Print edition : February 03, 2001
Interview with Dr. M.S. Swaminathan.

"India's agriculture is now at the crossroads," says visionary farm scientist and food policy expert Dr. M.S. Swaminathan. Though India is a grain-surplus country and has over 45 million tonnes of wheat and rice in its godowns, over 250 million ch ildren, women and men go to bed partially hungry every day. From being food-secure, India needs to become livelihood-secure. And that is the biggest challenge facing the country today.


Internal and external factors are threatening the future of Indian agriculture and the food security of its people. Among the internal factors, the most important one relates to the growing damage to the ecological foundation essential for sustained adva nces in biological productivity and among the external factors the most serious are the unequal trade relationships, increasing proprietary control over science, and potential changes in climate and sea level. These threats demand urgent attention.

The 1994 World Trade Organisation agreement, which brought agriculture within its policy framework for the first time, is inherently unequal among nations. Its implementation in the last six years has also shown that countries such as India have been unf airly treated, with industrialised nations not adhering to the WTO norms, further endangering the livelihood systems of the poor farmers, particularly in the developing countries.

To protect themselves, the industrialised countries have introduced a number of safeguards such as the "Blue" and "Green" Boxes in the WTO agreement that provide them with cover for providing 'domestic support' (read subsidies) for their farmers. The pro visions in the Green Box include policies that provide services or benefits to the agriculture or rural community, stockholding for food security, domestic food aid, investment subsidies and agricultural input subsidies for low-income and resource-poor f amilies. The provisions in the Blue Box include direct payments to farmers under production-limiting programmes. For example, the United States operates an extensive scheme to match production and projected market demand. The farmers are paid not to prod uce a crop, yet the payment is not called a subsidy. This has helped ensure a steady and assured income to the farmers.

Thus, the industrialised nations have, through such mechanisms as also by putting up high tariff barriers (such as Japan's 2000 per cent import duty on rice), ensured that the hoped for enlarged market access to the agricultural commodities from developi ng countries does not materialise. In contrast, the developing countries' markets have been opened up without any support systems and adequate proactive planning.

Further, quantitative restrictions (QRs) on the import of agricultural products will have to be removed from April 1, 2001 under the WTO agreement. And India is not yet ready to face the consequences. The QRs would further endanger the livelihood systems of the poor farmers as the extent of domestic support to farming families is far below even the WTO-prescribed ceiling. There are also no export subsidies in India. In contrast, the total farm support increased by 8 per cent to $363 billion in 1998 in O ECD countries.

Unfortunately, says Dr. Swaminathan, our farm families are experiencing all the negative impacts of the WTO agreement, mostly owing to our own inaction or lack of timely action.

Dr. Swaminathan emphasises that when the WTO agreement is reviewed this year, it is essential that we press for a 'Livelihood Box' that would allow us to impose QRs. This must be done wherever there is clear evidence that such imports will kill liveliho od opportunities for small and marginal farmers and landless agricultural labour, or those involved in small-scale agro-processing and agri-business activities.

In the great agricultural scientist's view, globalisation has promoted jobless economic growth. Without a Livelihood Box, we will not be able to stimulate job-led economic growth, which is the only path available to us to overcome poverty and chronic hun ger. We should also recognise that our population is increasing every year by nearly 17 million. Dr. Swaminathan warns: "If our agriculture goes wrong, nothing else in our economy and social fabric will have a chance to go right."

In an in-depth interview to Asha Krishnakumar, Dr. Swaminathan elaborates on the strategy for the next phase of agricultural development. He gives reasons for the inequality in access to foodgrains in India and suggests ways of dealing with the co mplex issues underlying farm sector development. He also discusses the impact of WTO on Indian agriculture and the issues to be addressed at the WTO renegotiation process.

Frontline published excerpts from the interview in its last issue (February 2, 2001). Here is the interview in full:

How would you describe the state of Indian agriculture today?

There are bright as well as hot spots. The bright spot is that farmers have shown they can produce more if they are enabled to do so through proper services and public policies, particularly in terms of opportunities for assured and remunerative marketin g through the minimum support price mechanism. For example, we have never looked back in the matter of wheat or rice ever since the farm revolution started, some 30 years ago. Wheat production this year is nearly 75 million tonnes, the second largest in the world, and rice production has touched 90 million tonnes. It is obvious that today our production is more than what this country can absorb at current levels of purchasing power. We are not producing enough for the nutritional needs, but we are produ cing more than what this country's people can afford to buy and what our grain storage capacity is capable of preserving for future use.

