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“People Take Food For Granted”

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The Economic Survey of 2011 stated that there hasn't been a technological breakthrough in the Indian agricultural sector since the green revolution of the 1960s.  2013 marks the 50th anniversary of Dr Norman Borlaug's (the scientist behind introducing High yielding varieties of wheat which contributed towards India's food security) work in India. The challenges of enhanced agricultural productivity and greater variety in food grain cultivation are glaringly (globally) and further debilitating is the farmers' battles with wheat rust. The Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) formed in 2005 is a global effort to secure wheat crops by monitoring and surveillance of virulent wheat rusts and facilitating the development of high yielding rust resistant wheat varieties.

Dr. W. Ronnie Coffman, a student of Borlaug, and currently the Vice Chairman of BGRI and the Director of Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) has been activety involved in working with governments and academic institutes across the world to promote awareness. K. Vijayraghavan, Regional Coordinator, Chairman, Sathguru Management Consultants is responsible for the coordination of the DRRW project in South Asia. In an interview with BW Online's Alokita Datta, Coffman and Vijayraghavan talk about the possibility of an epidemic caused by wheat rust, the need for India to adopt new varieties of wheat, the (non) viability of organic farming, legacy of Dr. Borlaug and the question of food security.
 
How large is the threat of the ug99 wheat rust at present? In what ways has Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) been combating it over the years?
Coffman: The scientists in South Asia were well aware of the impending problem: the new race (of stem rust virus, ug99) was discovered in 1998, so almost immediately people were concerned but mobilising resources and organising a project came later. We had a major assessment in 20005; Dr. Norman Borlaug was still alive at that time, and he and I used that assessment to offer a mega proposal to (financial) donors and were eventually able to persuade the Gates foundation and the Department for International Development (DFID) in the UK. With the mobilisation of funds the BGRI was actually initiated in April 2008. 
 
K. Vijayraghavan
Before that the Kenyan government was very helpful in giving us access and working with us to establish a screening site. Kenya is across the border from Uganda and actually have a lot more wheat production that the latter. The intense occurrence of the fungus was initially in Kenya and is still widespread there which is why we have our major screening efforts there. But it is also largely present in Ethiopia and this is where a large number of people are vulnerable. It is hard to predict when it might become epidemic, we are working intensely to deploy resistant varieties of wheat in Ethiopia. We are concerned about an inoculant building up and blowing in this direction. Besides Ethiopia, Yemen, which is just across the Red Sea, is also a cause for concern because a lot of wheat is grown there and the wind currents are such that they can carry the virus in any direction, which is air-borne and can travel thousands of miles. Due to the socio-political challenges that the regime in Yemen poses, we can't go into the country to launch our efforts. There isn't a crisis but there is the danger that it can blow into something catastrophic. Without the appropriate resistance, it is a devastating disease, no doubt about that. 
 
What has been the role played by Indian scientists, agricultural researchers in promoting this initiative among farmers?
Indian scientists have done a good job; there is a good surveillance capacity in place and it is being improved in a continuous way, using electronic technology. Tablets are being brought so that people can report their data in real time. The Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bhutan) is the continuously largest wheat growing region in the world; China is the largest wheat growing country. 
 
They are also doing a good job of preparing for new varieties of wheat. It is a challenge to persuade farmers to accept a new variety.
 
It is Dr. Borlaug's wisdom about the potential devastation of rust that drives the community (the BGRI) forward because there are not too many people alive today who have actually seen this and what it can do. We know form history; the Romans had a god they worshipped because they were so afraid of this. People take food for granted; they don't think of it beyond the store from where they purchased it. The more we can sensitise people about food and protecting it, the better. 
 
Vijayraghavan: In the world, wheat is the single largest variety driven commodity. There no hybrids of wheat that have been commercially adopted. In India there is a plethora of varieties, there are more than 150 varieties of wheat grown and all of them are in the public domain. The only way that India could verify the vulnerabilities of those varieties to rust is to put them in a hotspot and test them and thereby focus on those varieties that are resistant to stem rust. I think to large extent the director of wheat research and other bodies, universities have promoted that concept. The second element they have done is that since wheat is largely in the public seed production system, for the foundation seed and then people work with the private sector to multiply it further to deliver certified seeds, they've been able to gradually harness farmer attention to seeds that are more resistant and provide improved yield. 
 
There has been much concern over how climate will affect wheat production all over the world as wheat growing areas are under drought risk. While biotechnologists are working on developing GM wheat (through there has been no commercial cultivation) what are the concerns with regard to wheat rust?
Coffman: Indeed, we don't know the full impact of climate change at this point. In connection to rust, it is quite possible that climate change is an important factor in the increased incidence of yellow rust, which has been occurring around the world in unprecedented areas.  The history of stem rust ug99, in India is in the peninsular region. But northern India, the bread basket of the country has not been vulnerable historically. It is believed that the intense heat during the growing season inhibits the stem rust. The dry heat desiccates spores and prevents them from doing damage. But we are here 50 years since the last epidemic: wheat is more intensively grown; more nitrogen is applied and in the climate is changing in ways that we don't fully appreciate. There is a feeling among scientists that we must prepare northern India for the impending risks. The message we want to convey is the need for changing India's wheat varieties in a timely manner. Indian scientists are working towards that but it is important for farmers and consumers to be aware. 
 
