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An evolutionary view of Indian agriculture

Farmers work with knowledge systems that evolve with time and circumstance. They learn and unlearn, choosing the appropriate knowledge in their struggle to earn a livelihood. While scientists rely on averages, the knowledge of local people is dynamic and up-to-date, continually revised as conditions alter, writes A Thimmaiah. The integration of scientific knowledge systems with indigenous knowledge systems is vital to make agriculture sustainable

Traditional wisdom relating to agriculture dates back around 12,000 years when the first plants were domesticated by humans. This wisdom has since been evolving through accumulated experiences in dealing with situations and problems, and has been recorded and channelled down the generations.

Our ancient literature, which was most likely composed between 6,000 BCE and 1,000 ACE contains a lot of information on agriculture. This includes the four Vedas, the nine Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, Sutra literature, the Sushruta Samhita, the Charaka Samhita, the Upanishads, the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, the 18 Puranas, and texts such as the Krishi-Parasharas, Kautilya’s Arthashastra, the Manusmriti, Varahamihira’s Brhat Samhita, the Amarkosha, the Kashyapiya-Krishisuktiand Surapala’s Vrikshayurveda. Kautilya’s Arthashastradeals with the agriculture of his time; Vrikshayurvedaprovides information on how to combat plant problems through various traditional practices and utilising available resources. Even in the poems of Ghagh (kahawaten), one comes across descriptions of agro-management, timing and forecasting of weather, and crop yields.

Traditional farming systems appear to be complex and advanced as they exhibit important elements of sustainability: for instance, they are well adapted to the particular environment, rely on local resources, are decentralised, and, overall, tend to conserve the natural resource base. The ancient texts referred to contain information on farm implements to be used, types of land, monsoon forecasts, manure, irrigation, seeds and sowing, pests and their management, horticulture, etc. The fertile status of the soil in most parts of our country is a result of the wisdom of our forefathers.

Farmers work with dynamic knowledge systems that co-evolve with time as circumstances change. They learn and unlearn, choosing the appropriate knowledge in their struggle to earn a livelihood. While scientists rely on averages, the knowledge of local people is dynamic and up-to-date, continually revised as conditions alter.

The integration of scientific knowledge systems with indigenous knowledge systems is vital to make agriculture sustainable. We need to maintain the health of the soil in the interest of future generations. Some civilisations view soil as sacred, inviolate, something that must be handed down to coming generations intact, if not improved. Even today, it is proving difficult to find terms equivalent to the ethnic names of soils (with particular or combinations of properties) in many classification systems. The integration of knowledge systems is important because farmers are much more accurate about their nomenclature for identifying soils and their suitability for varied uses.

Indigenous technical knowledge is the systematic body of knowledge acquired by local people through the accumulation of experiences, informal experiments, and an intimate understanding of the environment. Over the years, the impact of traditional and indigenous knowledge on agriculture has diminished due to the introduction of a synthetic, chemical fertiliser system during the Green Revolution to attain so-called ‘self-sufficiency’ in food production. But the consequences of dousing the soil with deadly chemicals are being observed in the form of deteriorating soil fertility, contamination of the natural resource base and an increase in crop pest and disease outbreaks. As a result, food producers and consumers are faced with an array of problems on the environment, ecology and health fronts. Eventually, a revival of sustainable, ecologically safe and socially sound practices is being sought by recognising and retrieving traditional wisdom in agriculture.

The indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers, hybrid seeds and pesticides has resulted in various environmental and health hazards coupled with socio-economic problems. Though agricultural production overall continues to increase, the rate of yield per hectare has begun to decline. The causes of the environmental crisis are, in fact, rooted in the prevalent materialistic paradigm, which promotes high-input technologies and practices in all sectors (domestic, agriculture, industrial, services) leading to soil erosion, salinisation, all types of pollution, desertification, and biodiversity loss.

In the agriculture sector, the Green Revolution selected crops for high yield and palatability. By sacrificing natural resistance for productivity, it made crops more susceptible to pests. Since monoculture has been maintained as the structural base of agricultural systems, pest problems will continue on a negative treadmill that reinforces itself, as more and more vulnerable crops call for increasingly destructive or expensive high-tech protective measures.