So there is an optimism that we can overcome the problem of short supply in terms of the balance between human numbers and the demand for food by bridging the gap between potential and actual yields even with the technologies on the shelf. This optimism is not only in rice, wheat or cereals, but also in horticulture, fruits, vegetables, milk and so on. The milk revolution, for instance, has made us the No.1 producer in the world with over 80 million tonnes from hardly 20 million tonnes two to three deca des ago.

Eastern India, which I always called the sleeping agricultural giant, has now woken up. West Bengal has made substantial progress and last year Assam made a great leap forward in terms of rice production as a result of developments in minor irrigation. A ssam must have always capitalised on its large aquifer because of the abundant South-West monsoon. This is unfortunately also the flood-prone season and crops do not grow. But during autumn and summer, the non-flood season, there is good groundwater whic h can be utilised by shallow tubewells. It is this that Assam capitalised on by putting up 100,000 shallow tubewells last year. It resulted in rice yields going up by four tonnes per hectare leading to a rice surplus there.

Thus, the bright spot is that we are confident we can produce more and our farmers have demonstrated amply that they can produce excellent crops and they are second to none in the world in terms of the capacity to produce, absorb and adapt technology. We should now think of capitalising on this bright spot.

Now, as the stagnant eastern region has also woken up and has surplus production, we can, for the first time in the country, think of developing regional food security grids. For instance, Assam can take care of the whole of northeastern India and also s ell grains to Bangladesh, and Andhra Pradesh can take care of the needs of Kerala and, to some extent, Tamil Nadu. Punjab can take care of the needs of western India. This way we can work out a regional food security grid for the whole country. This will save the cost of transporting grain from one end of the country to another. There could also be long-term planning for food security.

For instance, Kerala now takes care of only 25 per cent of its rice needs because the cost of cultivation is very high there - land is expensive, labour cost is high and alternative land-use opportunities are several. Thus, Kerala grows perennial crops s uch as rubber, tea and coconut and pepper and other spices. So we now have an opportunity to make a regional food security plan based on the complementary strengths of States and also long-term planning based on their comparative needs and advantages. Th at way we can also bring about ecological efficiency - if Kerala's soil and other farm parameters are good for plantation crops it is not good to thrust it with rice production. This is the policy adopted in Malaysia, which is very efficient in the produ ction of palm oil, rubber, cocoa, coconut and timber.

Thus, in the next phase of planning we need to have carefully worked out regional food security grids. We have now come to a stage where we need much more micro-level planning of land and water use.

The dark, or hot, spot is that we have many imbalances - commodity, regional and trade (surpluses not being lifted necessitating trade relief operations). We are yet to make much progress in the dry farming areas, nor in oilseeds and pulses - oilseeds i mports worth nearly Rs.10,000 crores are an enormous drain of foreign exchange. This has led to commodity imbalance.

There is also regional imbalance. For example, North Bihar is sitting on immense water resources, as is the case with Assam and West Bengal. But unresponsive administration, caste conflicts, poor infrastructure, bad extension and services and so on have prevented it from doing well. North Bihar has the potential of feeding the entire central India. The dry farming areas on the whole are crying for attention. Fortunately, we now have the watershed management programme. The best thing is to grow high-valu e, low-water-intensive crops as the MSSRF (M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation) has done in the case of pulses in Ramanathapuram and Pudukottai. There is need for some discipline in the sharing of water. Unless there is equity in water sharing, there wi ll be no cooperation in saving water.

The unfortunate side of producing a surplus crop is that in spite of good production, farmers face a price crash. This is the sad story in our country. This leads to trade imbalances. The government is today operating as a purchaser of paddy. This is wha t I call the trade relief method, like drought relief, flood relief and so on. It has become a calamity approach to trade, which is most unfortunate. Owing to political pressure, the government rushes to some place and purchases sub-standard grain at a h igh price. This is a relief operation and not a trade operation. This is because we are a country with a relief mindset. The government is seen as a do-gooder. If you have floods, drought or trade problems, the government rushes there. This is also becau se many vested interests work in such operations. The temptation to make profit out of poverty is great. But this is not the way to build a dynamic agriculture system.

