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Cornell University

Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition

Welcome to ICRISAT: Science with a Human Face

John Lowry

“When I was young, I grew up on American food,” Mr. Sharma said. I looked up, smiling at the thought of Indians and Americans of the past sharing the same meals halfway around the world. He did not return it. His eyes filled with pain. “I was ashamed. It was shameful of us. Here we were, a new, proud self-ruling country. And we couldn’t feed ourselves. “

Moments ago, the man that sat in front of us brimmed with energy, excited to take us through the fields of crops designed to resist drought and yield more than local varieties. Our tour of ICRISAT was part of a broad introduction to the efforts ICRISAT makes to improve rural livelihoods in India.  Our own research, identifying the types of food villagers were eating with a short survey, would supplement the broad data bank ICRISAT kept and further our own research interests in eating out behavior and marketplace food variety.

Now though, Mr. Sharma sat slumped in his chair, as the memories weighed on his thoughts. “Back then we had a population of 700 million. And no one believed in us. They said there were too many people. Too many mouths too feed. Too backward. They gave aid to Africa, but India? Never.”

“We now are a population of 1.2 billion,” he exhaled, dazed by the sheer mass of people that gave body to that number. “And we are now closer to self-sufficiency than we were with 700 million.”

“How?” he asked, as if reading our thoughts. “This” he said, pointing at the ground. “Here,” waving his hand around his head. “Science. ICRISAT. Research.”

Mr. Sharma respected the power of science. He watched as transgenic and crop improvement research helped boost India’s small-farm agricultural system. He did not subscribe to the fantasy though that science alone was responsible, nor capable of continuing India’s leap forward.

When India’s farmers accept a crop they have never seen before, their choice is but one of many choices that propel India toward self-sufficiency. Preceding them are politicians who set aside funding for research.  And behind said research are scientists and social scientists who spend their lives exploring how to improve the lives of others.

Mr. Sharma eventually took us on the tour of ICRISAT, and as it closed we came upon some dark, smelly mounds.

“This is where they bring the post-harvest waste to decompose, so then we can use it as compost come planting season” he explained.

It was a system, driven by faith that every step contributes to a larger cycle, and purpose.  We felt a part of something during that tour. We might just be interns, but our research, however brief over these seven weeks, is our small step in the larger advance toward improving India’s rural livelihoods.