Thus, any gain in production is associated with pain of various kinds and magnitudes. The results of the Green Revolution have proved to be a paradox: on the one hand, it offered technology as a substitute both for nature as well as for politics, by the creation of abundance and peace. On the other hand, the technology itself demanded more intensive natural resource use along with intensive external inputs and a restructuring of the way power was distributed in society. While treating nature and politics as dispensable elements in agricultural transformation, the Green Revolution brought about major changes in natural ecosystems and agrarian structures. Sir Albert Howard, who was associated with the Pusa Agriculture Research Centre, made an almost prophetic declaration at the beginning of the 20th century about the emerging practices of modern farming.

He said: “These mushroom ideas of agriculture are failing; mother earth deprived of her manurial rights is in revolt; the land is going on strike; the fertility of the soil is declining… Soil is no longer able to stand the strain. Soil fertility is rapidly diminishing particularly in the US, Canada, Africa, Australia, New Zealand. The loss of fertility all over the world is indicated by the growing menace of soil erosion… Diseases are on the increase… the diseases of crops and animals which feed on them.”

Though they may have sounded like an exaggeration at the time, Howard’s predictions have all come true, in a magnified way. As history shows, former civilisations were able to overcome economic and cultural decline when the ecosystems which made up their environment remained intact and free from interference. Avoiding detrimental changes in material cycles and energy fluxes, and preventing the loss of biological diversity in our natural environment are of utmost priority among the goals of sustainable development.

Soil is the basis of all human life. Destruction of the soil has contributed to the fall of past civilisations, yet the lessons of history are seldom acknowledged and usually unheeded. The only hope for a healthy world rests on re-establishing harmony in the soil that has been disrupted by modern methods of chemical farming and unplanned rapid industrial growth. These methods bring about serious problems through land degradation. Today’s cropland losses impair the wellbeing of the living as well as of generations to come.

The idea of sustainable agriculture is a response to the decline in quality of produce and of the resource base associated with modern farming. It captures a set of concerns about agriculture conceived as a result of the co-evolution of socio-economic and natural systems. Agricultural development resulting from the complex interaction of a multitude of factors, and a wider understanding of the agricultural context, requires the study of relations between farming, the environment and social systems. It is through this deeper understanding of the ecology of farming that doors will open to new technological and management options that are more in tune with the aims of a truly sustainable agriculture. The goal is to develop agro-ecosystems with minimal dependence on high agro-chemical and energy inputs, and in which ecological interactions and synergies between biological components provide the mechanisms for systems to sponsor their own soil fertility, productivity and crop protection. The five objectives of productivity, security, protection, viability and acceptability are called the five pillars of sustainable land management, and they must be achieved simultaneously if true sustainability is to be predicted.

In fact, sustainability is not possible without preserving the cultural diversity that nurtures local agriculture. A closer look at ethno science (the knowledge system of an ethnic group that has originated locally and naturally) will indicate that local people have enormous knowledge about the environment, vegetation, animals and soils. Peasant knowledge about ecosystems usually results in multi-dimensional land use production strategies which generate, within certain ecological and technical limits, the food self-sufficiency of communities in particular regions. Stable production can only take place within the context of a social organisation that protects the integrity of natural resources and nurtures harmonious interactions among humans, the agro-ecosystem and the environment. Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The basic tenets of a sustainable agricultural system are conservation of renewable resources, adaptation of the crop to the environment, and maintenance of a moderate but sustainable level of productivity. And it should be economically viable and socially acceptable.

The production system must:

  • Reduce energy and resource use and regulate overall energy inputs so that the output-input ratio is high.
  • Reduce plant nutrient losses by effectively controlling leaching, runoff and erosion, and improve nutrient recycling through the promotion of legumes, organic manure and compost, and other effective recycling mechanisms -- residue management.
  • Encourage local production of feed items adapted to the natural and socio-economic setting.
  • Sustain desired net output by preserving natural resources (by minimising soil degradation).
  • Reduce costs and increase the efficiency and economic viability of small- and medium-sized farms, thereby promoting a diverse, potentially resilient agricultural system.

From a management point of view, the basic components of a sustainable agro-ecosystem include:

  • Vegetative cover as an effective soil- and water-conserving measure, met through the use of no-till practices, mulch farming, cover crops, etc
  • A regular supply of organic matter through regular addition of manure and compost, and promotion of soil biotic activity.
  • Nutrient recycling mechanisms through the use of crop rotation, crop/livestock systems, use of legumes, etc.
  • Pest regulation assured through enhanced activity of biological control agents, achieved by conserving and multiplying natural enemies in an eco-friendly way.