There are other problems like casualisation of the workforce because of fall in capital flow, capital formation and factor productivity in agriculture. This has led to the increasing marginalisation of the workforce, particularly of women, leading to inc reasing feminisation of poverty.

The primary reason for all the problems is that the key element called management, putting together all the pieces - water, pest, productivity and so on in a synergetic manner - and looking at it holistically, is absent. The extension services are, by an d large, not capable of delivering timely and location-specific advice. There is a mismatch between the methodology of the extension services and the genuine requirements of farmers in the context of globalisation of agriculture.

What accounts for the paradox of plenty co-existing with poverty and the under-utilisation of the public distribution system (PDS), as also the declining efficacy of anti-poverty programmes?

By and large the reason is clear - no purchasing power. The majority of our rural population - Dalits and the socially underprivileged in particular - are landless labourers. They become agricultural labourers and all that they can expect is the minimum wage, which is by and large less than the mythical $1 a day of the World Bank's poverty line. Therefore we have a large number of assetless people - no land, livestock, fish ponds, trees and, mainly, no education. In a dry farm area you hardly get jobs f or 200 days a year.

Thus, our problem is poverty, which can be overcome only by transforming unskilled workers into skilled ones and by creating more jobs in the non-farm sectors. In our Pondicherry project we found that the rural people, particularly women, learn new skill s very quickly and take to technology like fish to water, whether it is computer or hybrid seed technology or aquaculture. So we need to address the problems of poverty and gender equity, which are related to the problem of hunger through the pathways of skill empowerment and institutional reform. Our Pondicherry experience shows that bridging the digital divide through an 'antyodaya' approach to technological empowerment concurrently helps to bridge the gender divide.

Poverty can be addressed only if there is convergence and synergy between the various anti-poverty programmes and they are people-controlled, people-centred and people-driven and not run by bureaucrats. An IGIDR (Indira Gandhi Institute for Development R esearch, Mumbai) study shows that in several instances the government spends Rs.6 to deliver Re.1 to the poor. For instance, Pondicherry has over 150 anti-poverty programmes. We have now made a database on this information, which itself has been of great benefit to the poor as all the schemes have been disaggregated by gender, class, caste, age, small and marginal farmer, landless labour and so on. They are given an entitlement passbook, from which they find out what benefit they are eligible from each scheme and how to access them. Thus, disaggregation of the vast problem of entitlements itself can help deal with poverty. Instead of just saying over 250 million people are living below the poverty line, we need to divide the numbers among 700,000 villa ges, nagarpalikas and so on in order for the problem to become manageable. About 10 to 15 per cent of the people who are ultra-poor require immediate attention. So we will always live in the paradox of plenty in the midst of poverty and under-util isation of the PDS so long as people have no purchasing power. I would consider this the No.1 challenge facing the country today. This is why I have been saying that jobs/livelihoods for all Indians must be the bottomline of all public policy - national and global.

Has there been a tapering of yields in the traditional Green Revolution areas? Does the Green Revolution need a fresh impetus in order to increase farm productivity?

There is certainly a stagnation in yield. Though this is for a variety of reasons, it is primarily because of factors concerning soil, water and pests. In many places, such as Punjab, soil salinity and over-exploitation of groundwater have been major pro blems. It is also feared that yields would start dropping, necessitating the need to deal with the ecological factors of soil, water and pests on a war footing.

Punjab grows rice and wheat by rotation as there is a ready market in the Food Corporation of India. This takes away the macro- and micro- nutrients from the soil. In my view, Punjab should not grow so much rice, particularly now, as eastern India is bec oming more than self-sufficient. Punjab should go in for agro-forestry. It can grow poplars (suitable for the sub-tropical climate) and between each tree (4 feet) they could grow redgram, fodder crops or quality protein maize (for which Dr. Surinder. K. Vasal won the World Food Prize). They can also think of cereal-legume crop rotation, which was the soil fertility replenishment method in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. There are many such possibilities. But, as Punjab farmers are market-orie nted, the choice of crop rotation should be based on markets and income, without losing sight of long-term sustainability considerations.

