India’s most important learning from the war must be that a world of food shortage is dawning, and its agriculture must play a critical role in India
From Africa to Southeast Asia, poor countries and rich, face a critical question — how badly will food supply and food prices be affected by the war in Ukraine?
Ukraine and parts of Russia contain some of the more fertile soil on earth. Disruption of supplies from these countries of grain, and other essentials like sunflower oil gravely threatens food security of relatively poorer countries especially in Africa and Europe, and food price inflation in every part of the world.
Highly fertile land, upon which continuous work and technological application is added to keep it highly fertile, and farm productivity, are going to be perhaps the most important ingredients for the world economy and for the countries to keep the peace.
Rising food inflation — coupled with declining water tables and availability of drinking water — is already hurting economies and disbalancing budgets around the world. Conflict which disrupts global supply chains, and global warming, is set to worsen this. The impact this year’s heatwave has had on the usually bounteous mango crop in its largest growing area, Uttar Pradesh, is a case to be studied with great care and lessons of caution that it teaches must be understood post haste.
This is a particularly significant moment for a major agricultural producer like India. India not only is a major producer of food, but it also has a growing demand at home with a population of more than 1.3 billion. Its role will undoubtedly have to expand as a global supplier of food.
The country will have to provide an increasingly significant chunk of not only staples — like wheat and rice, but possibly also fruits and vegetables, and perhaps even produce like poultry, dairy and fish products including seafood. All this after ensuring that the nutritional needs of its population are met. Already a large part of the food supplies of countries in the Middle East come from India, and in many parts of South, and South-East, Asia. This is set to expand.
This means a few things are critical. A focus on soil quality. Awareness campaigns about the issue are also growing with a recent major one championed by the spiritual leader Sadhguru in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi underlined the need for mass action on soil quality. Modi has been promoting this cause for several years including introducing the concept of ‘soil health cards’ for farmers a few years ago. There has been a dashboard online for some time now tracking the progress of checking soil from different agrarian parts of India and replenishing its micronutrients. There has been renewed efforts to introduce greater organic practices to farming.
India’s growing startup ecosystem also is introducing new technologies into agricultural practices. All of this is helping us reimagine agriculture. What is needed most critically is a national understanding on the importance of agriculture and that it is the most important sector for our future and our survival.
It has been a matter of debate on how much food can India supply to the world. Without question a great deal more than what it produces today (though numbers are steadily increasing). The simple reason for this is that farm productivity in India still has a lot of scope for growth.
Agrarian productivity, and quality, would be the cornerstones for the country’s future development, including its nutritional status. About a decade ago, as a young television journalist and interviewer, one of the people I was fond of interviewing was MS Swaminathan, colloquially known as the ‘father of India’s green revolution’.
I still remember one of the things he told me — the future will be with those countries that have food, and not those who have guns. This was the late 2000s and talk of technological advancement, including weapons advancement was in the air.
Al Gore had won the Grammy for Best Spoken Word and the Nobel Peace Prize for The Inconvenient Truth but, perhaps because it was so inconvenient, it had not entered our consciousness fully that our planet was dying — or that we were killing it.
Well, nothing like a war that disrupts our food supplies to bring this firmly into focus — this is what the war in Ukraine has done.
We now know how critically fragile our food supply is. We have been reminded that when supplies of food are disturbed, how quickly a crisis appears, including deprivation, and even starvation in many parts of the world.
This then is the lesson for India, according to me, the biggest lesson, from the Ukraine crisis. We must consistently underline and highlight our role as a food provider — not only for the tens of millions in our own country but also for countless millions around the world.
Along with Vishwaguru, we must aspire to be Annapurna.
The writer is a multiple award-winning historian and author. The views expressed are personal.
The Insidexpress is now on Telegram and Google News. Join us on Telegram and Google News, and stay updated.