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Revamping the approach to agriculture


A woman activates the self-starting mechanism on her power-tiller-operated seeder in Rajbari.                —CIMMY Photo A woman activates the self-starting mechanism on her power-tiller-operated seeder in Rajbari.                —CIMMY Photo

A combination of whammies have brought the agriculture to a seemingly one-ended impasse. Climate change specialists have made the case existing practices are unsustainable for the environment. Increasing yields through multiple cropping, artificially modified seeds and meeting global demand for protein, again through genetically modification have served their purpose but are leading towards disaster.

Tucked away in the Arctic are zealously guarded storage facilities where every conceivable plant form is to be maintained using the best technology available in preparation for the time when nature won't or can't supplement requirements. In parallel, experiments continue to grow plants and crops, the growth of which from the plant stage is being speeded up to then be transplanted and merged with naturally occurring growth. In the Nordic countries waste vegetation is being used to be re-grown. No surprise that it's a race against time and another factor of patents.

Global warming has impacted all sectors of agriculture leading to warnings from the World Food Programme that cereals and even chocolate shortages are but a matter of when rather than if.

The current global spike of food items may sound baffling. Crops have grown but for countries such as Bangladesh, the interactive price factor has worked to the detriment of consumers. Inflation, particularly food inflation is at its highest for decades in the developed world. Post-pandemic labour shortages and transportation costs are the key players there. The third world is plagued by profiteering even though food stocks and crop yields have been robust. The situation has evoked some ridiculous statements by politicians in Bangladesh ranging from outrage at such events to suggestions of over-consumption! One of India's favourite election strategies by those in power is to swamp the markets with grains almost free of cost while passing the buck to the more affluent.

Add to the conundrum an aversion of the young generation to bend their backs in agriculture and surrendering the price-carrot to what is best defined as the middle-man mafia and it all goes pear shaped.

The images of mile-long food-banks in the west to the packages of food-sops for the most vulnerable may have been distressing. The recent ones of even middle-class running after government sanctioned fair-price commodity sales of essentials is more pathetic. It cuts out the daunting task for governments to find a combination of jobs, price controls and stable availability of products. Countries that have seen the jobless numbers grow and a chunk of middle-class joining the ranks of the ultra-poor will have difficult choices to make in the immediate and wide-ranging ones for the future.

Traditionally crop research has been skewed heavily towards high-yield and saline resistant seeds. In livestock farming it has been about cross-breeding and artificial insemination. Both were working. Except now environmentalists have come up with foolproof research that these, along with excess growth of greens are causing damage. As if to further confuse matters, mass-forestry is also being pointed out as a wrong approach. From the grasses that are put in, the shrubs to be restored and even sustainable forestry, radical changes must be made. The replacements have to be like-to-like so as to allow nature to itself grow in balanced harmony. As succinctly put by Donald Trump, a trillion trees planted won't reverse the damage.

Protein requirement needs must be sought from sources previously looked down upon but that which are already practiced by a small section of the World population. These are being experimented with further ranging from insects that can be converted into even fast-foods such as burger patties. Consumption of fried, fermented and cooked insects are already in vogue, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. For now, agriculturists, physicians and nutritionists haven't got together on defining the boundaries of such ventures. That will require significant investment and will probably work if undertaken involving the private, specifically SME and cottage industry sectors. Upgrading of skills and knowledge instead of spending on meaningless training on perfidious subjects is a no-brainer. The future is about harnessing a variety of innovative options. Automation, technology and Labour effective adaptation to agriculture might just reverse the apathy towards the sector that used to have the major weight age in Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  User-friendly harvesting machinery ideally powered by green-power is another area of innovation that requires encouragement, innovation and market-connection. When it comes to food, science and research are imperatives to complement innovative thinking.

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