The ultimate goal of sustainable agriculture system design is to integrate farm components in a holistic fabric so that overall biological efficiency is improved, biodiversity is preserved, and agro-ecosystem productivity and its self-regulating capacity are maintained. The idea is to design an agro-ecosystem that mimics the structure and function of local natural ecosystems. A major strategy in sustainable agriculture is to restore agricultural diversity in a given time and space through alternative cropping systems, such as crop rotation, cover crops, intercropping, border cropping or crop/livestock mixtures -- all of which exhibit several ecological features. Modern agriculture is not sustainable as it is not in consonance with economics, ecology, equity, energy and the socio-cultural dimension. That’s why the world over, environmental degradation sourced to agriculture is reaching catastrophic proportions.

Time is running out if we are going to continue with more or less the same strategies in agriculture -- high agro-chemical-responsive hybrids, monoculture, ex-situ bio-control agents, terminator seeds, and similar technologies. Ironically, the shift from chemical farming to sustainable agriculture is being sought within a very narrow vision, posing severe and irreparable risks to the ecosystem in the long run.

The need of the hour is an alternative sustainable farming system that is ecologically sound, economically feasible and socially just. Sustainable agriculture is a unifying concept, which considers ecological, environmental, philosophical, ethical and social impacts, balanced with cost-effectiveness. Several aspects of traditional systems are relevant, such as their knowledge of farming practices and the physical environment, biological folk taxonomic systems, and use of low-input technologies. By understanding the ecological features of traditional agriculture, such as the ability to bear risk, production efficiencies of symbiotic crop mixtures, recycling of materials, reliance on local resources and germplasm, exploitation of the full range of micro-environments, etc, it is possible to obtain important information that may be used to develop appropriate agricultural strategies tailored to the needs, preferences and resource bases of specific peasant groups and regional agro-ecosystems.

Among the various alternatives, organic farming is gaining acceptance throughout the globe as it has the potential to provide practical solutions to mitigate the maladies afflicting conventional or modern farming. Before India faced the onslaught of chemical farming, its thinkers like Vinoba, Gandhiji and Kumarappa were able to visualise the future of Indian farming through their non-violent approach -- aptly suited to the present. Indian culture imbibed a deep sense of oneness with all things natural. Ancient (Vedic) culture taught veneration of the earth as mother, the sky as father, the air as prana (soul), the sun as energy, and water streams as life-sustaining veins.

The goal of an alternative agriculture system is to enable peasants to become architects and actors in their own development. From a management perspective, the objective of such a system is to provide a balanced environment, sustained yields, biologically mediated soil fertility, and natural pest regulation through the design of diversified alternative agricultural systems and use of low-input technologies. The strategy is generally based on ecological principles so that management aims at optimal recycling of nutrients, organic matter turnover, closed energy flows, water and soil conservation, and balanced pest/natural enemy populations. By assembling a functional biodiversity, it is possible to provoke a beneficial symbiosis. These, in effect, subsidise alternative agriculture processes by providing ecological services such as the activation of soil biology, recycling of nutrients, and enhancement of beneficial arthropods.

Today there is a whole battery of practices and technologies available that vary in effectiveness as well as in strategic value. Some, which include practices that are already part of conventional farming (genetic improvement, minimum tillage, crop rotation) are of prophylactic value, while others, which are key, are of a preventative nature and act by reinforcing the ‘immunity’ of the agro-ecosystem. These technologies do not emphasise the boosting of yields under optimal conditions, as Green Revolution technologies do; rather, they assure consistency of production under a whole range of soil and climatic conditions -- especially the marginal conditions that usually prevail in small-farm agriculture. The need, however, is not to focus on particular technologies but rather on an agro-ecosystem management approach that emphasises crop diversity, use of manure, green manure, urban and rural waste, legumes in rotation, animal integration, recycling and use of biomass and residue, and incorporates an assemblage of suitable alternative technologies.

The role of an alternative agricultural system is not limited to input substitution alone but ensures that it is economically and ecologically sustainable. Various alternative agricultural systems include traditional and natural farming, organic agriculture, ecological farming, Vedic agriculture, permaculture, biodynamic farming and LEISA (low external input sustainable agriculture). The real success of these systems on an evolutionary timescale demands that the question of the paradigm of development and the technology package be considered together.

(Dr A Thimmaiah is an organic farming specialist with the Netherlands Development Organisation (SNV) and is a consultant to the government of Bhutan on organic agriculture)

Infochange News & Features, July 2010