Role of rice in zero hunger challenge

Tags: Op-ed
Role of rice in zero hunger challenge
AFP
SAD STATE: Inspite of all the technological progress made, the food and agriculture organisation (FAO) estimates that 531 million people still suffer from chronic hunger in the Asia-Pacific region
Secretary general of the UN Ban Ki-moon, launched the ‘zero hunger challenge’ at the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development held in Brazil in June last year. At a high level consultation held in Madrid, Spain, in April, it was agreed that the world community should commit to a common vision that hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition should be ended by 2025. At these meetings, governments were requested to pay concurrent attention to the following five pillars of the ‘zero hunger challenge’ — 100 per cent access to adequate food all year round; zero stunted children less than two years of age; all food systems are sustainable; 100 per cent increase in smallholder productivity and income; and zero loss or waste of food.

Each one of these five pillars is relevant to the rice growing regions of Asia. Taking food losses and food waste alone, it has been estimated that one third of food production is lost or wasted globally, that is, about 1.3 billion tonnes per year. In our country, 100 per cent access to adequate food all year round can be achieved if the legal entitlements under the national food security bill reach those needing social protection against hunger. Inspite of all the technological progress made, the food and agriculture organisation (FAO) estimates that 531 million persons still suffer from chronic hunger in the Asia-Pacific region. This implies that about two thirds of those who are hungry live in this region. Therefore, the role of rice farming systems in achieving the zero hunger goals has to be considered.

The world requires 50 per cent more rice in 2030 than in 2015 with approximately 30 per cent less arable land than now. It has been estimated that an additional of 100 million tonnes will be required by 2035 in the Asia-Pacific region. The total production of rice in the year 2013 was 718 million tonnes. How can we meet these challenges in countries having rice as the major staple? The following steps are needed.

First, in all irrigated areas, the major emphasis should be on increasing yield per units of land and water. Hybrid rice can help to increase yield by about 20 per cent. If ongoing research to convert rice into a new photosynthetic pathway is successful, the yield potential can be further increased by about 20 per cent. Fertiliser is the most effective and at the same time most expensive of the market purchased inputs used by farmers. It is now clear that fertiliser use efficiency can be increased by about 50 per cent through the use of new techniques like deep placement using prilled urea. Suitable implements are available for this purpose and the international fertiliser development centre has helped Bangladesh to improve very significantly fertiliser use efficiency.

The yield of the rice crop is also affected by several pests and diseases. Integrated pest management could help to control pests in an environmentally sustainable manner. Since the average farm size is usually one hectare and below, there are logistic problems in adopting eco-friendly pest management methods. Such methods require an area approach with all farm families in a village cooperating in pest management. Scientific water management as well as the control of the triple alliance of weeds, pests and pathogens require group cooperation through social engineering. Providing the power of scale to small producers is emerging as a major challenge. If the services sector can be strengthened, through the involvement of young educated farmers in taking up the responsibility of pest proofing of entire villages, both pests can be vanished and the cost of plant protection can be considerably brought down.

The evergreen revolution pathway of production which involves improvement of productivity in perpetuity without associated ecological harm has to be popularised. In addition, post harvest management requires urgent attention. For this purpose, the M S Swaminathan research foundation at Chennai is establishing a rice biopark at Nay Pyi Taw in Myanmar on behalf of India’s ministry of external affairs. The major aim of the rice biopark is to demonstrate how to convert entire rice biomass into value added products, thereby increasing opportunities for non-farm employment and income.

Rice farming systems should include a grain or fodder legume in the rotation so that soil fertility can be enhanced through biological nitrogen fixation. Unfortunately, scientific crop rotations are vanishing. For example, in Punjab, there has been controversy about the ecological consequences of the rice-wheat rotation. This rotation is now giving considerable income to small farmers since they take to the cultivation of high yielding Basmati varieties of rice such as Pusa Basmati 1121 and Pusa Basmati 1509. Therefore, the suggestion by some experts that the Punjab-Haryana region should give up rice cultivation is not a wise one. Through water harvesting during the Kharif season and the introduction of legumes in the rotation, it will be possible to promote an evergreen revolution in both rice and wheat in the Punjab-Haryana region.

The finance minister of India has made provision in the Union Budget of 2013-14, Rs 200 crore for launching a pilot programme on nutri-farms. Under this programme, crop varieties rich in micro-nutrients such as iron-rich bajra, protein-rich maize and zinc-rich wheat will be popularised. 2014 is the international year of family farming and as a part of our response to the zero hunger challenge, we should initiate next year “every family farm a nutri-farm” movement. Also, we should propose to the United Nations, to declare one of the years during this decade as the ‘international year of underutilised crops’. Molecular genetics has opened up uncommon opportunities for overcoming calorie deprivation, protein hunger and hidden hunger caused by deficiencies in micro-nutrients. We should take advantage of this opportunity so that we can achieve the ultimate purpose of the National Food Security Act, namely, a hunger and malnutrition free India.

(M S Swaminathan is an agricultural scientist who led India’s green revolution)

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