To Eat Or Not

Food Security will be the ‘issue’  as the climate change sets in. Drought followed by floods will leave no time to grow crops. Situation will demand quick high yielding crops which will be resistant to bugs even in storage.

Feeding ever growing world population is one of the challenges that many companies have made their mission. Billions of dollars are invested in this endeavor since food is one of the basic ingredients that all living species will need no matter what advent takes place around us. Many means of increasing food production includes selecting high yield crops, using minimal amount of water and other nutrient resources, using crop protection chemicals, resorting to best practices of harvesting, storage, transport and processing etc. With the shrinking cultivable land size making room for concrete jungles, crops giving maximum yield and requiring less water, less time and fewer fertilizers and chemicals have become a focus of academic as well as industrial organizations. Evolution from early dependence on meat, fruits to agrarian practices and to the recent processed food have come a long way in increasing the food security. On one hand such advanced practices have resulted in increased food consumption in many parts of the world while on the other hand malnutrition has become a bigger concern although higher food consumption does not mean lower malnutrition for the same population.

Years back when we were kids and majority of the population in India was dependent upon the rationed food grains available in government subsidized shops, people did not have much choice but to accept whatever quality and quantity was available in such shops. Many a times grains used to be of inferior quality and yet my grandparents used to say that at least something is available while my parents used to say that because of hybrid varieties food does not taste the same as it used when they were kids. I too feel sometimes that hot rotis do not have the same aroma as they used few years back.

India as a country has seen years of droughts and dependence on imported food for many years. Later white and green revolutions have made significant difference to Indian population. After hybrid varieties revolution of genetically modified (GM) crops or genetically modified organisms (GMO) has helped address food security globally to some extent.

Mayan civilization dating back to 10,000 BC was the first one to show the practice of genetic engineering to grow corn or maize. Unlike wheat ,rice which can propagate on its own, corn needs human invention to propagate. In 1970, Dr Norman Borlaug was recognized by Nobel prize for his work in developing high yield, disease resistant dwarf wheat variety that led to the green revolution globally especially beneficial to famine-ridden countries in Asia and Africa. GM is believed to be the next green revolution in agriculture.

In hybrid varieties, one can combine traits of one variety with others while in GM varieties you can engineer the seeds the way you want or by selecting and reengineering genes, be it drought resistant, pest or disease resistant or high foliage or grain yielding varieties. Sometimes these GM seeds are engineered by combining useful genes from totally different organisms. In US, GM crops, specifically corn, cotton and soya etc have been used in processed and animal foods for almost two decades now. In Europe and Asia, there is still a lot of skeptism about GM crop. Agronomists, environmentalist, farmers are divided on the pros and cons of GM food. Although GM crops offer high yield and other advantages such as drought and / or pest resistant, there is still no clarity about their effect on biodiversity, eco systems such as natural bugs in the soil which help in fixing nitrogen or long term effect of GM food such as carcinogens, allergenes on human being. Further there is always a possibility of contamination with indigenous varieties due to pollination. Since these GM crops are intellectual properties of companies there are limitation on their storage or the way farmers use them. Such dependency of farmers on companies for seeds for yearly cultivation is one of the factors for many farmers to shy away from GM crops. Recent studies on linking various allergies like nut allergies to the food also has added to this confusion over health related aspects. Many companies have banned use of GM food while few countries require permission/ license to import GM seeds. Countries like India still do not have clear policy over GM seeds. In my childhood, available tomato varieties were small, round with thin skin, lot of seeds and juice compared to bigger tomatoes with literally no seeds and lot of pulp available. We had to wait for respective seasons to get seasonal vegetables and fruits. Now we get fruits and vegetables throughout the year. Yes foods have gone through lot of evolution.

In one of the informal discussion with a famous scientist, my colleague asked him what would be his take on GM food. His answer was that he would try all other possibilities in the world to improve yield and GM would be his last resort in the world. The scientist is not to be blamed for such views. At least he was honest enough to admit inadequacy of his conviction on such widely debated yet not so clear technology. It is amazing to learn that by GM technology one can selectively increase the dietary fiber content in food grain, enhance particular vitamin contents of grain or even manipulate biomass content in non-food application such as in ethanol production. Farmers can grow crops irrespective of the drought or soil salinity conditions. Yet farmers using traditional seed have concerns about losing his own cultivated varieties (sometimes passed on from generation to generations), losing local biodiversity and total dependence on MNCs for seeds. Will it endanger some of the locally grown special varieties? In India about 1000 varieties of rice are available with few known for their medicinal values. Will such crops become extinct? What would be effect on interdependent existing food chain or biodiversity in the region? Development followed by field trial of new varieties is a long time cycle. Further studies required for regulatory approval require longer times. Many companies investing zealously in such endeavors would expect it to succeed in tackling hunger problems of projected nine billion populations of the world. We will need to watch and see how this next transformation will take shape.
My musing…

Fragrant flower

Fragrant wild flower and Indian jasmine

Few years back while reading ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ authored by Jared Diamond, I was amazed to learn role of various insects, birds , animals in a transition from nomadic culture to agrarian culture in pollination and spreading wide varieties of seeds in this journey ( we take so many things for granted so easily!!!!!). Around the same time I came across a fragrant white flowery tree with thick leaves on UCSD campus. However the faint fragrant was very much like Indian Jasmine. Is Indian Jasmine a distant relative of this white flower from West coast of US? How did it travel so far?


(First Published on Greenmoksha in 2014)


Polymer scientist, innovator and avid trekker. Lives in Hyderabad.

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