Robust Biosecurity System Needed to Safeguard Food Security in India

Shashi B Sharma

President, The World BioProtection Forum, Perth, Australia

India, the second most populous nation in the world, which is home to about 18% of the global population has achieved amazing progress in food production. A net importer of food grains in the 1960s is now a self-sufficient nation in food production, While India’s population has tripled since achieving independence in 1947, its food grain production has increased nearly sixfold. India is now the world’s largest producer of milk, pulses and millets, and the second-largest producer of rice, wheat, sugarcane, groundnuts, vegetables, fruit, and cotton. Unfortunately, India has not yet been successful in translating its success with food production to achieving food security for all. There are still about 200 million undernourished people in India. Nearly 24 percent of all the undernourished people in the world live in India. This is a very alarming statistic, and it appears to undermine the fact that India is successful in meeting the food needs of about 1.1 billion people. It is anticipated, from past successes and current initiatives, that India will be capable of achieving food security for all the people in foreseeable future. However, one of the weak links and critical risks to achieving food security for all is the lack of a robust national biosecurity system needed to safeguard its food and agriculture sector from biosecurity risks, particularly in this era of globalisation.

Biosecurity risk exposure is generally related to the volume of importation of potential carriers of pests and diseases. Given ever-increasing trade and the number of people moving in and out of India, it is now a matter of when — not if — there will be a major pest or disease epidemic in India that would impact on its food production, storage, distribution, and food safety. The inadequate preparedness to manage and respond to biosecurity incidents and epidemics is a cause for major worry as this can jeopardise the food security mission. If a covid 19-like threat to plants devastates just one of the staple crops, it will have a disastrous impact on food security of India and may cause widespread famine.

Presently, India has some elements of the biosecurity system in place. However, they are scattered over several agencies and there is a lack of a consolidated overarching strategy, or a mechanism for ensuring proper biosecurity risk management. There is apparent lack of a strong biosecurity science capability to develop sound strategies and policies, and successfully manage the impact of biological threats. India has a shortage of biosecurity specialists to build this national capacity and capability.

Development of a robust biosecurity system is critical to safeguarding food security in India. The Government of India must prepare and implement a well-envisioned and strong biosecurity strategy with a comprehensive operational system in place to manage the biosecurity risks on an ongoing basis. A robust national biosecurity system will set an overall direction for biosecurity, identify priority areas for biosecurity programs, establish proper agreements between the federal and state governments to ensure commitment in implementation of biosecurity measures, and raise public awareness and understanding of biosecurity. The robust biosecurity system must include but should not be limited to:

  • An over-arching national biosecurity strategy and framework with a single business plan assigning responsibilities and accountabilities.
  • A single Biosecurity Act which clearly assigns powers and responsibilities to respond to biosecurity risks.
  • Establishment of Appropriate Level of Protection and a formal biosecurity risk assessment process based on international best practice.
  • An integrated presence at international entry points such as airports, involving publicity, declarations, amnesty bins, random inspections, and X-rays.
  • Biosecurity surveillance of all potential pathways and entry points, including random checks.
  • Appointment of a lead agency responsible for all biosecurity operations across different sectors.
  • Implementation of a national pest and disease surveillance strategy
  • Preparation of a national biosecurity emergency incident management plan.
  • Establishment of a specific agri-food bioterrorism response plan.
  • Preparation of biosecurity contingency plans for each sector.

The success of India’s mission of achieving food security will be underpinned by many and varied factors and, establishment of a robust biosecurity system will be one of the most important factors. Enactment of Agriculture Biosecurity Bill, which has been pending in Parliament since 2013, will be an obvious step in the right direction for establishing a robust biosecurity system. India must instil a biosecurity culture, which means it is clear to all that – biosecurity is everyone’s responsibility: governments, businesses and communities all have a role and responsibility for achieving and maintaining a robust biosecurity system in the nation.

This blog was first published in the Compendium of the International Conference on Global Perspectives in Crop Protection for Food Security (GPCP-2021), December 8-10, 2021 (LP-N5)

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