” he said.

Besides updating him on the latest in agricultural technology, the farmers’ conference also brought Kapoor a humbling realisation. Kapoor’s farm extends over 120 acres making him the biggest farmer in Karnal, Haryana.

Interacting with American farmers, he puzzled over why they indulgently referred to him as a small farmer, till he discovered that their average farm size was over 3,000 acres.

“For me, it was a global reality check,” he said.

(Ashok Easwaran can be contacted at ashok3185@yahoo.com)

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