I recommend looking at three aspects: Defend the gains already achieved without being complacent. Make new gains by extending the benefits of technology, policy and services to dry farming and hill areas, as well as to other ecosystems which have been by passed by the farm revolution of the 1960s. And, make new gains by farming system intensification, diversification and value-addition, which would also create a lot of downstream jobs. This three-pronged policy is essential to go forward.

All this should be thought out locally and not nationally. There is an urgent need for State land-use boards to become functional and effective. Theoretically, there are a number of instruments to assist the farm families now. There is one headed by the Prime Minister, called the National Land Use and Wasteland Development Council. This has not met after February 1986. The Agriculture Ministry has a National Land Use and Conservation Board chaired by the Agriculture Minister, which has also not met afte r August 1986. Then there is a National Afforestation and Eco-Development Board chaired by the Union Environment Minister. This meets more often as it has to dole out money. The State Land Use Boards generate a lot of maps.

But what the farmers require is an effective and well-informed land-use committee at the State and district levels based in agricultural universities and not in any government departments. These committees must be capable of tendering proactive advice on the areas to be sown under different crops, based on meteorological information, of which we now have both short- and medium-term forecasting capability. Second, it should advice on ecological efficiency. That is, under given conditions of rainfall, sun light and soil, what crops are most efficient. Thirdly, on home and marketing opportunities. And, finally, on national and international prices. All these can be done very easily using the computer. The Americans have worked out all this very well and pu t it in the 'Blue Box' (producing as much as the market can absorb) in the WTO. They pay not to produce what the market cannot absorb through "land set-aside" schemes. This is not considered subsidy.

Fortunately, we have detailed maps of over 130 agro-ecological zones in India. A land-use unit should be set up for each one of these zones. Ecology, meteorology, economics (markets and prices) and comparative efficiency should guide land and water use.

Let me give you an example, tobacco is a dying crop since it is injurious to health. So alternative cropping systems need to be worked out for the tobacco farmers. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu has given a crop holiday this year. The re is the ITC to take care of the farmers. But what happens to those who collect tendu leaves in Madhya Pradesh or rustica (another type of tobacco) in Gujarat? This is one good example to understand the need for proactive land-use planning for an area w ith a dying crop or for areas growing a crop that is not in demand. In the case of tobacco, there is also need for accelerated research in alternative uses, such as tobacco-based pesticide formulations. Medicinal plants in commercial demand can also be i ntroduced in tobacco growing areas.

Much of our problem of lack of proactive measures is due to lack of professionalism. Officers of the IAS are good for security, law and order, national integration and so on. But they cannot be put on professional jobs requiring long period of experience . Had an IAS officer headed the National Dairy Development Board in the place of Dr. V. Kurien or Amrita Patel now, we could not have reached the No.1 position in milk production in the world. Very few politicians listen to professionals as C. Subramania m did in the 1960s and, most important, took decisions based on professional advice.

What are the priorities in the national agricultural research system today?

Whatever we do, it should improve the multiple livelihood systems of the farmers, it should be based on a farming-system-centred approach (and not merely on a commodity-centred approach) and also lead to a radical restructuring of the extension services.

Our system is one of the best in the developing countries today. It is also fairly well-supported by the government. The State agricultural, fisheries and veterinary universities have an integrated responsibility of research, education and extension trai ning. They have developed their own Vision 2020 statements. But what is important is that they have to be linked to the national agricultural strategy as a whole. They should make a difference to the lives of the poor farmers. This can be an excellent mo tivation for their research.

Thus, efforts in land-use planning, developing post-harvest technologies of processing and ecological agriculture of pest and water management and so on should move from a commodity-centred to a farming-system-centred approach (based on crop, livestock, fish, trees and so on) rooted in the principle of integrated natural resources management strategy (based on land, water, flora and fauna). At the same time, there is need for greater community cooperation such as group farming, which alone can give smal l farmers the power of scale at the production and post-harvest phases of farming. There is greater need for research in delivery systems which can help to reach the unreached. Without proper institutional structures controlled by farm families themselve s, it will be difficult to derive full benefit from our vast untapped production potential.

