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Vol. 23 No. 1 - January 2017

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)

Reducing demand

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 of demand.


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 pesticide residues.

*Former Secretary D.B.T., Government of India, New Delhi. 17 Rohini, Plot No. 29-30, Sector 9-A, Vashi, New Mumbai – 400 703 E-mail: [email protected]

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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