Food security in India and role of Plant Breeding
In a fraught global economic environment, exacerbated by climate change and shrinking resources, ensuring food and nutrition security is a frightening challenge for many nations. India, Asia’s third largest economy and the world’s second most populous nation after China with 1.3 billion people, is no exception.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines food security as a situation when all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preference for an active and healthy life. The lack of a balanced diet minus essential nutrients results in chronic malnutrition.
According to the Global Hunger Index 2014, India ranks 97 out of the world’s 118 hungriest countries even behind some of its smaller South Asian counterparts like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and China. Despite its self-sufficiency in food availability, and being one of the world’s largest grain producers, about 25% of Indians go to bed without food. Describing malnutrition as India’s silent emergency, a World Bank report says that the rate of malnutrition cases among Indian children is almost five times more than in China, and twice that in Sub-Saharan Africa.
So what are the reasons for India not being able to rise to the challenge of feeding its poor with its own plentiful resources? Experts describe many reasons for this deficit. There are challenges which India faces in attaining food security, i.e. “Natural calamities like excessive rainfall, accessibility of water for irrigation purpose, drought and soil erosion. Further, lack of improvement in agriculture facilities as well as population explosion has only made matters worse.” Despite abundant production of grains and vegetables, distribution of food through a corruption-ridden public distribution system prevents the benefits from reaching the poor.
To fight with its food security problem, India operates one of the largest food safety nets in the world — the National Food Security Act 2013. India’s department of food and public distribution, in collaboration with World Food Programme, is implementing this scheme which provides a whopping 800 million people (67% of the country’s population or 10% of the world’s) with subsidized monthly household rations each year.
Food security through Plant Breeding
Breeding new crop is important for ensuring food security by developing new varieties that are higher-yielding, resistant to pests and diseases, drought-resistant or regionally adapted to different environments and growing conditions. These global issues are achievable through the process of plant breeding, as it offers the ability to select specific genes allowing the crop to perform at a level which yields the desired results. Plant breeding is the art and science of changing the traits of plants in order to produce desired characteristics. Plant breeding can be accomplished through many different techniques ranging from simply selecting plants with desirable characteristics for propagation, to more complex molecular techniques. Its successful application is essential to provide the major increases in production and nutritional quality. Plant breeding and genetics may also increase the resource use efficiency. With the natural degradation of agricultural land, simply planting more crops is no longer a viable option. Therefore, new varieties of plants need to be developed through plant breeding that generates an increase of yield without relying on an increase in land area.