Providing livelihood security to over 250 million people is the bottomline. Farm families need to have multiple livelihood opportunities as they cannot get minimum income from just one source. Thus, there needs to be horizontal integration between differ ent departments of agricultural universities, apart from in-depth research in each area of specialisation, on a farming-system basis. This is most important from the farmer's point of view.

The Green Revolution of the five crops - rice, wheat, bajra, maize and jowar - was a commodity-centred approach. It was a high-yielding-varieties programme. We were importing 10 million tonnes of wheat under the PL 480 programme in the 1960s, so at tha t time it was necessary to have a commodity-centred approach. But now we have reached the end of one stage of our agriculture revolution. In the next stage that we are into now, farmers need more detailed proactive advice on various things based on ecolo gy, markets and so on. They also need a lot of in-depth advice on ecological and precision farming, which is holistic. In this context, the eco-technology revolution should be spearheaded by the agricultural universities.

Thirdly, there is an urgent need for a radical restructuring of extension services. In the next five years we would need 700,000 farm graduates to set up a knowledge centre - computer-aided and Internet-connected, creating another million jobs - in every village. Such knowledge centres can be operated by self-help groups. The present extension services have by and large outlived their utility. There is a need for location-specific information from generic ones. The ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural R esearch) and the agricultural universities must think in terms of short-term, non-degree programmes. We are a data-rich but action-poor country. Thanks to our advances in the field of space applications, we have a lot of data on GIS (geographic informati on system), precision farming and so on, but these are very inadequately used.

What impact do the institutional factors, particularly land ownership and credit availability, have on yields?

Land ownership - even if it is a small plot - certainly makes a lot of difference to the food and nutrition security of the poor. So, had land reforms been implemented in the 1950s the way it was originally intended, it would have helped solve serious p roblems of poverty. But today the population has increased manifold. Land is already getting increasingly fragmented. Now, how can you give the power of scale to small producers? This is one of the great challenges.

I do not believe in corporate farming because it would create more landless labour. Apart from their becoming wage labourers, they also lose the advantage of gaining from implementing new technologies such as integrated pest management, integrated nutrie nt supply, ornamental fish breeding, mushroom cultivation and so on that the small and marginal farmers in our study villages have shown. Thus, land reform has to give room to a broader asset reform, which could include livestock, fish pond, forestry and so on. That is important for more income generation, on-farm and off-farm.

In terms of credit availability, more money is going out of the villages than is coming in. So access to credit is becoming crucial. I suggest linking credit to self-help groups, as the transaction cost is low, the repayment capacity is high and they wor k at affordable interest rates. So, the community banking movement must become the dominant mode of access to credit. The formal banking system should support the community banks. Given our socio-economic conditions, it could be an informal activity-base d community banking. A whole village need not have just one community bank but several, based on discrete enterprises and activities.

What are the potential external threats that face Indian agriculture?

Among the future threats to our agriculture climate change is likely to be an important one. Adverse changes in temperature, precipitation and sea level have been predicted on the basis of current trends in global warming. We should be prepared for such changes and should change in each village panchayat a woman and man to serve as climate managers.

What are the implications of the WTO agreement for Indian agriculture? You have said that there is an inherent inequality among nations in the 1994 WTO negotiations and you have also asked for a White Paper. What are your concerns? What are the issues India need to focus on in the re-negotiation process?

The 1994 agreement came after prolonged, what was called the Uruguay Round, negotiations. From our side, different people represented us at different points of time because the governments also changed during the period of the protracted negotiations. I do not know how much continuity there was in the whole process. But the text of the WTO agreement has a dominantly Western bias. It has been developed that way. Although the negotiators might not have fully understood the implications of the different bo xes such as the Blue Box and the Green Box provided in the text, the West had a clear understanding of what it wanted to get from the agreement.

What happened is that we had undue expectations of the West reducing subsidies, making our products more competitive in the external market. But that has not happened because they have concealed their subsidies in different ways. Also, although the farmi ng community constitutes only 2 to 3 per cent of the population in Europe and North America, it is vital for the survival of the respective countries because the ecology is just not seen as a food producing machine but as a vital activity for the good of the environment.

