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A new Green Revolution

Last Updated : 30 June 2014, 14:16 IST
Last Updated : 30 June 2014, 14:16 IST

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Now a group of scientists are experimenting with specially-bred crops, and hoping to launch a new Green Revolution, but controversy is brewing, writes Philip Bethge

It may not make his family wealthy, but Devran Mankar is still grateful for the pearl millet variety called Dhanshakti (meaning “prosperity and strength”) he has recently begun growing in his small field in Maharashtra. “Since eating this pearl millet, the children are rarely sick,” raves Mankar.

Mankar and his family are participating in a large-scale nutrition experiment. He is one of about 30,000 small farmers growing the variety, which has unusually high levels of iron and zinc – Indian researchers bred the plant to contain large amounts of these elements in a process they call “biofortification.” The grain is very nutritional,” he says, as his granddaughter Kavya jumps up and down in his lap. It’s also delicious, he adds. “Even the cattle like the pearl millet.”

Mankar’s field on the outskirts of the village of Vadgaon Kashimbe is barely 100 m (328 feet) wide and 40 m long. The grain will be ripe in a month, and unless there is a hailstorm he will harvest about 350 kg of pearl millet, says the farmer. It’s enough for half a year.

The goal of the project, initiated by the food aid organisation Harvest Plus, is to prevent farmers like Mankar and their families from going hungry in the future. In fact, the Dhanshakti pearl millet is part of a new “Green Revolution” with which biologists and nutrition experts hope to liberate the world from hunger and malnutrition.

Today some 870 million people worldwide still lack enough food to eat, and almost a third of humanity suffers from an affliction known as hidden famine, a deficiency in vitamins and trace elements like zinc, iron and iodine.

The consequences are especially dramatic for mothers and children: Women with iron deficiencies are more likely to die in childbirth, and they have a higher rate of premature births and menstruation problems.

Food safety is tied to variety, says agronomist Monkombu Swaminathan, who has campaigned for the “fundamental human right” of satiety for more than 60 years. He calls for a sustainable “evergreen” revolution and advocates the development of new, more nutritional grain varieties better adapted to climatic conditions.

The first revolution Swaminathan, 88, is considered the father of India’s 1960s Green Revolution. He created rice and wheat varieties that were smaller than normal but with substantial higher yields than existing varieties. He also worked with heterozygous plants, so-called hybrids, which are up to twice as productive as their parent generation.

The walls of his office in the city of Chennai on the east coast of India are covered with tributes and certificates – one reads: “India’s Greatest Global Living Legend” and in 1987, he received the United Nations World Food Prize.

As an adolescent, he lived through the “Great Bengal Famine” that killed millions of Indians in the mid-1940s. “Back then we used to get less than one ton of wheat per hectare (2.5 acres),” says Swaminathan, adding that the yield per hectare has more than tripled since then.

But at what price? Although new high-performance varieties guaranteed high yields, they depleted the soil and consumed far too much water. More and more fertiliser and pesticides were needed. Many small farmers lost everything when they invested in seed grain and were unable to sell their harvest at a profit. Meanwhile, they neglected to grow traditional bread cereals.

Springtime in Maharashtra

In India, where about 250 million people, or a fifth of the population, are undernourished, the problem is urgent. Some 50 to 70 percent of children under the age of five and half of all women suffer from an iron deficiency. Almost half of all children are physically underdeveloped or even crippled because they are chronically undernourished or malnourished.

The situation is especially precarious in Maharashtra. In the early morning, we travel out to the countryside with Bushana Karandikar, an economist in Pune. Karandikar manages the Dhanshakti Project for Harvest Plus.

“Malnutrition is the sad part of the Indian growth story,” she says during the trip. “It is very surprising, but India is almost in the same league as sub-Saharan African countries, which have much, much lower per capita income.”

It is spring, and Maharashtra is green – the land looks fertile, with its lush fields and fruit plantations lining the road. But as scientist Swaminathan puts it, this is part of “India’s enigma”: “green mountains and hungry millions.”

In the town of Ghodegaon, the problems quickly become apparent in a 15-bed clinic, where Dr Rajneesh Potnis greets us on the second floor. Potnis has been working in this clinic for 25 years.

His fellow medical students told him he was crazy when he went to Ghodegaon, but Potnis was determined to help people. Today he provides advice to nursing mothers, helps women give birth, and treats conditions like rickets, night blindness and anaemia.

