Bt, advance technology can help meet the future food demand: Dr Islam A Siddiqui

    Islam A Siddiqui, Sr. Advisor, Global Food Security Project, Centre for Strategic International Studies, Washington DC
    Islam A Siddiqui, Sr. Advisor, Global Food Security Project, Centre for Strategic International Studies, Washington DC

    On account of WTO Ministerial meeting at Nairobi which is going to be held in December 15-18 2015, AMBASSADOR ISLAM A SIDDIQUI, Senior Advisor, Global Food Security Project Centre for Strategic International Studies, Washington DC talks to MOHD MUSTAQUIM on food security logjam in the World Trade Organisation, genetically modified crops, threats of climate change on agriculture, intervention of new technologies among other challenges and the way forward

    What are the reasons that no consensus has been made on farm subsidies in WTO? And how do you see the India’s stance on it?

    There was no consensus made in Geneva. The developing countries expect more concessions from the advanced economies in eliminating agricultural export subsidies and significantly reducing subsidies to their farmers while the advanced economies want more market access in the developing countries. In the US, the import duties in agricultural commodities are around 5 to 6 percent while in India, they’re in double digits, one of the highest in the world.

    As far as India’s stance on WTO negotiations is concerned, the consensus can only be made possible if developing countries give additional market access to developed countries. On the part of developed countries, they should also support the developing countries in return. There has to compromise from both sides.

    Do you hope any consensus would come out on global food security and farm subsidies at WTO Ministerial meeting in Nairobi to be held in December?

    There was a mandate from Bali in 2013 that the negotiators from various countries would work to bring some solutions to reach an agreement by the WTO meeting in Nairobi in December 2015. We are close to Nairobi meeting, but still no agreement has been made.

    As far as food security is concerned, in 2013 Bali Ministerial meeting, it was demanded by the then Indian Minister for Commerce and Industry, Anand Sharma that no country can take India to the WTO dispute resolution as India was already exceeding the commitment towards WTO. This is called ‘peace clause’ which India has until 2017. After India’s insistence in Bali, it was decided if WTO fails to reach an agreement by 2017, this peace clause may continue beyond that. In another word, India is in a safe position.

    Are we becoming a more food insecure world? And, if so, why?

    The world population is increasing. Today, we have crossed 7 billion people on the planet. By 2050, it is projected that the global population will cross 9.5 billion. The another reason is increasing prosperity in India, China and other South Asian countries which has increased demand for meat, milk, butter, dairy products and other foods. Thus, there is a need to produce more food, fodder and forage for the cattle. In order to meet the demand by 2050, the food production has to be doubled.

    How is climate change going to affect the food security in the world?

    The unexpected weather activities and the rising ocean temperature by couple of degrees are melting the polar icecap. These are the challenges which are not only faced by the agriculture but also affecting other sectors. US Department of Agriculture has established climate change centres around the country. Farmers are being educated about its effects. During a lecture at Center for Strategic and International Studies recently, Prof. MS Swaminathan said that the Indian farmers need to be made aware of the challenge of climate change. The farmers in the flood prone areas will face bigger challenges.

    How possible challenge it has for India?

    The coastal low lying areas of India will face major challenge. In some areas, if the temperature increases, it won’t be possible to grow the traditional crops. In this case, the scientists will have to come up with the climate-resilient varieties of crops. The pests and disease will increase in certain parts of the world. So, you will have to grow the pest and disease resistant varieties. It would be a challenge for the Indian scientists and Indian Council of Agricultural Research and all the agricultural institutes and universities in the country.

    Please share your views on genetically modified (GM) crops in mitigating global food security?

    The genetically modified crops became commercial in 1996 in the US. That was the first country to approve GM in corn, soybean and cotton. Approximately, 90 percent of these crops in the US are genetically modified. As far as my views as a scientist are concerned, I don’t see any health risk associated with consumption of GM food. My family and I consume GM food without thinking anything about its adverse side effects. The controversy is not on the safety of GM in the US, but some people want to label the food whether it is GM or non-GM. But, in a country of 330 million people where 96 percent food consumed is grown conventionally, it is cheaper and manageable to label only non-GM food.

    What are the key interventions you would suggest for agricultural growth in India?

    India had the first Green Revolution in the 60s and 70s. As I said, there has to be food production doubled by 2050. For that, India needs to adopt new and advanced technologies, including biotechnology, advancement in cattle breeding and many more. GM crops are the solution. If you have resistant gene in the crop, you don’t have to spray fungicide, pesticide or insecticide on the crop and you have a bumper yield.

