In March 1971, this author was invited to join the famous Gobind Ballabh Pant University of Agriculture & Technology, Pantnagar, named after the first Home Minister of the country in Nehru’s cabinet, 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 who thought that the University must have the best talent in the country. The invitation was to join as Senior Associate Professor & Senior Research Officer. This author was at the time 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 offer from Pantnagar was on a meagre salary of Rs 700. Despite the great pecuniary disadvantage, this author persuaded his wife to return to India, along with him, because of the sheer love for the motherland. The vision of late Dr Singh was to build the best agricultural university in Asia. More than 16,000 acres of virgin forest land were cleared in the very fertile Terai region to house the university buildings, staff bungalows, gymnasium, play grounds, an amphi theatre to hold cultural events, a 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, great reservations on the scientific merit of the green revolution, he was compelled to join the several field projects where the “miracle” seeds were being field tested, and support the programme. In 1976 he boldly predicted, in a National Conference in Ranchi, Bihar State, that the green revolution would fail. Fail it did, due to a variety of reasons, primarily, due to 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, from the International Rice Research Institute in Los Banos, in the hybrid rice, from the CIMMYT (International Centre For Maize and Wheat Research), in Mexico in the hybrid wheat and hybrid maize. This author had repeatedly emphasized the need to breed and improve the native varieties of all these crops. Inarguably there were many, in fact, for example, as many as 25000 germplasms in rice. But, the attention was keenly focused on multiplying the miracle hybrid seeds, spread them all across India, because there was great political pressure from both the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations (Ref: The Great Gene Robbery, Claude Alvares, Vijayvani, Jan 13, 20120). In fact, the direction for Indian agriculture was given by these Foundations, and, those at the helm of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research in New Delhi, were just pawns in the whole game of the green revolution, amply rewarded with awards, accolades ad posts in international organisations. And then, by late seventies, crop yields started plateauing, due primarily to pests and disease infestation, and more importantly, 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 Gurdaspaur district in Punjab State, cancer was spreading because of the indiscriminate application of herbicides (to control weds) and pesticides (to control both diseases and insect pests). By late seventies the University, after the departure of Dr Singh, who continued as Vice Chancellor for three terms, that is, nine long years, became a victim to the manipulations of local caste and regional politics. It started going down the drain. Though this author was very successful in training many students in their undergraduate and post graduate programmes, and building, possibly, the very best department of Agronomy in the country, he decided to leave the university with his family, due to the unseemly affairs in the University. As a Providential grace, The People’s Republic of Algeria offered a Full Professorship to the author to build an Institute of Agronomy in Algiers, the capital city of the country, on a fabulous tax-free salary, and, he was also selected as Senior Fellow of the world renowned Alexander von Humboldt Research Foundation of The Federal Republic of Germany. Though the financial reward for this was just a fraction in comparison to the Algerian offer, the author preferred to go to Germany as research was and still is very dear to his heart. Hence, he set sail to Giessen, to join the Justus von Liebig University, the seat of world chemistry, having several Nobel Laureates, and received an affiliation to the very prestigious Institute of Plant Nutrition, to initiate his research, under the direction of the renowned plant nutritionist Professor Konrad Mengel, Director of the Institute of Plant Nutrition and Curator of the world renowned Justus von Liebig (father of soil science) museum.
The former details are given not to blow the trumpet of the author. But, to draw a parallel between what happened in Pantnagar and what is now happening in the world, at large, where man is pulling the earth and himself out of equilibrium by applying only one test to everything he does: money, profits, and therefore giant operations.
Possibly, next to the Spanish Flu, which started in January 1918 and ended in December 1920, infecting more than 500 million, worldwide, a third of the world population then, and a fatality toll close to 100 million, comes the COVID-19 as the most tumultuous pandemic , most catastrophic and the most defining epoch of our lifetime. One cannot think of anything else which has happened with such electric speed, starting from end December 2019, when the first cases were reported in Wuhan, Hubei Province, The Republic of China, to the end of April 2020, when an estimated one-third of the world’s population is locked inside their homes.
