Food is one of the basic needs of society, and ensuring adequate food for all has engaged the attention of policy makers for long. Yet, there are no easy solutions in sight.
The phrase ‘food security’ embeds three important components: food availability, access and use. Technology plays a crucial role in achieving food security as discussions at February’s Delhi Sustainable Development Summit, sought to bring out. Faced with shrinking land area for agriculture and a growing population, food policy experts are turning to appropriate technological interventions at each step of the value chain, from the seed production stage to farm production, harvesting, food processing, storage, handling and marketing.
Technological interventions are effective within a timeframe that depends on several external and internal factors. For example, a wheat variety resistant to rust infections caused by a fungus may lose its rust-resistance trait over time due to the development of new rust strains.
While developed countries have been able to master the use of technological interventions to a great extent and consequently do not face food security problems, developing countries are still struggling to fill the demand-supply gap. A possible reason is the differential and comparatively nascent stages of technology adoption in developing countries.
Technology pros and cons
Technological interventions have their pros and cons. After becoming a free country in 1947, India continued to depend on imports of food grains. It was only in the 1960s, when it introduced high-yielding dwarf wheat and rice varieties at the International Centre for Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, Mexico, and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Philippines, that India’s food fortunes began to turn.
Coupled with irrigation and fertiliser applications, high-yielding varieties (HYVs), introduced in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, produced far more than indigenous varieties and India not only became self-sufficient in food grain production but also emerged as a net producer and exporter of food grains.
This period from late 1960s to 1993, known as India's 'Green Revolution', represents a technological response to the food shortage at that time. It also represents the stages from introduction of HYV technology to technology saturation.
India's green revolution inspired revolutions of other hues in the country's agriculture sector: the white revolution which helped India become self-sufficient in milk production); the blue revolution in aquaculture, and the brown revolutions in leather production and cocoa production; silver revolution in egg production; and yellow revolution in oil seed production.
Other stages of the value chain, post-harvesting activities such as food processing and marketing fell in place aided by policy interventions such as the setting up of seed cooperatives and providing a minimum support price (MSP) to ensure that farmers received assured prices in the market for their produce and there were no distress sales.
But there was a flip side to India’s Green Revolution. Excessive and injudicious use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides; and irrigation led to environmental repercussions including alarmingly depleted soil systems and ground water tables  in areas where the green revolution was accepted to the highest degree. Chemical pesticides have now found their way into the food chain and been linked to chronic diseases such as renal failure, still births, birth defects and cancer . High incidence of cancer — 136 cancer patients per 100,000 people — ,   has been reported in the Malwa region of Punjab, the state where the Green Revolution was adopted to the hilt.
Shift to sustainable farming
The decline has led to a demand for new technological innovations, and a growing realisation of the need for a shift towards more sustainable farming practices that use biofertilisers and biopesticides rather than chemicals.
An added concern is that the significantly high portion (64 per cent) of food produced going waste. This begins at the production stage and multiplies at each step of the value chain. Harvesting, post-harvesting and food-processing technologies are crucial to minimising these losses. But the rising numbers of innovations in the food processing sector field, aimed chiefly at improving the shelf-life of products, have also spawned a new culture of fast food chains and retail chains that offer instant, ready-to-cook, and frozen foods, a sector that is now well-established in developed countries and is beginning to take off in several developing countries, mostly in the urban areas.
There are concerns over the rising incidence of lifestyle-related health problems such as diabetes and obesity linked to the consumption of fast foods and sweetened beverages .
In recent years, genetically modified (GM) crops are being portrayed as solutions to the problem of achieving food security, though their introduction should be preceded by careful consideration of all biosafety aspects. Small-holder farming systems in India and other developing countries would need to be protected by adequate refugia or barriers against genetic contamination.
Technology may provide an answer to the mounting challenge of national and global food security. But policy experts also need to adopt an integrated approach that factors in outcomes when the technology in a product life cycle is about to get saturated. Corrective measures could be adopted without compromising the sustainability of the ecosystem and giving consideration to the long-term implications of resorting to technological interventions.
Nutan Kaushik is a Senior Fellow and Pooja Adhikari a Research Analyst with The Energy and Resources Institute, New Delhi. They can be contacted on [email protected] and [email protected] respectively.