Potnis hands out mineral and vitamin pills subsidised by the government. He also advises families to eat a varied diet, but his efforts are often futile, he explains. “It’s so easy to say to people: Eat more pulses, more vegetables and eggs, but most of them can’t afford any of that.”

This is where biofortified pearl millet comes into play. Farmers in the region have always grown pearl millet. So why not simply replace the traditional variety with Dhanshakti? “Then people will get their minerals from the bread they eat every day, anyway,” says Potnis.

Ramu Dahine’s five-person family, in the nearby village of Vadgaon Kashimbe, is a case in point. Daughter-in-law Meena is baking bhakri, a traditional round, unleavened flatbread made from pearl-millet flour.

The Dahines eat the bread, and hardly anything else, twice a day. The seed dealer recommended the pearl millet, says the farmer. He doesn’t even know that the grain has a high iron content, but he did notice that his family was healthier than usual by the end of the last rainy season. The variety also has another benefit: Because it isn’t a hybrid, Dahine can use a portion of his harvest as seed for the next season.

“For the real poor, this pearl millet is a great hope,” says Karandikar. Swiss scientists have shown that the consumption of Dhanshakti millet significantly increased iron levels in the blood of local women. And Indian researchers showed that a daily serving of only 100 gm of the pearl millet could completely satisfy the iron requirements of children.

The Harvest Plus programme has already reached about seven million men, women and children, says programme head Howarth Bouis, adding that biofortified grain is expected to improve the nutrition of a billion people by 2030.

“At Harvest Plus we took the decision not to invest in transgenics, because we wanted to avoid the controversy,” he says, remembering all too well the dispute over a variety known as
Golden Rice.

Genetic engineering conundrum

The transgenic plant, developed in 1992 at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, contains almost twice as much beta-carotene, a precursor to  vitamin A, as ordinary rice. Nevertheless, there has been so much public resistance to genetic engineering that it has yet to be approved for use anywhere in the world.

But in many cases, genetic engineering is unnecessary anyways. There are often natural varieties with grains that already contain the desired vitamins or nutrients. Rice is a perfect example, with about 1,00,000 varieties in existence worldwide.

“You can basically find any trait you can think of,” says Swaminathan. In the laboratories of his M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in Chennai, scientists are experimenting with high zinc-content rice.

The biologists analysed thousands of rice strains and eventually discovered about a dozen varieties with especially high zinc levels. They are now being crossed with high-yield varieties.
But Swaminathan isn’t opposed to choosing the high-tech approach if it can help alleviate hunger. “I won’t worship nor discard genetic engineering,” he says.

“It is important to harness all the tools that traditional wisdom and contemporary science can offer.”

The dark side

But these high-tech solutions are also controversial. Vandana Shiva, a prominent opponent of modern agricultural engineering says, “A globally operating industry is pushing hard to make the world dependent on their products.” Farmers who have made the switch, she explains, give up their traditional seed and are then forced to buy the commercial varieties, which often come with license fees, in perpetuity.

“This type of agriculture has taken the lives of 25,000 farmers in India, who committed suicide because they couldn’t pay back their debts,” says Shiva. “Harvest Plus is focused on one nutrient,” she says critically. “But a single nutrient is not a solution to multidimensional malnutrition crisis; the body needs all the micronutrients.” Instead of these “monocultures,” Shiva is calling for a return to diversity in fields.

“Most of our traditional crops are full of nutrients,” she explains. Why create Golden Rice with lots of vitamin A when carrots and pumpkins contain plenty of it already? Why develop genetically modified bananas with high iron content when horseradish and amaranth contain so much iron?

In Maharashtra, it’s clear that new varieties of super grains are not always the entire answer. A third farmer from the town of Vadgaon Kashimbe, Santosh Pingle, 38, and his family are visibly better off than their neighbours.

They live in a plastered house, they have cows and goats for milk, and they enjoy the occasional luxury of a chicken from the market. Pingle’s recipe for success is that he has done more with his land than other farmers.

The farmer grows iron-rich Dhanshakti millet to satisfy the iron needs of his family of five. On the other half of their field, the Pingles grow tomatoes and high-yield hybrid millet, which they sell in the market.

They also grow protein-rich pulses and other vegetables in their house garden, and his wife Jayashree and her daughters harvest lemons, coconuts and mangoes several times a year. The Pingles are well on their way to achieving “prosperity and strength” and they always have enough to eat.

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Published 30 June 2014, 14:16 IST

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