    For example, both Indian as well US scientists have found genes which can be inserted in potatoes which will make them resistant to Late Blight, one of the major diseases in the potato. Same with the rice. The researchers at the Cornell University, US, found a drought resistant gene. If this is inserted into rice, the crop requires less water and will be tolerant to drought. These are technologies, which are sitting at the back shelf, which need to be commercialised.

    After Green Revolution, this is the time to initiate a Rainbow Revolution in which fisheries, poultry, horticulture, animal husbandry, pulses and oilseeds can be incorporated. What is your take on that?

    Green revolution was the need of that time when India was dependent on food imports. Now, India is producing more than its consumption. Today, the country is one of the largest exporters of many foods to the other countries. Despite that we still need improvement on yield. Today, there is a need to incorporate new technologies in aquaculture, floriculture and horticulture. Also, we need to improve the breeding programme in animal husbandry.

    For better yield, Indian scientists developed GM eggplant. Its safety data was already shared by the Department of Biotechnology during the tenure of then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh. It was surprising to see that it was not approved. There is a lack of conviction on level of authorities in India. Farmers apply 10-15 types of pesticides on the eggplants. If they use GM eggplants or brinjal, it enables them to avoid pesticides. If the pesticides are not used, they are also good for the environment and human health as well as reduces the production cost. In the US, GM wheat is already approved but not commercialised. There is a need to create awareness among farmers and consumers about the benefits of genetically modified crops. Thus, I hope the other countries would also jump into the band-wagon of GM crops.

    Youth is turning away from agricultural activities. What policy interventions should be done to attract them to the sector?

    This is a global challenge. There should be incentives for the youth. Only telling them, you have to stay with agriculture as we need more farmers, will not work. Today, the youth is enticing for better job, smart phones and all the advance amenities. The young farmers should be equipped with new technologies so that they can work there. Instead of only growing rice or wheat in one hectare plot we should look at how we can grow cash crops, which can be processed and sold by the farmers themselves. It will enable them avoiding distress sale. We need to look at the more value added or innovated ways of farming. These people can earn around Rs 5 – 6 lakh a year from one hectare of land which would ease lives by getting them fancy house and vehicle. The government should promote such entrepreneurship among the farmers. For this, Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) are running a programme, Attracting and Retention of Youth in Agriculture (ARYA).

    Kindly shed some light on the India-US trade of agricultural commodities.

    This is one of the toughest questions. In my time in the US Government between 2010-14, we identified some commodity trade issues with India. The US wanted to export dairy products and soybean. Similarly, India wanted to export grape and pomegranate. Due to lack of consensus, those negotiations could not materialised. For soybean, the major roadblock was India didn’t allow GM soybeans. Similarly, due to several phytosanitary issues, US could not import Indian pomegranate. For pomegranate, India has big market in the US as it is only grown in the western US, especially in California. Thus, Indian pomegranate can be shipped to the eastern US. The discussions are still on, but the progress is very slow.

    India is one of the largest producers of foodgrains in the world, but the country is facing a big deficit in pulses and oilseeds. What suggestions do you have for the Indian policymakers and academia?

    As I said, no country in today’s globalised economy can produce everything. Despite being the largest exporter of agricultural commodities, US also imports billions of dollars worth of agricultural commodities. Last year, US exported commodities worth US$ 156 billion while also imported about US$ 130 billion of commodities. Today, countries have to look at more on how they can import crops produced cheaper elsewhere rather than producing in their own country.

    For example, Chinese policymakers have decided that they don’t have enough land to produce all cereals and oilseeds.Thus, they are focusing on producing rice, wheat and corn. Last year China imported US$ 15 billion worth of soybean. This is a paradigm shift that every country cannot produce every crop.

    Dr. Islam A Siddiqui; a brief

    An Indian origin, Ambassador Islam A. Siddiqui has served in the Obama administration as chief agricultural negotiator for the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) during 2010 to 2014. He was responsible for bilateral and multilateral negotiations and policy coordination on issues related to agricultural trade. Dr. Siddiqui played an active role in 2013 WTO Ministerial meeting in Bali and served as the lead negotiator in the Brazil cotton case. During this period, he also spearheaded a number of negotiations with trading partners in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Western Hemisphere that contributed to record levels of exports by opening or expanding markets for US food and agricultural products.