Life after Coronavirus Pandemic
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 30 Apr 2020 4 Comments

In March 1971, this author was invited to join the famous Gobind Ballabh Pant University of Agriculture & Technology, Pantnagar, UP, the largest in Asia, patterned along the “Land Grant Pattern” of the USA, by the Vice Chancellor late Dr. Dhyan Pal Singh, a very dynamic bureaucrat. The invitation was to join as Senior Associate Professor & Senior Research Officer. This author was then working as Research Associate at the famous State University of Ghent, Belgium, and his wife, Dr. Pankajam Nair, had just completed her D. Sc. and had an offer from the University of California, USA.


The pecuniary disadvantage was monumental, but we returned to India for sheer love for the motherland. Dr. Singh’s vision was to build the best agricultural university in Asia. More than 16,000 acres of virgin forest land were cleared in the fertile Terai region to house the university buildings, staff bungalows, gymnasium, play grounds, an amphi theatre for cultural events, mammoth library, a marketing centre, including an airport (twice a week air connection with Delhi was established). More importantly, the Terai Development Corporation (TDC) was established to produce en masse, in thousands of acres, the “miracle” hybrid seeds of wheat, rice and maize, to support the green revolution.


Though this author had by then developed great reservations regarding the infallibility of the green revolution, he was compelled to join several field projects where the “miracle” seeds were being field tested, and support the program. In 1976, he boldly predicted at a National Conference in Ranchi, Bihar that the green revolution would fail. Fail it did, due to a variety of reasons, primarily pests and diseases that invaded the “miracle” seeds, for example, rust in wheat, blast in rice and downy mildew in maize.


These miracle seeds were carrying the alien blood, rice strains from International Rice Research Institute, The Philippines, wheat and maize strains from CIMMYT (International Centre For Maize and Wheat Research), Mexico.


This author repeatedly emphasized the need to breed and improve the native varieties of all these crops. There were as many as 25000 germplasms in rice. But, attention was keenly focused on multiplying the miracle hybrid seeds and spreading them across India, due to political pressure from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations.

(Ref: The Great Gene Robbery, Claude Alvares, Jan 13, 2012


In fact, the direction for Indian agriculture was given by these Foundations, and those at the helm of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, New Delhi, were just pawns in the game of the green revolution, amply rewarded with awards, accolades and posts in international organisations.


By the late 1970s, however, crop yields started plateauing, due primarily to pests and disease infestation, and more importantly, because the soil was getting degraded due to unbridled use of chemical fertilizers. For a time though, the green revolution produced abundant food grains. Large scale farmers hugely profited, the marginal and poor were left behind in penury. 


At what cost to the environment? That is the most crucial question. Ground water was becoming non-potable. In places like Gurdaspur district, Punjab, cancer was spreading because of the indiscriminate application of herbicides (to control weeds) and pesticides (to control both diseases and insect pests). By late 1970s, the University, after the departure of Dr. Singh, fell victim to local caste and regional politics and started to go down the drain.


This author decided to leave the university due to the unseemly state of affairs. As luck would have it, the People’s Republic of Algeria offered a Full Professorship to build an Institute of Agronomy in Algiers, on a fabulous tax-free salary; simultaneously, this author was also selected as Senior Fellow, Alexander von Humboldt Research Foundation, The Federal Republic of Germany, and opted for the latter. Hence, he set sail to Giessen to join the Justus von Liebig University, seat of world chemistry, having several Nobel Laureates, and received an affiliation to the prestigious Institute of Plant Nutrition, to begin research under the direction of renowned plant nutritionist Prof. Konrad Mengel, Director, and also Curator of the Justus von Liebig (father of soil science) Museum.  


After the Spanish Flu which began in January 1918 and ended December 1920, infecting more than 500 million worldwide (one-third of the world population) with a toll close to 100 million, the COVID-19 is the most catastrophic pandemic of our lifetime. One cannot think of anything which has happened with such electric speed, starting from end  December 2019 when the first cases were reported in Wuhan, Hubei, China, to the end of April 2020, when an estimated one-third of the world’s population is locked inside their homes.


The Wuhan Institute of Virology has a collection of more than 1500 virus strains. Nestled near the great Yangtze river, Wuhan was essentially a dense forest, cleared for human habitation and farming, as in the Terai region. Like India, China invested huge resources, both monetary and man power, to push the green revolution and heavy fertilizer use was common to both countries. The environmental hazards that China now faces, especially degradation of soil resources, are similar to India.


