Food Security vs. Environment
By: C. R. Bhatia*
It is widely accepted that cultivation of crops in the Indian subcontinent
dates back to 9000 years before present. Growing crops was made possible
only after clearing of grasslands at the river banks, and forest land in
the interior. Cattle and other animals were domesticated for milk and farm
operations. Human existence as nomadic hunter and food gatherer gradually
changed to farming and to a more settled way of life which is now
recognized as the Indus civilization. Urbanization followed. These changes
must have caused lot of environmental perturbations such as the loss of
natural vegetation, and biodiversity, as we know today. As the productivity
declined by growing crops on the same plot, keeping the land fallow to
return back to natural vegetation and restoring fertility were practiced.
Later, crop rotations with legumes, and green manuring were followed. Cow
dung was added to the fields to increase productivity. This kind of
agriculture was practiced in the country during the Mughal (1526-1700) and
British (1750-1947) rules. In the industrialized countries crop
productivity increased significantly after the development of Haber – Bosch
process to fix atmospheric nitrogen, abundant in air, into ammonia widely
used as nitrogenous fertilizers. Consumption of synthetic fertilizers in
India at the time of independence was less than 70,000 tons compared to
over 12 million tons in 1915, all indigenously manufactured.
Famines were of frequent occurrence; 14 major famines were recorded between
11th and 17 centuries (See Bhatia, 2003). The Bengal famine of
1940-43 was the last major one, where estimated 1.5 - 4 million human lives
perished. Since then, under the British rule and after independence in
1947, food shortages were widespread till 1970s. Import of food grains and
public distribution averted famines. Introduction of semi-dwarf, nitrogen
responsive wheat and rice cultivars in the 1970s, the so called green
revolution technology, changed the scenario. Currently, country is nearly
self-sufficient in food. At the same time, it is home for a very large
number of undernourished children. Hidden hunger, micro-nutrient
deficiencies and poverty are widespread. Cultivated land area of about 140
million hectare has not changed in the last forty years.
The green revolution technology, besides enlarging food availability
through increased productivity, augmented the income of farm families and
contributed towards better health care, and education for their children.
Increased supply prevented the extensive rise in food prices that helped
the poor landless in rural areas and the urban poor to access food with
their limited earnings. It also prevented cutting down of natural forests
to bring additional land under cultivation to meet the food requirements of
the growing population. At the same time, it is recognized now that the
input intensive green revolution technology that contributed to self
sufficiency in food production has caused adverse environmental effects.
Improper use of inputs has resulted in some degradation of the resource
base – soil, water and environment. At present, it is manageable. However,
the demand for more sustainable production are increasing.
Sustainable food production is possible only for a sustainable population.
Some tradeoffs between food needs and environmental concerns have always
been accepted, like in many other human activities. Even the hunter and
food gathering ancestors must have faced the same dilemma. The question
remains of priorities that we set. Do we wish to see people dying due to
lack of food and dead bodies lying on the streets? Even the most hard core
environment supporters who are highly critical of the green revolution
technology with chemical fertilizer and pesticide inputs would not like to
see the repeat of Bengal famine of 1943. Therefore, the current priority
should be to produce enough to meet the basic food needs of the growing
population with minimal environmental damage. Hence, the question–to what
extent the environmental tradeoffs are acceptable at present? The
environmental impact is best illustrated by the well known IPAT equation
given by Ehrilch and Holdern (1971): Environmental Impact (I) = Population
(P) x Affluence (A) x Technology (T)
Population and affluence determine the demand that includes a large
component of food wastage. The priority based on the above should be to
reduce demand which is the product of population and affluence. Demand can
be reduced by curbing population growth rate and reducing waste of food.
Both are doable, but need a change in the mindset and life style.
Ostentatious living and vulgar display of wealth at social and family
events need to be restrained. Change in the mindset, and life style would
be necessary for this. Economic growth and affluence are the main
aspiration of the population in a poor country and need promotion.
Affluence with simple lifestyle and food by choice can prevent escalation
Science and improved technology alone can provide acceptable solutions to
the environmental problems. There is a great opportunity for agronomists
and environmental botanists to join hands together for overcoming the
adverse environmental effects. Monitoring of the environmental impact of
the production technology, can reduce most of the adverse environmental
effects. Further, agronomic practices can be developed to minimize nitrogen
run-off from field and soil degradation due to the accumulation of
*Former Secretary D.B.T., Government of India, New Delhi.
17 Rohini, Plot No. 29-30, Sector 9-A, Vashi, New Mumbai – 400 703