On the Front Lines of the Global Food Crisis

In the Test Fields of Academe
Notes from different corners of the world.
Aug. 6 2008 7:08 AM

On the Front Lines of the Global Food Crisis

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In the test fields of academe.

LUDHIANA, PUNJAB, India—India has never been able to feed all its people.  Even when it has produced plenty of food, an inefficient distribution system that allowed tons of grain to rot in storage barns, coupled with abject poverty, ensured that people went hungry. India shamefully boasts the world's largest population of malnourished children. Still, most people believe that the situation would have been much worse if yields in Punjab had not risen as dramatically as the country's population. If a single institution can take credit for bringing the Green Revolution to Punjab, it is Punjab Agricultural University.

Founded in 1962 on the American land-grant-university model, PAU was inaugurated  by Jawaharlal Nehru, the nation's first prime minister, with the mission of finding a way to feed the country's hungry millions. It succeeded spectacularly. Yields increased more than 10-fold, from 2.3 million tons of food grains in 1960-'61 to 25.9 million tons in 2005.

The university maintains close ties to Ohio State and other agricultural universities. It is a research-oriented institution that received a $2 million government grant this year to decode the wheat genome. PAU intends to be at the forefront of the promise by agribusiness corporations that biotechnology and genetic engineering are the way to food security—not to mention a potentially enormous new area of economic activity.

The gathering with PAU academics
The gathering with PAU academics was formal but lively

I gained entrée to the pinnacle of the university's administration through a series of introductions that ultimately led me to Dr. N.S. Malhi, director of the university's extension education program. Dr. Malhi graciously gave me a ride in his chauffeur-driven white Ambassador sedan to the building where the vice chancellor, Dr. Manjit Singh Kang, recently returned after years of teaching at Louisiana State University, had his office. I hadn't ridden in an Ambassador, the car used by government officials all over India, in years. The experience was as different from the back of Jitinder's motorcycle as PAU was from the revolutionary fervor of Umendra Dutt's would-be natural farmers.

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The meeting was highly decorous, with formal introductions all around and sensitivity to hierarchy, great deference being paid to the vice chancellor, and to me, the honored guest from the United States. I resigned myself to hearing an unquestioned advocacy of technological solutions to Punjab's agricultural woes or maybe to being told that there were no problems. I was wrong.

I launched into my concerns: the fact that the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics has predicted that India will see its current level of agricultural production decline by 38 percent as a result of climate change by the year 2080—the same period in which India's population is expected to grow by 400 million; the soaring cancer rates and the alarming levels of pesticide residues in the nation's water, land, food, and milk, including breast milk; the water crisis, which could only get worse; the use of chemical fertilizers derived from natural gas, which will become more expensive and are causing grave environmental harm; the 80 percent of India's farmers who have such small-scale operations that they have no access to formal credit and can't afford the increased cost of seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, and digging deeper wells, who therefore become indebted to usurious private moneylenders and who, in ever-increasing numbers, commit suicide in despair.

More than 100,000 Indian farmers have killed themselves during the past 10 years, the same decade that has seen India's rapid rise as a global economic power. Thirteen thousand of these suicides were in Punjab, India's most productive agricultural state.

After listening intently, the vice chancellor and the deans voiced their own concerns. Did I know that 25,000 acres of farmland were being gobbled up each year for nonagricultural development, including "green field" industrial parks and posh residential enclaves? Did I know that Punjab had a problem with migration, with 6.7 million migrants from other parts of India moving in to work in the fields, many of them ending up in slums and creating an additional burden on already overtaxed schools and social services? Was I aware of the educational crisis in the state, where only 8 percent of the students at Punjab Agricultural University came from farms and 92 percent came from cities where better schools got them better exam results? That unemployment was a huge problem? That drug addiction was a plague among the state's young people?

They argued passionately that Punjab was caught in a global crisis in which small farmers around the world were being cut off from collective structures that allowed them to leverage economies of scale by sharing big-ticket items like tractors. They complained that governments, including the government of India, had reduced spending on agriculture, gradually abandoning farmers to a private sector that cared only about maximizing production and profits.

"Most of the policies that have come since globalization have not been farmer-friendly," observed one dean.

Incredibly, in a country where 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas and slums are the fastest-expanding part of overloaded cities, India's leaders believe that moving millions of people off the land so that large-scale factory farming can be established with private investment is the way to go. After all, that's what the United States did, and in the process it became a fabulously rich and powerful country, never mind the damage done to its heartland or to the health of a people whose "supersized" diet has afflicted them with epidemic obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

The Indian government gets a lot of encouragement for this scenario from institutions such as the World Bank that favor export-oriented agriculture; from transnational agribusiness giants clamoring to get into India, a country with the second-largest amount of arable land after the United States; and from India's own big companies eager to get into a new business area some experts predict will eclipse the billions made from outsourcing and information technology. India's minister of finance, Palaniappan Chidambaram, envisions a future where 85 percent of India's population lives in cities and only 15 percent are engaged in agriculture, an India with a heartland as empty as that of the United States with its few remaining farmers completely beholden to the agribusiness giants who sell them their seeds, their fertilizers, and their pesticides, and then buy their harvests.

This is not the vision I found at PAU. One dean lamented: "We've been told you have to push people off the farm, that that is the solution." Clearly, he disagreed.

Still, the dean and his colleagues are research scientists, not social activists. They are skeptical about organic farming. ("Who can wait three years for certification?" asked one academic.) They have great faith in the capacity of agricultural science to deliver solutions to the threats posed by climate change. On this front, PAU is working with the Tata Energy Research Institute, whose director general, Rajendra K. Pachauri, chaired the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore, as well as with the M.S. Swaminathan Institute, named after and headed by the father of India's Green Revolution, to create new heat-resistant seeds and engineer new rice varieties that would absorb more carbon from the atmosphere and others that would use less water.

If climate change slams India as hard as it is predicted to do, these efforts could prove life-sustaining.

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