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My miracle rice

I worked on rice breeding for 35 years and developed more than 300 high-yielding rice varieties, which came to be known as miracle rice. These were widely adopted and planted all over the world. In India, this gave impetus to the Green Revolution. From being food insecure and on the verge of famine in the 1960s, India has not only become self-sufficient, but has also become a food surplus country

My miracle rice

Rice and shine: (From left) Dr Gurdev Singh Khush, Dr Norman Borlaug and Dr MS Swaminathan, the agricultural scientists who played a seminal role in the Green Revolution. Photo courtesy: The writer

Gurdev Singh Khush

Icome from a farming family. While I was studying, the opportunities were very limited and I always wanted to go abroad for higher studies and do research. In this, I was encouraged by my father, who was my first mentor. Interestingly, he was the only one from his village, Rurkee, 7 km from Phagwara, to pass from a high school. After graduation from Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana, in 1955, I borrowed money from a relative and went to England. There, while I worked in a factory at night to return the borrowed sum, I’d apply for admission to various universities during the day. I was fortunate to get admission with scholarship in three universities in the US. In 1957, I joined the University of California, Davis, which offered me admission to PhD in Genetics with half-time assistanceship. After completing my PhD in 1960, I worked as a faculty member in the same university for seven years.

I was researching on tomato there when the chairman of my department recommended my name to the director of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines; when he had come to our university looking to hire a young rice breeder. I joined the IRRI in 1967, from where I retired in 2002. Thereafter, I rejoined the University of California as adjunct professor and worked for another 13 years.

I worked on rice breeding for 35 years and developed more than 300 high-yielding rice varieties, which later came to be known as miracle rice. These were widely adopted and planted all over the world, particularly in Asia. In India, this gave impetus to the Green Revolution. From being food insecure and on the verge of famine in the 1960s, India has not only become self-sufficient but has also become a food surplus country. It is the second largest producer of foodgrains, the largest milk producer, and the second largest producer of vegetables in the world. It has 70-million tonnes of buffer stocks of rice and wheat and is the largest exporter of rice in the world. Because of the Ukraine-Russia conflict, India has become a major exporter of wheat. Yet, 200 million Indians are food insecure and 40 million children below five years of age are stunted. This dilemma of food surplus and food insecurity at the same time is due to poverty and lack of employment for the food insecure people.

I come to India almost every year and meet my brother, who still lives in our village. I also visit my alma mater, PAU, in relation with philanthropic activities of my foundation which offers scholarships to the needy students. PAU is doing good work in farm research. But research on cellular and molecular biology (biotechnology) is advancing rapidly and we need to invest in new areas of research and make attempts for breakthroughs in increasing food productivity. Countries like China are already investing heavily in basic research. Young scientists should aspire to become world-class professionals. It is vital to keep our country food secure through farm research. Our scientists should aim to do research worthy of a Nobel Prize. The breakthroughs in technology should go hand in hand with a rise in GDP and higher income for farmers.

The bane of the agricultural sector in India is that the farm size is very little. Nearly 80-90 per cent farms in our country are less than 2 hectares. Besides, the input costs have been increasing rapidly. Too many people are dependent on farming. Slowly and slowly, we have to move more people away from farming and create alternative employment opportunities.

Also, the water table is going down due to too much area under rice cultivation. We need to diversify and grow crops that require less water. The area planted for rice should be reduced progressively to less than half of what it is at present. At present, the country spends more than $2 billion in importing edible oils. Alternative crops such as soyabean and other pulses and sunflower should be grown instead. Small farmers should grow high-value crops and vegetables. They could invest in animal farms. This will help increase production in poultry and fisheries sectors.

Indian scientists have paid less attention to resource management. Efforts should be made to develop newer technologies for water and soil management. Indian soils have, on an average, 0.5 per cent of organic matter, whereas for high productivity, there should be at least 1.5 to 2 per cent organic matter. Because of low organic matter, fertiliser-use efficiency is also low. Not much attention has been paid to practice ‘conservation agriculture’ which should help improve soil fertility.

Water use in agriculture is treated as a free and unlimited resource. Flood irrigation is now the norm all over the country, and a very limited area is under water-saving methods such as sprinkler and drip irrigation.

Already, climate change is affecting productivity. Last season, because of high temperature, the production of wheat was 10 per cent less than normal. Bigger dangers lie as the glaciers are melting very fast. A recent consequence has been the floods in Pakistan. Our farm production is also dependent on the water from glaciers that melt in summers. The faster melting of our glaciers would lead to flooding of the Ganga and Sutlej basins. There will be lesser supply of water left for irrigation during summer, eventually affecting food production.

Indian farmers should aim to produce healthy food free of chemicals and other contaminants. Less attention has been paid to improving the micronutrient content of cereals. Thus, the poor in India suffer from a lack of adequate amounts of zinc, iron and Vitamin A in their diet. On the other hand, we have changing food habits, which are a natural outcome of urbanisation and improved living standards. An increasing number of Indians can now afford high-value foods such as meat, milk, fruits and vegetables. They derive fewer calories from cereals such as wheat and rice. Thus, greater amounts of wheat and rice are now available for export.

Urbanisation leads to the consumption of processed foods. This, combined with over-consumption, are contributing to the increase in obesity. It is estimated that 70 per cent of Indians will live in urban areas by 2050. This will impact the incidence of obesity, and healthcare costs will increase.

I have mixed feelings about subsidies. Some of the subsidies are necessary. For example, fertiliser subsidy was required during the food deficit decades of 1960s and 1970s. The Green Revolution may not have happened if there had been no subsidy for fertiliser. At the same time, higher levels of fertiliser subsidies have led to overuse of fertiliser, leading to water and environmental pollution. The provision of free electricity for tubewells in Punjab is a bad use of subsidy.

I have worked for almost 60 years now. Though I no longer hold any office, I continue to work with young scientists who are doing research work. The best thing I can do is share my experiences and work with younger people.

— Based in California, the writer is an acclaimed agronomist and geneticist

(As told to Seema Sachdeva)

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