Vijayraghavan: India grows almost every kind of wheat we can think of. One of the priority scientific efforts undertaken in India is to stack genes in the existing popular varieties through molecular breeding (not to be confused with GMO) by a consortium of institutes. (Molecular plant breeding involves identifying the molecular markers that indicate the presence of a gene which conditions the trait of a plant, which is present between the molecular markers. Scientists can test for the presence of these markers so that allows the breeder to get information even in a very young plant).Thanks to DRRW, a number of promising major and minor genes are being explored. BGRI is a frontier from where internationally countries are benefiting and India is one of them. India is also integrating some of the genes into its own varieties but in India a little bit of an effort has been initiated to create its own genomics platform. India is looking at integrated breeding for the existing varieties so that they can be improved. Drought and heat tolerance are essential in any popular variety the farmer will adopt. Those are the efforts going on the development side in collaboration with Indian scientists led by Indian council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and state level universities. Some of the varieties developed after molecular breeding have been released and will be in a few years. 
 
What is the idea behind the BGRI workshops conducted every year?
Vijayraghavan: This has been an annual effort that brings together wheat workers from around 70 countries. The effort has been to deal with three aspects of advancement: one is in terms of the science itself, understanding gene functions, integration of crops. There is an important aspect of policy orientation to this because countries work together in a global framework and it is important that each of them share and absorb the relative situation in other countries. Third is the delivery of technology to farmers themselves, the seed distribution process, the role of public and private sector as well as non government organisations. In Beijing we had farmers talking about the source of technology and deploying in their fields: their pain and fears. This year being the 50Th anniversary of Borlaug's footprint in India, this will be one of the core focus areas of the conference that will be held in New Delhi. 
 
In the aftermath of the green revolution (and emphasising on the damage done to soil nutrition in the process) environmentalists in India often advocate the need for organic farming, which has become a popular, albeit niche concept in the last few years.  Can the production of new varieties of wheat be co-opted in the process of organic farming?
Coffman: In wheat production, they are not necessarily at odds nut if you want higher productivity of modern wheat varieties you will have to use fertilisers. The organic community would stipulate natural fertilisers -manure, compost-which is excellent but the supply of it isn't nearly adequate. It takes a sort of elitist thinking to say that everything should be organic. I don't discourage organic farming because what it does do is that is a person is wealthy, prefers organic farming and is willing to pay a farmer to do the work, then there are great benefits. In fact in our country (US) we have quite a community of farmers who benefit from organic food.
 
Vijayraghavan: In India organic farmers mostly use cow dung, which I believe has about 2 per cent nitrogen component in it. If we have to use that in India for predominant organic growing, you will need some 1.5 billion tons of organic manure, where are the cows going to come from?
 
However, it is true that there are skewed management practices: the nutrient absorption efficiency (in soil) has been low because most farmers don't have access to techniques through which they can profile soil, understand deficiencies and adopt custom application nutrients. 
 
It is more acute in North India I believe...
Yes, it is more in Northern India because there is high grain intensity. But that is changing; food diversity on account of economic growth is partly contributing towards the restoration of soil nutrients. Per capita rice consumption is stagnant now; with economic prosperity we will bring more crops to the focus area. 
 
Coffman: The largest constraint, and certainly it is true in India, is water. The water tables are dropping and global warming is a fact, sea levels are rising, the intrusion of rovers is going to be a problem particularly in the delta areas. So we are facing many challenges in meeting the food requirements of the world. Some people may criticise the green revolution but just imagine the world without it. Without access to High yielding varieties of crops people would they would exploit the natural resources to try and produce efficient food. If we turned towards organic farming we would have to strip the world of its forests just to produce the organic matter required. 
 
Could you talk about the nature of your collaboration with agricultural and academic institutions in India?
Vijayraghavan: Traditionally state agricultural universities in India have been attached to krishi vigyaan kendras and there is a network of outreach centres across the country. With regard to rust, one of the quick efforts they could do was to educate farmers on how to prevent rust pathogens. Prescriptions of fungicides are being well orchestrated throughout the country and there is a very effective communication process in place, as far as wheat is concerned. Increasingly, students are getting engaged in experiential learning: they are working on the fields; plenty of women students as well. 
 
Different universities have taken the lead in different zones.  In agriculture there are very few central universities in India at the moment. The Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) has a very strong wheat programme and they have many regional centres. There in a regional centre in Wellington, Ooty (Tamil Nadu) which is a global rust reference centre. These are all India well coordinated efforts in Punjab University, Jammu University, University of Dharwad in Karnataka, Banaras Hindu University. More than 12 universities are actively involved in wheat research programmes are taught along with technology and seed distribution systems. The University of Delhi's genomics centre helps in the pre plant breeding process with reference to the exploration of new