According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), 60 per cent of human infectious diseases originate from animals. This climbs to 75 per cent for “emerging” diseases, such as Ebola, HIV, Avian flu, Zika, or SARS and now COVID-19.  The UNEP adds, “The emergence of zoonotic diseases is often associated with environmental changes or ecological disturbances, such as, agricultural intensification and human settlement, or, encroachment into forests and other habitats”.


It states, “Changes in the environment are usually the result of human activities”. A key area of concern is deforestation to make way for agriculture and intensive livestock farming. A dystopian relationship with food, as in China, can aggravate the problem.


We should really think about the collective vulnerability of our world. The most macho leaders, the most high-tech scientific establishments, and the most mighty economic prowess have all met their match in this single stranded RNA protein. It should make us humble to think about what we need to do differently; how we need to act and behave differently. But this is where I suspect we will err. 


The truth is, whenever a catastrophe descends on humanity, the focus is on the immediate relief and rescue and not on what we must learn for the future. The severe floods in Kerala last year saw people abandoning their sinking homes, with much panic all round. Come summer, everything is forgotten. Nothing on water harvesting, though the Chief Minister led a delegation to Holland in September 2019 to “study water management”, and how Kerala could benefit from Dutch expertise.


The King and Queen of Holland were invited to Kerala; they came to Kochi in October 2019, but nothing happened. In COVID-19, it must be said that of all States, Kerala did best to contain the pandemic.     


It is truly irresponsible of the Chinese leadership to sit on the crisis for more than a week, letting the viral spread rapidly in Wuhan and elsewhere in the world. There is no spread in Shanghai or Beijing, which are not very far from Wuhan (just about 5 hours by train). Dr. Tedros also shielded the country while the pandemic spread like wild fire. The United Nations Security Council did not meet for weeks, and when it did, nothing happened. Mercifully, the African continent is still free from the pandemic.


Paradigm Shift Needed


A paradigm shift is needed to pre-empt tragedies like COVID. One vital aspect is intelligent management of the world’s soil resources. Contrary to the general belief that soil is an inert material, soil has an infinite life. Carbon is the basic building atom in all life – human, plant or animal. And the basic building atom in soil is carbon. So, we might conclude that soil has life.


Often, we hear talk of “Water Management”. Without soil there simply is no water, yet, many planners, bureaucrats, including scientists, talk of “water management”. The simple physico-chemistry would explain this. A charged (electrically charged) soil particle carries excess negative charge on its surface. A drop of water, H2O, carries the positively charged hydrogen ion on either side and oxygen in the middle (H+O-H+). Thus the positively charged hydrogen ion is attracted to the negatively charged soil particle, and this in turn, is attracted to a negatively charged oxygen atom, and a chain of water molecules is built around the soil particles. This is how water is stored in soil.


Hence, without soil there is no water. Yet, humanity has destroyed this invaluable soil resource in the name of development, whether industrial farming (green revolution), buildings, homes, etc. In India alone, of 328.73 million hectares of geographical area, as much as 120.40 million hectares are degraded soils, thanks to the green revolution. In Punjab alone, so-called “cradle of green revolution” one can find hundreds of acres where not even a blade of grass will grow without reclaiming the soil after much investments in chemical amendment.


In Kerala, Kuttanad, “paddy bowl”, had a very favourable soil pH (soil hydrogen ion activity which is a good measure of the soil’s inherent fertility/productivity level, the optimum being 6-6.5) is now clocking a soil pH of 1, after about half a century of green revolution. This means the soil has almost become an acid.


Stammer (1992) reported that serious harm has been done to 10 per cent of world’s best soil. (Ref: Stammer, L.B. 1992. Los Angeles Times, quotations from World Resources Institute of U.N. Environmental program). It is not just the world soil resources that have been ruined by the green revolution; it has adversely contributed to global warming. The excessive use of nitrogenous fertilizers has led to a lot of emission of nitrous oxide in gaseous form (N2O) which escapes into the stratosphere and captures radiated heat contributing as much as 35 per cent to global warming (Nair, K.P.P., Combating Global Warming The Role of Crop Wild Relatives For Food Security, Springer 2019). 


The COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented in scale and there is no rulebook for governments to follow: how to shut down economies, and when and how to re-open them. This is another challenge facing us, even as we are still far from overcoming the coronavirus pandemic.

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