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The gap between field and lab

In India, publicly-funded research shapes the choices available to farmers, food workers and consumers. But farmers and consumers are only at the receiving end of agricultural research, never involved in it, says Anitha Pailoor. Raitateerpu, a farmers’ jury in Karnataka, wants to ensure that citizens are involved in decisions around science, technology and policymaking

“Given a choice between protecting nature and making a profit, I would opt for nature,” said Sadashivaiah, and his statement was greeted with applause from other members of the farmers’ jury. Sadashivaiah and his fellow participants were speaking at the Raitateerpu event, organised in January 2010, in Bangalore. The event heard the views and insights of 28 small farmers from Karnataka. The audience included researchers, farmer leaders, a director of the State Agriculture Department, representatives of civil society organisations and consumer activists. Underlining the inclusive nature of the event, private seed company representatives too presented their case in front of jury members during the three-day event. Farmers collected evidence from these experts on different dimensions of farming with a focus on agricultural research.

The process, which followed a ‘citizen’s jury’ model, allowed farmers to review the present status of agricultural research and conclude with a verdict. The entire exercise reflected the current tendency among farmers in Karnataka -- although participants included both chemical and non-chemical farmers -- to categorically support environment-friendly agricultural practices.

It has become very important to stake farmers’ claims over agricultural research. For a long time, agricultural research was thought of as an expert domain and hence farmers were only at the receiving end of research outputs. Every time something failed, farmers were blamed for their ‘ignorance and inability’ to handle their agriculture. Never was the question asked: Was there something wrong with the research itself? As people say, the research had all the right answers, but did it have the right questions?

The last two decades have seen the organic movement becoming popular among farmers. “After retirement, I wanted to get into farming. When I started agriculture in 2002, the organic movement had reached its peak. I have converted 9 acres of fallow land into a fertile farm, and all organic,” said S M Patil, who finds agriculture more satisfying both monetarily and work-wise than his earlier job as village accountant.

Though a new entrant to agriculture, Patil has touched on the heart of the matter. Value-addition and direct marketing form the base of his successful venture. His main farm produce is sapota which gets processed into powder and dry fruit. He also processes herbs into soap, mouth freshener and tooth powder; tomato jam and turmeric pickle are some of his unique products. “We haven’t put much effort into promoting our products. We have always maintained the quality of our products. Consumers approach us at the doorstep, and place their orders either personally or through the post,” said Pushpa Patil, wrapping a liquid jaggery bottle to be sent to a customer by courier. The Patil couple has customers all over the state, even in neighbouring Maharashtra. They proudly say that they have never suffered from a market that does not know or value their produce. On the contrary, people travel 5 km from Athani in Belgaum district to buy the Patils’ fruit in bulk.

Value-addition and direct marketing are offshoots of the organic movement in Karnataka. Organic farmers have explored economic ways that lead out of market-related exploitation. Tree-based farming with horticulture crops is one such way, and was common among those who started agriculture after the 1980s. Such farming means lower dependence on labour and good market opportunities. Growers add value to their produce at various stages depending on the crop, whether sun-dried fruit or pickles and jams. When the mix works optimally, farmers get the entire benefit. “Reaching that stage is not easy, for such experiments are always prone to risk,” said Shankaranna, a small farmer in Khanapur, Belgaum district. “I shifted to organic farming five years ago, influenced by a civil society organisation. The period of transformation was not easy. Organic farming requires more attention and hard work, but now I am content with agriculture.” Having learnt traditional preservation techniques, he is able to offer his produce to consumers throughout the year.

Native paddy and pulses are the major crops in Shankaranna’s fields, while vegetables and fruits are grown mainly for home use. Marketing was not easy for him as he avoided selling his produce in the general market which doesn’t recognise the value of non-chemical grain. In the long term, his decision paid off and he now has regular customers. “After people started asking for grain flour, I decided to go for this second-level processing. I also sell vegetable seeds to those who want to take up kitchen gardening,” he said. On Thursday afternoons he opens a temporary stall at the Gandhi Shanti Pratishthana, in Dharwar.

Weekly organic markets are increasing in number, helping farmers by (1) bringing them closer to consumer needs, which helps them plan their crop, (2) giving them the incentive to raise the value of their produce by processing it, and (3) removing from the equation middlemen who have exploited farmers extensively. There is the additional benefit of networking, wherein farmers exchange their products and produce. B N Nandeesh, a farmer in Shikaripur, sends rare varieties of native paddy grown on his farm to G M Hosamani in Dharwar, 200 km away. Hosamani procures dry grapes from Belgaum, turmeric and kokum from Sirsi, and honey from Ankola for sale at the weekly market. “Such networking helps us display diverse products,” he said. “We cannot hold onto our consumers with just one or two items. Procuring from other farmers can be risky as we have to be careful that they are chemical-free and are of good quality. So we usually prefer to buy from certified organic growers or from those whom we know properly.”

The bottom line is that non-chemical food is getting greater public attention, although organic certification is costly for small subsistence farmers, which is why some have opted for group certification, which is affordable.

A P Chandrashekhar is a pioneering organic farmer who dared to add value to his produce 25 years ago. “Organic agriculture requires intelligence. We have to understand the intricacies of nature. The first generation that shifted back to organic had a clear understanding of the situation. As marketing produce was always a problem -- we have small quantities due to our mixed cropping system -- we were compelled to process the produce. Now, the major task is to match demand and supply.” It was not an easy job for Chandrashekhar, who lives on his 13-acre farm in Kalalavadi village, 17 km from Mysore. Although the city is nearby, it took time for consumers to accept farmers’ products that entered the market without attractive packaging and marketing.

