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Towards a new agriculture

All over India rural revivalists are rejecting the corporatised, programmatic, high-input model of agriculture and following agro-ecological approaches in which shared, distributed knowledge systems provide ways to adapt to changing climate and a shrinking natural resource base. Rahul Goswami explains

There are two schools of practice that are used to describe agricultural activity in India. One is the ‘industrial’, corporate view, developed by a sprawling and overweening bureaucracy that functions through a bewildering range of programmes, missions, campaigns and initiatives. India’s agriculture officialdom sees the natural produce of its land and people as distilled into a few powerful equations. At the top of this reductionist, year-on-year corporate view reigns the APY equation -- area, production, yield. There are others, some just as old and some new -- for example ‘logistics’ and ‘public-private partnership’. In this school of practice, the kisan and the cultivating household are treated as human collateral, ultimately incidental to the great task of feeding the nation, useful only to the extent that it obeys instructions.

The other school of practice and method is diffuse and independent. Its practitioners come from a variety of backgrounds and some may even have been a part of the bureaucracy mentioned above. Others have been and are part of social movements whose origins lie in India’s freedom struggle. They confound measurement, yet in their intellectual and practical independence lie the answers to many of India’s right to food questions.

Generations of our farmers and herders have developed complex, diverse and locally adapted agricultural systems, managed with time-tested, ingenious combinations of techniques and practices that lead to community food security and the conservation of natural resources and biodiversity. These microcosms of agricultural heritage exist all over India, providing ecological and cultural services and preserving traditional forms of farming knowledge, local crop and animal varieties, and socio-cultural organisation. These systems represent the accumulated experiences of peasants interacting with their environment using self-reliance and locally available resources. These agro-ecosystems have allowed our traditional farmers to avert risks and maximise harvest security even in uncertain and marginal environments, using low levels of technology and inputs.

It is a system (taken as a whole but including its many geographical and cultural variations) that has as little to do with the modern, hermetic understanding of ‘food security’ as it has to do with the post-1960s, western-dominated definition of organic agriculture and food. Humans, animals, trees (including grasslands) and agricultural fields were inseparable and harmonious components of a single system. The village household looked after the trees on their fields and also contributed to the maintenance of the community grazing land. They looked after animals owned by them, sometimes with the assistance of a grazing hand, and cultivated their fields with or without hired labour or sharecroppers.

Writing in The Ecologist 27 years ago, Bharat Dogra sketched out the harmony: “The trees provided fodder for the cattle. They also provided fuel for the villagers. The leaves that fell were put to uses beneficial to the agricultural fields. Meanwhile, their soil and water conservation properties were beneficial for the villagers and contributed to maintaining the fertility of agricultural fields, as well as providing shade during the scorching summer. Certain trees provided edible fruits, medicines, gum, toothpaste and a host of other commodities of everyday use. Cattle provided milk and milk products and contributed to the nutritional content of the villagers’ diet. Cattle dung provided organic fertilisers for the fields, while the poultry provided eggs and meat. Not least, bullocks ploughed the fields. The fields produced foodgrain, pulses, oilseeds and vegetables for the villagers. The residues of those crops, of no direct use to man who could not eat them, were fed to the cattle. Poultry birds scavenged the wasted scattered grain.”

Alas, India’s agricultural bureaucracies of 30 years ago, still fat on a diet of Green Revolution instruction provided by the massive and powerful agricultural colleges of the USA and their agro-industrial partners, chose not to recognise our invaluable agro-ecological heritage. From that time on, those who converted to the corporatist mode of agricultural thought (and the defining APY equation) were India’s ‘progressive’ farmers, and to them partly was the ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ slogan raised. Harmonious agro-ecologies were swept aside by the bureaucracy-research-network combine, and the justification for such steady and deliberate ecocide was held out to Indians in the form of rising yield and production curves. We have many mouths to feed, said the agricultural bureaucracy, and who could argue?

It took the gathering global alarm over climate change -- revealed by a new and nervous scientific method -- for us to turn back to agriculture and take a long look at what two decades of the reckless pursuit of GDP growth had wrought. Within India, such scrutiny was discouraged, for agricultural research and bureaucracies brook no falling out of line, even in the obvious face of yield plateaus and the growing evidence of widespread ecological damage caused by soil abuse. Within India, it was in those pockets where traditional agro-ecologies had been safeguarded that the answers lay, and the practitioners of such forms of cultivation (whether low-input, zero-chemical fertiliser, rishi-kheti and others) organised themselves into thriving sub-cultures. Cut off from official funding sources and still needing to find consumers who valued their produce, some cautiously reached out to the western ‘organics’ networks whose institutional strengths were superior. Outside India, new forms of rigorous enquiry into the impacts and effects of a globalised economy on climate were steering the focus towards industrial agriculture and its excesses.

For much of the 2000-2009 decade, even grudging official recognition that industrially-organised, centrally-programmed agriculture in India was falling short in delivering ‘food security’ came slowly. Conceptually ahead by a magnitude were the tradition-oriented sub-cultures -- groups such as Deccan Development Society, Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems, Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, Raitateerpu; and individuals such as G Nammalwar, Subhash Sharma and Suman Sahai -- that were strengthening through practice and dialogue the concepts that are easily understood as ‘community resilience’ and ‘food sovereignty’. The foodgrain and food staples price shock of 2008, which had grown from a year earlier and returned in late-2009, forced our government and its agencies to act. They have done so, but their response has been damage containment (as they see it), not a phased rollback of industrial agriculture through a recognition of sub-continental agro-ecologies. They adopt and freely use the common parlance of climate change negotiation, such as ‘adaptation’ and ‘mitigation’ and seek to build such laboratory ‘solutions’ into modified central programmes, all the while refusing to cede control of crop production to those who know it best, and all the while supporting the vast network of businesses and interests surrounding foodgrain at the heart of which throb the chemical fertiliser complexes.

All the while, the evidence at both national and meta-national levels has been growing and becoming compelling. The horrendously long sequence of farmer suicides in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and other states exposed the tragic, needless human cost of India’s corporatised agricultural control structures; the discovery that groundwater extraction rates in Punjab and Haryana were amongst the highest in the world exposed the appalling true cost of high-input cultivation techniques; the steady tide of migration to towns and cities by households all over the country revealed the millions forced to abandon their lands in the face of rising input costs and debt burdens. All these pointed directly at the core of the State’s approach to agriculture and its utterly misplaced ends.

Outside, systematic study of why industrial agriculture was failing was driven by deep alarm at the staggering human costs, costs that were often unseen and unmarked. “The evidence from various developing countries reveals that sustainable agricultural practices, anchored in local knowledge, are the most effective in developing resilient food production systems,” stated the bottom-line conclusion of one of the largest studies to analyse how agro-ecological practices affect productivity in the developing world. It was conducted by researchers at the University of Essex, in Britain, who analysed 286 projects in 57 countries. Among the 12.6 million farmers followed, who were transitioning towards sustainable agriculture, researchers found an average yield increase of 79% across a wide variety of crop types. These farmlands averaged 3 hectares, located in a variety of farming systems -- irrigated, rainfed, wetland, humid, highland, mixed and urban. The 2006 study bluntly said: “Sustainable agriculture is driven by local knowledge and resource-conserving techniques, making the best use of nature’s goods and services without damaging those assets. Investing in the capacities of small farmers to adopt sustainable practices will help secure higher yields and profits, and will promote local food consumption.”

Thereafter came the most comprehensive analysis of world agriculture to date, with a consortium of United Nations, and the World Bank too, engaging more than 400 scientists and development experts from 80 countries over four years to produce the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD). The boldface conclusion? That our “reliance on resource-extractive industrial agriculture is risky and unsustainable, particularly in the face of worsening climate, energy, and water crises”. The IAASTD was ground-breaking in its ability to address agriculture for what it is, an all-inclusive human activity. It also said that achieving a sustainable agro-ecosystem will take some time, especially since we have built up a tremendous debt in our agricultural soils and ecosystem services from the long-standing industrial abuses and historically poor practices in many subsistence agro-ecosystems. Typically, the insights contained in the IAASTD and the import of the study have been ignored by our Ministry of Agriculture, our National Agricultural Research System, and by the many agencies tasked with delivering ‘development’ to rural cultivators.

What are the reasons for this chronic unwillingness to see?

First, agro-ecological systems cannot be defined in terms of the adoption of any particular technologies or practices -- there are no ready blueprints and off-the-shelf templates. Second, sustainable agricultural systems contribute to the delivery and maintenance of a range of public goods such as clean water, carbon sequestration, flood protection, groundwater recharge, and soil conservation. Few of these processes and outcomes -- to borrow managerial terminology -- have ‘market’ value quantifiable in terms understood by those advocating public-private partnerships (PPP), for example. Third, the cost benefit of conservation of resources can be determined by the scarcity value of those resources (will urban food consumers be willing to pay for watershed protection in a district they import food from?). But this mechanism can be used only after investing in public education -- so that the connections are made in minds -- and by building it into public policy at an institutional level, where it immediately runs into political and business interests.

Yet the pressure is mounting. Technological breakthroughs have been neutralised by unfavourable, declining, degrading soil-water ecosystems, by enhanced biotic and abiotic stresses, large post-harvest losses, dwindling national and global funding support to agriculture in general and agricultural research and education in particular, restrictive knowledge-sharing opportunities, stagnating capacity and skills, uncertain policy support, collapsing public service and support systems, and indifferent and inefficient governance. Expanding the area used to cultivate crops is curtailed on the ground directly by urbanisation, on the one hand, and creeping environmental degradation on the other. When climate change impacts are added to this medley of obstacles -- extreme weather events that make sowing or harvesting impossible, seasonal shifts in the entire crop calendar -- cultivation as an income for rural households becomes less feasible.

“Less immediate, but possibly even more significant impacts are anticipated because of changes in mean temperatures and rainfall and increasing weather variability,” said a 2009 Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report entitled ‘Agricultural reforms and trade liberalisation in China and selected Asian countries’. “Climate change is thus likely to have significant impact on a wide range of factors essential to human wellbeing, including employment, income, health and prices for water, energy and food. Climate change will affect the extent and nature of agro-ecological zones in Asia and elsewhere, the estimates of areas with potential for crop production and the projections of maximum attainable yields.” These projections and estimates have for 50 years been calculated for India by first, a research bureaucracy wedded to the mechanics of a centrally planned economy and, later, a research bureaucracy allied to a merchant network that has grown in power and influence.

Today’s biotech-oriented PPP models of industrial agriculture -- linked intimately to financial and commodities markets -- rely on petroleum-based chemicals for pest and weed control, and rising amounts of synthetic fertiliser in an ultimately futile attempt to compensate for soil degradation. The inputs trap can simply not be disguised by any amount of financial and technological scheming. In stark contrast are the tenets of the agro-ecological system (for which, in this issue of Agenda,we shall use ‘organic’ as a synonym). These practices are defined by much more than just the absence of industrial inputs and the functioning of market mechanics. It is knowledge-intensive farming in which -- to borrow a modern term -- open source knowledge networks proliferate and thrive.

Organic farmers improve output by tapping a sophisticated understanding of biological systems to build soil fertility and manage pests and weeds through techniques that include intercropping, composting, manures, cover crops, crop sequencing, and natural pest control. The contrast is frightening both because of its crippling weaknesses and because of the disinformation used to disguise those weaknesses: herbicide-resistant weeds and pesticide-resistant pests, both contributing to reduce crop biodiversity. As commercial crop biotechnologies have oversimplified and industrialised simultaneously, they have made agriculture more vulnerable to the next problem. And that problem -- climate change -- has already stepped over our ecological threshold.

That is why the medium-term future of conventional agriculture (and the massive State- and industrial-sponsored systems which sustain it) seems unsuitable or even implausible. There is, in addition, a major external factor, and that is oil. Conventional industrial agriculture, pursued in the corporate mode, researched as an adjunct to the global seed-pharma MNCs and distributed as a function of the financial markets, is utterly dependent upon oil. The future of fossil fuels is now known, and there again, while the central government pursues its GDP algorithms, it ignores the inevitability of that future. Local organics steps out of that doomed mathematics entirely, and there alone lies the importance of its role in the future of India’s myriad agro-ecologies.

(Rahul Goswami is an agriculture systems researcher and a social sector consultant with the National Agriculture Innovation Project)

Infochange News & Features, July 2010