Interventions

Technological ingredients in agriculture to ensure food secure future

An integrated approach of farming practices viz. transgenic, organic and inorganic production systems can be imperative in achieving food secure future, writes Prof Yogranjan
Technological ingredients in agriculture to ensure food secure future

With the continued pace of world economic growth, sustainable socio-economic development must depend upon a secure supply of raw material inputs from agriculture. The global agriculture has been equipped periodically in several forms to supplement the ever increasing population. A significantly raised growth rate was achieved during 70s and 80s owing to green revolution, while the years of 90s showed signs of recession in food grain production in developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Adding to the barriers of agricultural productivity, many new problems related to chemical technologies encompassing irrigation practices and higher input management have cropped up. Organic agriculture has presented a lucrative option of chemical fertiliser but could not prove to be effective as plant clinical course. Biotechnology could transform food production from a chemical – to a biology-based system by incorporating a gene of desirable trait from very diverse origin. In the current scenario of world food demand, the crop yield is only appreciated when accompanied with quality. This qualitative yield could only be accomplished with the integration of traditional, transgenic and organic production systems.

Technological interventions in agricultural system

Inorganic production system

Technological interventions and research have changed agriculture in its multitude, but the eternal demand for improved quality and quantity of produce always keeps unlock the room of new interventions. After a particular time period any specific technology reaches a plateau and maintains with diminishing return and falling dividend. The primitive agriculture was based on natural exploitation of ecosystem. The complementary relationship between biotic and abiotic components of ecosystem ended with exponential increase in consumers’ population and radical reduction in abiotic matter. The era of green revolution witnessed a quantum jump in agriculture production. During 60s, the application of Mendelian genetics helped the development of dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties of cereals and produced much larger quantities of grains because of a higher harvest index (Kesavan and Swaminathan, 2006). The agriculture grew to be industrial input dependent, and chemical fertilisers were considered indispensable with the advent of concept of essentiality and law of minimum. Farming practices were extensively mechanised during the same era. The prevailing inorganic agricultural system had led to impressive gains in productivity and efficiency. About 70-90 percent increase in food production could be resulted from changes in conventional agricultural practices (Gold, 1999). This high production, however, accompanied negative environmental and health impacts, as well as sizeable consumption of fossil fuel, unsustainable rates of water use and top soil loss (Horrigan et al., 2002). There are a number of evidences which supports the notion that some forms of wild life are suffering due to bio-magnification of chemical residues. The poisoning symptoms of insecticides viz; aldrin, dialdrin and endrine are reported as headache, fatigue, loss of appetite, weight and memory. The same is true with fungicides, even if used judiciously, may pose serious residue problems. While the green revolution is a praiseworthy achievement, the price being paid for it through human health may come to haunt us if appropriate action is not taken in time to avoid a major catastrophe in the coming years.

Organic production system

Organic agriculture has its origin in the first half of the twentieth century with the establishment of bio-dynamic agriculture in 1924. Deleterious effects arising with the continuous use of agro-chemicals paved the way for organic farming. Organic production relies on practices, such as cultural and biological pest management, that can include integrated pest management (IPM) and biological control but excludes the use of synthetic chemical and GE organisms. Apart from the safe and healthy products, organic farming also takes into account the health of the soil, safety to other flora and fauna, and friendliness to environment (Ramprasad, 2009). Organic farming system offers potential benefits to human health through least contamination of chemical residue in food products, reducing farmers’ exposure to pesticides and at the same time by increasing the total desirable phenolic content in selected food crops. We need to understand the larger issues such as reducing the tradeoffs among food security, climate change and ecosystem degradation. In developing world, the majority of farming community is dominated by small scale farmers. At the moment ‘Organic system of agriculture’ basically means ‘for export’. It is, not in broader sense, considered as an opportunity for small scale farmers for self provisioning and not to exclusively reach the market. Organic agriculture can be beneficial to small scale farmers without specific inclination of production for export market.

Transgenic technology

Biotechnology could transform food production from a chemical – to a biology-based system. The beginning of transgenic technology dates back to 1983, when it first became possible to genetically modify the plant system. A genetic modification is used in controlling traits of organisms in a way that one manipulation be completely different from another based on traits modified. Intensified efforts in the third world countries are being put on popular application of the technology in selected field and horticultural crops. Tomato, soya, maize (corn), cotton, rape, alfalfa and potatoes are amongst the genetically modified (GM) crops grown most frequently worldwide. Some minor acreage in GE crops is at present commercially successful, i.e. papaya, certain types of squash and sweet corn (James, 2007). Despite sizable GE crop acreage in recent years, diversity of crop types and traits in commercial production is limited, however, proof of concept for many other traits fit into several categories viz. pest resistance, agronomic performance, abiotic stress tolerance, medical applications, biofuels and improved food, feed and environment. Amidst high level confliction, Bt cotton substantially reduced insecticide applications over its fourteen years of commercial use, resulting in a decrease of 11 million pounds of insecticides. Various prospective studies indicate that the introduction of herbicide-tolerant beet crops could result in savings the number and quantity of herbicide applications needed for adequate weed control (Kleter et al., 2008). Technological developments at gene level are enabling crop production with the incorporation of tailored traits that help in value additions, such as high oil content of corn hybrids with increased levels of amino acids, healthier oils in soybean and nutraceuticals such as golden rice. ‘Pharming’ has been added to the dictionary of transgenic technology to indicate a plant based edible vaccines (Anderson, 1996).

A number of arguments reflect incompatibility of transgenic technology with organic and traditional systems of farming. Transgenic technology is considered as a threat to the biodiversity of host plant, donor organism and organisms such as beneficial insects and microorganisms. It also invites criticism by promoting selection of resistant target pests by widespread release of naturally occurring toxins in more persistent and toxic forms which particularly indicate the chances of emergence of new pests or weeds not easily controlled through the horizontal transfer of genetic material. However, research findings justify that the transgenic technology itself is based on natural toxins already used in organic agriculture. Both chemical analysis and studies in a variety of animals (e.g. dairy cows, beef-cattle, pigs, laying hens, broilers, fish and rabbits) revealed no significant unintended difference between GE and conventional varieties in composition, digestibility, animal performance and health.

Conclusion

Increasing access to healthy food necessitates strategy with dual rationale to prevent chronic diseases on the one hand and reducing demands on the healthcare system on the other. An integrated approach of farming practices can play vital roles in achieving higher and healthy produce. However, social coordination among farming communities becomes an important consideration. In order to let organic and GE cropping systems co-exist, the situation where organic and GE crop farming are being practiced on adjoining fields, strategies must be devised to allow both neighbours to farm in an economically viable manner. This can involve altering each other to their plans and modifying them to accommodate each other’s needs. Where GE crops are cultivated next to organic farming operations, certain practices that minimise synthetic pesticide drift can also limit GE gene flow, such as spatial separation of fields, staggered planting dates and planting verities with different maturity dates. In this way, only a flexible and synergistic combination of useful technological approaches and social understanding will enable the existing potential to be fully exploited. The integration of these very different production strategies viz. transgenic, organic and inorganic production systems will help move agriculture towards a publicly healthy, environmental friendly and sustainable system.

Author: Yogranjan, Assistant Prof, Biotechnology, Jawaharlal Nehru Krishi Vishwa Vidyalaya

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