Interview: Sustainable agriculture – An evergreen revolution

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The "Father of the Green Revolution in India", Prof. M S Swaminathan shares his views on the status of the National Mission of Sustainable Agriculture, and myriad opportunities for India to explore.

Professor M S Swaminathan has been acclaimed by the TIME magazine as one of the twenty most influential Asians of the 20th century. He has been described by the UNEP as “the Father of Economic Ecology” and by Javier Perez de Cuellar, Secretary General of the United Nations, as “a living legend who will go into the annals of history as a world scientist of rare distinction”. He was Chairman of the UN Science Advisory Committee set up in 1980 to take follow-up action on the Vienna Plan of Action. He has also served as Independent Chairman of the FAO Council and President of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

What is your opinion on the current status of the National Sustainable Agriculture Mission?
The mission implementation has just started. Indian Council for Agriculture Research (ICAR) is in-charge and is working with Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture(CRIDA)in Hyderabad for the same. A network of institutions has been developed across the country with ICAR as a coordinating body. There are various ICAR affiliated institutions such as the 50 odd agriculture universities across the country and institutions such as the Indian Agriculture Research Institute (IARI). . All these institutions have been brought together as a network to focus on shaping a sustainable agriculture landscape in the country. Sustainable agriculture has various dimensions:
• Soil – protection and enhancement of the health of the soil, the physics and the micro biology of the soil. This includes macro and micro-nutrient deficiency, soil erosion, low organic carbon and more.
• Water –primarily improving water quality, water management and water harvesting. Many of these tasks are also being attempted under MGNREGA
• Agro-Bio diversity – the conservation of bio diversity and overcome problems like Genetic Anemia, which means very low genetic variability. Next year India is hosting the COP with a focus on bio diversity in Delhi.

One of the core aspects of climate change is Temperature. A 1 degree change of temperature in Punjab means wheat crop will be reduced by 1 week in duration, which in turn means losing 400 kgs of wheat. A rise of temperature of one degree centigrade will lead to a loss on 6-7 million tons of wheat loss in the northern part of India. Sea level rise and floods pose a huge threat as well. And then there is always the impact of CO2 content in air from a photosynthesis stand point.

Sustainability has various dimensions – environment, economic and social.

Monsoon and the market are the 2 determinants of a farmer’s well-being. Hence sustainability includes a matrix of issues that needs to be taken into consideration while forming policies. I personally don’t feel that work is happening fast enough under the Sustainable Agriculture mission, which I have also discussed in my book– “From Green to Evergreen Revolution”. Evergreen means increase in productivity in perpetuity, without ecological harm.

The recent report by the Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) predicts a major shortage in food supply due to the climate change (about 5-25 malnourished children per sq.km in India) – how do you feel India can tackle this problem?
India can tackle this problem through climate change mitigation, and also by adaptation. We have to be ready with anticipatory research and action plans. The 8 national missions that the GOI has right now, if implemented holistically and not in isolated manner, should enable the country to tackle the impacts of climate change efficiently.

I am the Chairman of the High Level Panel of Experts of the UN Committee on Food Security – fundamentally it is a panel of experts. Formerly the CFS was entirely FAO managed. It has been reformed in recent times. Ever since it has become a UN committee, various organizations like World Food program (WFP), IFAD and others have become involved in this committee. We just submitted 2 reports (available online) – the first is on price volatility and food security; and the second is on land tenure and international investment. A third report is going to be released on climate and food security, and the fourth report on social protection against hunger. We are a demand driven organization, and these reports were what the market needed.

There is a common but differentiated impact from climate change on agriculture – based on the geographical location. The northern latitudes will benefit more from higher temperatures. South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa will face the adverse impact due to climate change. These two have a large proportion of the world’s population and also the highest percentage of poor – hence the least coping capacity.

You are a big advocate of encouraging youth in farming and empowerment of women in agriculture – do you feel that the Indian Government is doing enough to make this happen?
Youth will be attracted to agriculture only if it becomes intellectually stimulating and economically rewarding. The educated young generation wants a challenging job. There is a whole chapter in the National Commission of Farmers, where I have talked about how to attract and retain youths in the field of agriculture – by upgrading the technology like biotech and modern information & communication technologies, renewable energy technology and more. We also need to have small scale agriculture mission implementations, like employing women in the world of farming. Youths who have studied in the field of agriculture can come together to form Agri-Clinic for the pre-production phase and Agri-Business Centers during the post-production.  Youth will have to promote the growth of need – based services sector in rural India.

Can you tell us a little about the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation?
It’s a pro-poor, pro-nature and pro-women organization. We do translational research – the scientific know-how and on field do-how. We collaborate with other organizations and conduct various programs – be the catalyst, and then let the Government takeover in order to take these programs to a national level.

Both the PM and the President are advocating for a 2nd Green Revolution in India – what is your take on this matter?
I don’t like the term ‘second’ or ‘third’ Green Revolution. Green Revolution means improvement yield and not area expansion. The only way right now is to produce more from less land and less water. Land is a shrinking resource in India. What India and other population rich but land hungry countries need is ‘evergreen revolution’ – increasing productivity in perpetuity, based on eco-technology. Everyone including the PM and the President wants more production in dry land and non-irrigated areas. We need to adopt more sustainable practices to grow more in the rain-fed areas and dry farming.

What do you think will be the key drivers for the next Green Revolution? What role do new agriculture technologies like hydroponic farming and Integrated Pest Management play in this revolution?
The National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture itself is a key driver. Any step taken to mainstream sustainability concerns in technology development and dissemination becomes ‘evergreen revolution’. Technology is the prime mover of change. Services – production, credit etc. will contribute substantially towards the next change. Appropriate public policy, particularly in input-output pricing will be a crucial determinant of how the next revolution unravels. And finally, overall farmer enthusiasm is a must!

What are some of the aspects that can improve investment opportunities for sustainable agriculture in India?
Investment decisions are mainly based on appropriate mechanizations. We need more post-harvest technologies to create a market that attracts investment opportunities. Investment is always a symbiotic relationship, and both parties – farmers and investors need to realize and appreciate that. Sustainability will only be a reality when both unacceptable poverty and unsustainable lifestyle become problems of the past.

This interview has been conducted by Pramita Sen from the India Carbon Outlook editorial team.

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Author: Pramita Sen