Noted agricultural scientist Kadambot Siddique talks to PRIYADERSHINI S. of methods to increase food production, rid the world of starvation, and of Kerala specific agrarian issues

For agricultural scientist Professor Kadambot Siddique, food makes the world go round. It is the one and only mainstay. Love, may come a close second.

Siddique, who hails from Eriyad, a small village near Kodungallur, moved to Australia to undertake his PhD 32 years ago. This year he was nominated, among four others, for the Australian of the Year award. For his significant contribution to the field of agriculture in Australia he received the Order of Australia (AM) from the Queen of England, last year. In 2009, India honoured him for his contribution to science and technology. Sitting in his tastefully-done apartment in Kochi, the Hackette Professor of UWA (The University of Western Australia), a distinction conferred for his work, Siddique declares, “feed the world is my mantra.”

Siddique, with his vast experience in agriculture, and with an overview of the global issues regarding the subject, is an authority on food issues. He knows the current situation and the future projections. He speaks with facts and figures, of ways and means to increase food production, rid the world of starvation, limit wastage, and avert farmer suicides. He speaks of the judicious use of pesticides and the potential of GM (Genetic Modification) technology. He calls for policies that will address issues regarding production and distribution of food globally.

“Systematic agriculture has a history of 12,000 years. In 1960, the world needed to feed three billion as compared to today’s over seven billion and by 2050, close to nine billion. In this scenario the food production has to double. With resources like land remaining a constant and ground water depleting, the world faces a serious challenge,” he says. He has done high quality research in the field and has strategies to many questions facing the most important industry in the world.

Kerala, his state of origin, holds particular interest to him. Coming from an agrarian family he feels strongly about the issues facing agriculture in the state. “Kerala has to feed over 35 million in comparison to Australia’s 22.3 million. The State that once exported rice imports it today. Disappearing paddy fields and changing dietary habits necessitate a relook at the way agriculture is placed in the State.”

According to Siddique, the rice production needs to go up to a realistic 30 per cent to fill the gap. The right use of technology, holistic policies and a new generation of farmers with entrepreneurial skills should lead the change.

An average family in Kerala now consumes more eggs, eats more meat and eats out more often. The 46 rivers in the State are strongly polluted. The peasant society has turned into a consumerist society.

“Where is this food going to come from with the state facing stiff competition between urbanisation and agriculture that is riddled with water issues, soil erosion, shortage of labour and cultivable land?”

Siddique advocates the use of science and technology to counter the problems. “Don’t ban any technology without testing it properly. I am not saying that GM is the solution for all, but has a comprehensive policy and tough standards for use of pesticides. Use it within a regulatory framework.”

As a scientist, he speaks in favour of GM foods. “It is one of the tools available to us. Everything is genetically modified. If you cross two varieties of rice, the DNA is crossed. The GM cotton is an Indian success story. Science and technology is absolutely essential for humanity and we must use that to our benefit.”

Kerala, he believes, could look at augmenting an export oriented high quality meat industry, similar to the successful fish and seafood industry that it has.

So, is organic farming a bane in this current scenario? “Organic farming is not new. If the world was completely organic we would not be able to feed the world. It is a good concept but is a more expensive alternative.”

Agrarian issues cannot be dealt in isolation as they are closely related to energy crisis and environmental issues. Hence the challenge is to address the issues simultaneously, he says. Siddique is credited with developing the 300 million dollar per annum chickpea industry in Australia. He has developed many varieties of the pulse, even naming one the Almaz Kabuli chickpea after his wife Almaz!

“These are all disease resistant and high yielding chickpea,” he says. On the burning question of Endosulfan, Siddique is clear, “It is a classic case where one could go for GM cashew. Don’t blame agriculture alone for disease. You can’t go back to the old system. It is how you trade off, balance it. There is a risk involved in everything. You need good strategies to minimise it,” he says.

Siddique who has 13 PhD students under him, two of who are from Kerala, started an Integrated Masters Programme in Climate Science and Adaptation at Kerala Agricultural University, Thrissur. He sends a faculty member from UWA each semester to tutor, and says with a smile, “these are some of the small things I can do for my country. But there is plenty to do.”