Home-made products are usually of excellent quality, as they are natural and do not include artificial preservatives. The movement has crossed over to the consumer side in Mysore, with the setting up of an outlet for organic produce called Nesara: the shop offers a range of products from grain to fruit and soap powder.

The media has played an important role in strengthening the organic movement in Karnataka. Translation of Masanobu Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution by farmer-writer Santosh Koulagi created a new wave and influenced many. A range of events from native seed festivals, mango fairs, paddy field days, and tender coconut expositions have attracted growers and consumers to the concept of healthy food. Bengali Venkatesha, a farmer in Uttara Kannada, refused chemical inputs even at the peak of the Green Revolution. “Classifying farming methods is not important. It is important to be non-chemical and nature-friendly. If we understand nature and work accordingly, we always succeed. Farming should be need-based, and a harmony should be developed between humans, their cattle and the land,” said Venkatesha.

Each of these farms is a university for biodiverse agriculture. When farmers have so much to offer, why is it that they are denied participation in agricultural research? It is this realisation that has driven many civil society groups to take steps to dialogue, debate and discuss farmer-led research as well as to initiate well-grounded actions involving research where communities and farmers are involved directly in designing, data-collection and analysis of agricultural research.

Venkatesha added: “Any new technology which is applicable in farmers’ fields, helps them get a good yield, and is sustainable is welcome. Agricultural universities should also recognise farmers’ expertise and adopt them in their package of practices.” As a farmer who has been successfully selling his produce and value-added products, Venkatesha feels that good quality and a proper approach towards the market are what work. His own examples are white kokum (Garcinia indica), which has valuable medicinal properties; his wife Ganga extracts fruit essences, mixes them with sugar or jaggery, depending on the demand, and prepares squash; fragrant and pure turmeric powder also has increasing demand. Their steadfast insistence on quality has brought them customers from as far away as Bangalore (400 km away). Venkatesha’s coconut plants are also popular. He prepares 200 plants every year and sells them for Rs 20 each. “The prices are fixed to compensate for our work and material costs,” said Venkatesha’s mother. “Even if demand is more, we do not increase the price. Profit should be reasonable.”

Every Saturday, Vankatesha takes his products to a vegetable shop in the nearby town of Sirsi, where the vendor displays his produce separately. Regular customers visit the shop -- vegetables, value-added products and fruit each have their own set of customers. Manorama Joshi, another small farmer in Sirsi, also works on her produce. She sun-dries bananas and jackfruit which are inter-crops in her areca plot. She began after learning that there was good demand for dried fruit. These efforts are sustainable, and appeal to farmers when they are initiated by their peers. At times there is a mismatch between demand and supply but, as farmer and consumer get to know one another, the ability to adjust improves. K B Virupakshar, a farmer in Hubli, grows sapota, bananas, mangoes and drumsticks. “In the last few years, I used to sell the produce at home only,” he said. “This time, HOPCOMS offered me Rs 15 a kg for sapota. I thought that my produce should not get lost in a market dominated by chemically-dependent produce. Now my wife and I visit different direct market outlets and sell. We pass on organic awareness wherever we go.” He sells his sapota at Rs 20 per kg.

These are the experiences of farmers who have made the transformation to organic successfully. Although there is a great interest in organic farming, the changeover is not easy. Organic awareness has not reached the larger farming fraternity both in rainfed and irrigated lands. For the majority, agriculture still means ‘packet seeds, chemical fertiliser and pesticides’. Along with traditional practices, they have lost their self-reliance and are heavily dependent on outside inputs for farming. “Agriculture department officials were the ones who introduced chemical inputs to us,” said Hemavva Lamani, a small farmer in Haveri. “Now they ask us to avoid using them. Is it that easy? For each and every crisis, we farmers are blamed. What about agricultural universities, which were established to serve us? We do not understand what they are doing and whom their work benefits.”

Hemavva posed a very important question at the Raitateerpu meet. “I lost my chilly crop to an unknown disease after my neighbour started growing gherkins, which required heavy chemicals. I had to change my cropping pattern. Who will reimburse my loss, which was not my fault,” she asked. As a farmer jury member of the Raitateerpu programme, Hemavva was curious to know the role of researchers in agriculture and also whether farmers have any say in deciding the priorities adopted by the national agricultural research system.

At Raitateerpu, most farmer jury members were illiterate and small farmers, the majority of whom have had no opportunity to speak at public meetings. Their concerns -- such as “will GM crops have a negative impact on honeybees” -- gave the discussions a new dimension. For the first time in the country, farmers interacted with scientists on an equal footing to air their doubts and seek answers from the researchers. “It was an opportunity for us to speak for ourselves and our farming community. This has definitely boosted our morale. We realised that the researchers are answerable to us,” said Gangamma, another jury member.

The difference in perceptions on both sides was significant, showing clearly the gap between field and lab. In India, publicly-funded research shapes the choices available to farmers, food workers and consumers, and also the environments in which they live and work. There is an increasing need to explore ways of democratising the governance of science and technology -- as shown convincingly at Raitateerpu -- ensuring that it continues to serve the public good rather than narrow economic interests. These new experiments with deliberative and inclusive processes are a means to broaden citizens’ involvement in decisions around science, technology and policymaking. They also consider resource allocation and institutional choices that are important -- especially with the increasing impact of climate change -- for the governance of food systems and biodiversity in India.

(Anitha Pailoor is with the Centre for Agricultural Media, Dharwad, Karnataka, and was closely involved with the Raitateerpu farmers’ jury)

Infochange News & Features, July 2010