It is seen as one with multi-functions such as cleaning the air, absorbing carbon dioxide, sustaining ecology and so on. Thus, agriculture has a multi-functionality role in terms of the environment in the West. But in India, its multi-functionality role is greater as it is not only a means of producing food for the urban people, but a means of livelihood and a way of life for millions of people.

When I called for a White Paper I did not intend to blame anyone for entering into an unequal bargaining position and so on. Many of these agreements have an unequal bargaining capacity for different nations built into them. The world is made that way. S o there is no use playing politics with agreements. We need to ask ourselves honestly what lessons we learnt in the last six years from the WTO. Only based on the lessons from the past can we plan our strategy for the future.

Thus, I wanted the government to analyse our commitments and expectations when we entered into this bargain and to assess the experience in terms of fulfilling expectations. As also to see whether the industrialised countries are really increasing market access by reducing subsidies as promised or are showing them in the various boxes they have put into the agreement or employing various ways of circumventing it. Also, if they are introducing various non-trade dimensions, such as social, environmental a nd so on, what do we do about it?

These are some of the issues on which the government has to enlighten the public. That was the point of calling for a White Paper. In a democratic society, where over 70 per cent of the population is to be directly affected by the agricultural policy, th e people would like to know what exactly is happening. An honest explanation of the position, pushing nothing under the carpet, is necessary, and it would also help us in future bargaining.

Many non-trade issues are being included in the WTO. When there are other fora, such as the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) for environment, the ILO (International Labour Organisation) for labour and so on, why should one load a trade agreeme nt with such issues? As former American President Clinton pointed out recently in Warwick, trade with a human face is important. This is particularly important as the industrialised world is now talking about 'trade and not aid' as a method of poverty er adication. In such a case, trade should become an ally in the equity movement and not a source of aggravating inequity. If trade has to become an ally of the equity movement, we should ensure that imports do not destroy the livelihood of the poor.

For a variety of reasons - historical and colonial - hardly any attention was paid to food crops. That is why from 1900 to 1947, the growth rate of food crop production was hardly 0.1 per cent per annum. So our infrastructure - post-harvest, in particula r - is very poor. How can we compete with European, Australian or North American farms, which have enormous infrastructure? In contrast, our farmers are still drying paddy on the roads. The government needs to develop good infrastructure - godowns, cold- chains, good roads and so on. And this means a lot of investment by the government as well as the private sector. Wherever such investments have been made, it has paid off. For instance, to a limited extent in Maharashtra in the field of horticulture.

Another grave threat to the livelihoods of the poor, both in urban and rural areas, is the rapid spread of transnational super-markets. These will destroy the livelihoods of those living through street vending and selling in small shops. The "New Economi cs" can be sustained socially only if it is accompanied by "New Employment", which exist in environmental enterprises such as waste (solid and liquid) processing, renewable energy and the new extension services to which I had referred earlier.

What has been the experience with regard to the implementation of the WTO agreement in the last six years?

The industrialised countries have not kept their promise of reducing subsidies. In fact, they have enhanced it. Japan, for instance, levies 2000 per cent tariff on foreign rice. The other thing which is very confusing is differential tariffs on different crops. These issues need to be sorted out during renegotiations.

Is India now in a position of strength for re-negotiations?

I think so. We need to form an alliance with the other developing countries, in order to give an ethical push to the negotiations. There is a need for a trade policy within the country, with the neighbouring countries and internationally. Essentially, wh at we urgently need is a longer-term policy - for the next 10 to 15 years. We can compete globally and we have the capacity for it. A small farm is a factor of strength in precision and intensive agriculture. A small farmer is a euphemism for a farm fami ly which cannot take risks and which is struggling for existence. We should thus differentiate between a small farm, which has the opportunity for efficient and ecologically sound agriculture, and a small farmer who is burdened with debt. By overcoming t he problems of the small farmer, we can maximise the potential of the small farm. To compete globally there is a need for a massive investment in rural infrastructure, in post-harvest technology, sanitary and psyto-sanitary and so on. Courses on "Codex a limentarius" standards of food quality should be held in all farm universities. Quality should be insisted for local consumption also. It should become a habit.

This will take time. Thus, we need protection for 10 to 15 years from dumping. We should overcome poverty but we should not be ashamed to say we are a poor country and need protection. Thus, there is a need for a 'Livelihood Box' (providing an option for countries to impose restriction on imports if it affects the livelihood of its people) in the WTO agreement. We may be food secure but not necessarily livelihood secure.