Wuhan houses Asia’s biggest, Wuhan Institute of Virology, having a collection of more 1500 virus strains. Nestled near the great Yangtze river, Wuhan was essentially a dense forest, like what it was in the Terai region, and these dense forests were cleared for human habitation and farming, like what was done in the Terai region. This author was taken on a field trip to Wuhan, in 2011, where China’s biggest fertilizer industry is located, in connection with an international conference on latest liquid fertilizer technology, to which he was invited to deliver the keynote address. It may not be out of context to speculate that it was quite possible that the coronavirus simply jumped out, by accident, and infected the first Chinese in Wuhan, and thereby accelerating its spread. The year end Lunar festival, with more than 3000 guests in Wuhan, lasting over an entire week must have accelerated the viral spread. It is truly irresponsible, and very culpable, that the Chinese leadership sat on this for more than a week, making the viral spread very rapid first in Wuhan and later elsewhere in the world. Surprisingly, there is no spread in Shanghai or Beijing, the business centre and political centre of China, respectively, which are not very far from Wuhan, just about 5h plus by train from Wuhan, prompting one to think, whether there was a conspiracy, after all, by the Chinese authority in the release and spread of the virus. This is what Mr Donald Trump, President of America, thinks.
It is important to note, in this context, that like India, The Republic of China, invested huge resources, both monetary and man power, to push the green revolution, like what happened in Pantnagar, and, heavy fertilizer use, similar to India, was a practice common to both countries. And the environmental hazards that China now faces, especially the degradation of soil resources, are similar to that of India. Clearly, man’s intrusion into Nature was on an unprecedented scale, during the close of the last century.
This COVID -19 crisis is unprecedented in scale and there is no rulebook that tells governments what to do: how to shut down economies, and when and how to re-open them. Wishfully, setting aside all “conspiracy theories”, it can be concluded that this zoonotic virus, possibly a mutant , jumped from its animal host (pangolin? bat?) to humans in the Wuhan wet market from where the Chinese buy, bat, pangolin, pig, poultry, beef, dog and horse meat for domestic consumption ; it is pernicious because it seems to find new ways to hide itself; and, one can be asymptomatic and yet be a carrier of infection. Deadly and devastating.
Learning from the COVID-19
It is now clearly established that humans are to blame for this pandemic. According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), 60% of human infectious diseases originate from animals. This climbs to 75% for “emerging” diseases, such as, Ebola, HIV, Avian flu, Zika, or SARS and now the COVID-19. The UNEP report goes on to add “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”. “Changes in the environment are usually the result of human activities”, the report adds. A key area of concern is deforestation to make way for agriculture and intensive livestock farming. The intensive industrial type of livestock farming is a classical example. It is important to remember that thousands of acres were cleared in Wuhan, just like in Pantnagar, to establish agriculture and livestock farming plus fertilizer plants. One may ask, why such a viral pandemic did not originate in the Terai region. The reason mainly lies in the fact that Indians are essentially vegetarians, while the Chinese are essentially non vegetarians eating all kinds of meat from domestic and wild animals, as described earlier in this article. The Chinese have a “we market” in Wuhan. The meat from these animals are sold here. That is not the case in India. A dystopian relationship with food, as in China, can aggravate the problem.
What we should be really thinking about is 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 – the lowly virus. 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 — the relief and the rescue — and not on what we must learn for the future. Take for example the severe floods in Kerala, last year, and, to some extent this year. When the unprecedented floods came, and people were abandoning their sinking homes, there was so much panic all round. Come summer, everything is forgotten. No single day spent by the Kerala government on water harvesting techniques, though, the Chief Minister led a delegation to Holland in September last to “study water management”, and, how Kerala could benefit from the Dutch expertise. And he had discussions with high level Dutch scientists. And, the media, both print and electronic, were awash with the news. One thought, the Dutch experts would immediately descend on Kerala to show how to manage water. Of course, the King and Queen of Holland were invited to Kerala, they did come to Kochi in October, and, as is but normal, everything was forgotten, and, nothing happened. And now the COVID 19 scare. However, it must be said, without doubt, that of all the States in India, Kerala did best to contain the pandemic, compared to all others, under the Chief Ministership of Shri Pinarayi Vijayan.
We are losing lives in the rich world having world class hospitals and health infrastructure. Just imagine the scale of the human tragedy in the developing world where none of this exists. And, imagine the sheer scale of the human deprivation; when jobs are taken away the economies of the poor are not based on the security of tenure, but on their daily earnings.
There is no point in discussing the secretiveness of China, the desire (?) of the WHO chief, Dr Tedros, to shield the country, (for political reasons?) while the pandemic spread like wild fire.
The United Nations Security Council did not meet for weeks, and when it did, it just whimpered and died. The pandemic also shows that each country is behaving in a very selfish manner. There is no togetherness in the fight, except some token gestures like India allowing to ship some tons of hydroxychloroquinine (HCQ) to the US, following the frantic request of Trump to Modi. Mercifully, the African continent is still free from the pandemic. Imagine the scale of human misery it would encounter, given its pathetic state of lack of development, where lakhs of tiny shanties, with no potable water, leave alone water to wash hands, house these very poor and miserable Africans in the war-torn regions.
A Paradigm Shift Needed For the Future:
I would hesitate to dwell at length on the details of a paradigm shift that humanity needs in the future if it has to pre-empt the kind of tragedies like the COVID that it currently suffers. In all humility, and honesty, I must admit, it is beyond my intellectual capacity and I am not up to it. But, I would venture on one vital aspect that human sustenance is so much entwined with, if we are to steer clear of the “business as usual” approach. And that is, the intelligent management of world’s soil resources.
In the World Soil Science Congress held in Hamburg, The Federal Republic of Germany, in 1986, to which this author was invited to deliver a keynote address in the plenary, I referred to soil as the Soul Of Infinite Life (the first letter in each word representing the words mentioned in the above phrase). Contrary to the general belief that soil is such an inert material that one can treat it anyway one desires, to derive and exploit it for personal profit, I would consider soil an infinite life. For instance, carbon is the basic building atom in all life – human, plant or animal. And, the basic building atom in soil is carbon. As such, we might conclude that soil has life. Understandably, those scientists, students and lay persons assembled to listen to me, in 1986, laughed in mirth, when I so addressed soil. To exemplify my reasoning, in India I come across many projects, be it building a mammoth dam to store water, or a check dam to hold rain water, where the term “Water Management” is freely used. Without soil there simply is no water, yet, many planners, bureaucrats, including scientists, talk of “water management”. Itshould be “Soil and Water Management”. Even in Kozhikode, there is an Institute which is working exclusively on water management, without any emphasis, whatsoever on soil management. The simple physico-chemistry would explain this. A charged (electrically charged, which is a physico-chemical process) soil particle carries excess negative charge on its surface. A drop of water carries (H2O carries the positively charged hydrogen ion on either side, and oxygen in the middle that is, 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 resorce in the name of development – whether the industrial farming (aka green revolution), buildings, homes, a plethora of things, unmindful of how best to use the soil resources. In India alone, of the 328.73 million hectares of geographical area, as much as 120.40 million hectares are degraded soils – almost a third- thanks to the green revolution. In Punjab alone, the 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, the classic case is of the Kuttanad The “paddy bowl” of Kerala, which had a very favourable soil pH(the 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, which, in other words means, the soil has almost become an acid, post green revolution.
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, but, it has even 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% to global warming (Nair, K.P.P. Combating Global Warming The Role of Crop Wild Relatives For Food Security, Springer 2019).
A revolutionary soil management technique developed by this author, after more than three decades of research in Europe, Africa and Asia, now globally known as “The Nutrient Buffer Power Concept” can save world soils, including Indian. The details are published in ADVANCES IN AGRONOMY, the magnum opus of agricultural science, or what is popularly known as the “Bible of Agricultural Science”. (Nair, K.P.P. 2013. The Buffer Power Concept and Its relevance in African and Asian Soils. Advances in Agronomy, Vol 121, pages 447-516). The project was short listed for the prestigious US $ 1 Million Rolex Awards For Enterprise 2012 of The Rolex Foundation, Geneva, and is the only project short listed for this coveted distinction from the Asian continent from more than 3500 nominations. Space limitation will not permit a full discussion here.
Springer, world’s number one science publisher, globally launched the book Intelligent Soil Management For Sustainable Agriculture The Nutrient Buffer Power Concept, in 2019, which has since become a block buster with 6800 downloads as of to day. This is a phenomenal success for this book, globally. A copy of the book was presented to Shri Narendra Modi, Mr Donald Trump and Mr Mr. Antonio Guterres, current Secretary General of the UN, by during the global summit on global warming organised by Mr Guterres in New York on September 23, 2019.