TimesofIsrael: A better potato for India, via Israeli technology

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Indian men, women and children work on a field in Pushkar, Rajasthan (Photo credit: Serge Attal/Flash90

Indian men, women and children work on a field in Pushkar, Rajasthan (Photo credit: Serge Attal/Flash90

Distribution, not famine, is what ails masses of the second largest country’s poor, says a researcher — and Israel has the solutions

BY DAVID SHAMAH timesofisrael.com

When he visits family on vacation from his post at Israel’s Vulcani Agricultural Research Institute, Dr. Akhilesh Kumar is always struck by the two very different New Delhis he experiences. One is the city of haves, where people can phone up a fast food joint and get a nice meal delivered. The other is the city of have nots, down in the street, among the penniless, hungry beggars that the delivery person has to wade through to make his delivery. “The food is there, but it isn’t getting to everyone,” Kumar said. “The problem in India is not a lack of food. In truth, India grows enough food to feed itself.”

The problem isn’t one of poor agriculture, but poor distribution, Kumar told The Times of Israel in an exclusive interview. “The biggest crop in India is the potato, and in fact India is the second largest producer of potatoes in the world after China (the country produced 45 million metric tons of potato in 2012, approximately 12.2% of total global potato production). But those potatoes are mostly produced in the winter, and when harvest time comes, there is a glut on the market.

“Producer prices are very low at that time, and farmers who sell their potatoes in the market can only get a little money for their produce. And, there’s only so many potatoes the market can absorb at one time,” said Kumar.

“The excess potatoes are bought up by distributors who store them in cold-storage warehouses,” he continued. “Later on when the weather is warm, they bring out the potatoes, and sell them for three times or more the price that they bought them for after the harvest. Those same farmers who sold the distributors their potatoes at low cost after the harvest now have to buy them back at greatly inflated prices.”

Solving this problem is one of Kumar’s objectives, and as a plant biotechnologist specializing in transgenic research, he is conducting basic research in extending the shelf life of potatoes. “If we could extend the time farmers could hold on to their potatoes in typical room-temperature situations, there would be less need for them to sell off their crop right away, prices would not drop as much at harvest time, and the power of the distributor trust would be diluted,” he said.

Kumar was speaking during the recent ID2 (Israeli Designed International Development) conference, which brought together 70 entrepreneurs, academics, and students to discuss how to develop solutions for some of the world’s big problems – like hunger in India. Kumar came to Israel in 2010 on an 8 month Foreign Ministry scholarship, but upon finding Israel as a hub of innovative technologies, he decided to extend his stay and continue his research project.

In his research, Kumar is trying to decipher the molecular mechanism of glycoalkaloid (toxic secondary metabolites) biosynthesis in potato tubers – the process that turns potatoes green and sprout little “roots.” The green area and sprouts indicates the presence of solanine, which is poisonous. By developing ways to reduce glycoalkaloid biosynthesis, Kumar hopes to prevent or at least postpone the blight that makes it impossible for farmers to hold onto their potatoes.

According to Kumar, Israel — and the Vulcani Institute in particular – is the right place to do this research. “Israel has developed technology to deal with this problem, and applying it on a large scale, I believe, will greatly improve the agricultural situation in India.” Although he was trained in genetic research, Kumar believes that it would be best to keep genetic modification out of the food chain, because monkeying around with genes could create a whole new set of unforeseen problems. “At Vulcani they practice precise agriculture,” which entails very close monitoring of everything surrounding the growing of a plant — air, atmosphere, soil, hybridization, and more — to develop the best and most effective strains, capable of growing and thriving under the most difficult conditions.

Israeli solar energy technology could also be used to help India’s poor farmers, Kumar said. “Farmers could build small storerooms with solar panels on top to generate electricity for small refrigeration units. The solar panels could also power batteries which will keep the rooms cold at night as well.”

Although usually thought of as a Hindu country, India is actually home to the third largest Muslim population in the world — 176 million, or more than 15% of India’s total population, and almost as many as in Pakistan, the second largest Muslim-populated country in the world, with 178 million. Muslim politicians are very influential in India, and the country is located in a very anti-Israel neighborhood, with Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other hard-line Islamist countries close by — so the government is definitely concerned about appearing too pro-Israel, Kumar said.

“On the other hand, Israel and India do about $5 billion in business a year, and the free-trade agreement between both countries is likely to be signed in the coming months. Ten years ago doing business with Israel was much more difficult, but as time has gone by people see that having a good relationship with Israel has brought about many positive benefits to India,” said Kumar. Water technology, agricultural technology, and scientific cooperation with Israel have gone a long way to convince even Muslim politicians that working with Israel has its benefits.

“There are many more issues that need fixing in India and that Israel can help with,” said Kumar. “I hope to be able to take what I have learned here and teach others when I get home, and I am hopeful the Israeli government will support wider-scale technology training within India itself, and not just for visiting students.”