Under the WTO rules, India is obliged to work out a sui generis legislation for the protection of plant varieties. What are the minimum safeguards necessary under this legislation for the well-being of the farm sector?

The sui generis system developed by our government is before Parliament now. It provides rights for the three roles of farmers - as cultivator, breeder and conserver of genetic material. As a cultivator he has plant-back rights - that is, to keep seeds for the next season and enter into a limited sale without using a brand name. As a breeder, when a farmer develops a new variety of crop he also has the right of sui generis protection. The conserver - and who adds value to crops as in the case of medicines and so on - has to get recognition and reward under the National Gene Fund.

In the re-negotiated TRIPS we must insist on the incorporation of ethics and equity provisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity. The CBD came two years ahead of the WTO. Those who went for the WTO negotiations, from the Commerce Ministry, were p robably not aware of the provisions of the CBD, as people from the Environment Ministry had attended the CBD negotiations. So the CBD provisions, which are also legally binding, did not get reflected in the WTO. Thus, in the re-negotiated TRIPS we must e nsure that there is harmony between the commitments made by governments - industrialised and developing ones - in the CBD and WTO agreements.

What role do you foresee for biotechnology in Indian agriculture? Under what circumstances could biotechnology make a meaningful contribution?

Some of the biotechnology methods and tools, such as fermentation, tissue culture, vermiculture, bio-pesticides and bio-fertilizers, are the ones we are propagating now. They are important for ecological agriculture. But the one which is controversial an d at the same time most powerful is genetic modification. That is, getting genes across sexual barriers, from totally alien species. The so called Golden Rice has genes from daffodils. Some material at the MSSRF - of mustard, rice and tobacco - for sea w ater tolerance are from the mangroves. All this was unknown before. If we are able to identify the genes for drought tolerance and put it in other plants, it could make a phenomenal difference to our rainfed agriculture. Thus, genetic modification, with novel combinations, provides enormous new opportunities - what I call uncommon opportunities - for agriculture, as also for medicine.

There is a two-fold problem in genetic modification: They would come under propriety science or patenting and, therefore, may not be available to poor farmers. Thus the poor farmers will be bypassed by the gene or biotechnology revolution, being controll ed by multinational or big companies (unlike the Green Revolution which was controlled by the public sector and was available to all farmers). There would be exclusivity rather than non-exclusivity of the benefits of technology. Biotechnology should be s cale- and resource-neutral and available to all.

Is there any way we can ensure that biotechnology is available to all and does not bypass poor farmers?

We need to have more pre-breeding centres developing agriculturally valuable novel genetic combinations around the country, which the Department of Biotechnology is in the process of setting up. Novel genetic combinations can be given to farming families through participatory research. We can thus develop location-specific varieties, for say, coastal or dry farming areas. Thus, we can avoid genetic homogeneity, which enhances vulnerability to pests and diseases. This way we can reach the unreached in te rms of technology benefits. It is only the question of designing such a method. This means more of public sector research. The government should invest more in this area. This is one way of ensuring that the benefits of new science reach the poor. Otherw ise it would enhance inequity. If technology has to be an ally in the equity movement, it is necessary to develop methods of reaching the new technology to the poor. The delivery systems being developed in Tamil Nadu include bio-villages (grassroot level ), bio-parks and bio-valleys.

What are the safeguards and incentives we need to put in place to ensure an appropriate response to the new technologies?

We need to have a risk-benefit analysis system which goes thoroughly into all the risks. It should have a multi-stakeholder analysis built into it. That is why I recommend a broad-based National Commission on Genetic Modification for Food Security, which would include media representatives, non-governmental organisations, commercial companies, scientists, farmers and so on. Get all stake-holders under one platform and have a transparent open discussion. We need to apply our minds to our own problems, ir respective of what the industrialised countries, MNCs or big companies say.

We are a mega-biodiversity country. We should use all available techniques, traditional and frontier, to convert our bio-resources into jobs and income in an environmentally and economically sustainable manner. We should not worship or discard a technolo gy because it is either old or new. Blending traditional wisdom with modern science is the road to a sustainable agricultural future.

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor