Pitfalls of the second green revolution

By Devinder Sharma

A wide range of policies-and the second 'Green Revolution'-that the government is introducing in conjunction with Indian corporate houses, American agribusinesses and food multinationals, will have a catastrophic impact on Indian farmers, on sustainability and on food security. The effects are already evident in states like Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh

Forty years after the first Green Revolution, Indian agriculture is in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. Unmindful of the destruction caused by the technology used for the 'revolution, the impact of which is being felt all over the country - drastically declining yields, soil gasping for breath - India is preparing to introduce a second Green Revolution that will push farmers out of agriculture altogether.

Some years ago, a former vice-president of the World Bank and the then chairman of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), Dr Ismail Serageldin, made a presentation at a conference in Chennai. What he revealed did not come as a shock. Quoting a 1995 World Bank study, he said that the number of people migrating from rural areas to urban centres in India by the year 2010 would be twice the combined population of UK, France and Germany-that is, close to 200 million.

In other words, 400 million people are expected to be taking-now and in the near future-the distress migration route, migrating from rural areas in search of menial jobs in the sprawling urban conglomerates. It has been estimated that by 2020, India could have the world's largest number of megacities, with populations of over 10 million each. Seventy per cent of Tamil Nadu, for example, will live in these urban centres.

Numerous national policies are being recast at a frantic pace and are facilitating this distress. The underlying objective is clear in policies related to seed, water, biodiversity, adivasis, the environment, biotechnology, trade, food safety and agriculture, amongst others - make way for the big agro-industries

With the support of a political system cutting across party colours, Indian industry and business are upbeat about the potential of agriculture. A slew of FIICI-sponsored 'reforms' for raising farm incomes plans to pump large amounts of public money into an industry-driven agriculture, while the farmer survives on the margins. The 'reforms' are clearly not aimed at resurrecting agriculture but at bringing profits for the owners of the industries.

Policies that encourage contract farming, future trading in agricultural commodities, leasing of land, the formation of land-sharing companies, allotment of homestead-garden plots, direct procurement of farm commodities and the setting up of special purchase centres, will all drive a majority of India's 60 crore farmers out of agriculture.

The process has already begun. The agricultural reforms that are being introduced in the name of increasing food production and minimising the price risks that farmers continue to face are actually destroying the land's capacity to produce and further marginalising farming communities.

Industry-driven agriculture will aggravate the existing agrarian crisis. The new technology that the multinationals, as well as the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), plan to introduce, will keep a majority of farmers outside its ambit. 'Precision farming is one such technology that is getting the government's budgetary support. Other 'reforms, such as removing the bottlenecks in the commodity supply chain by amending the APMC Act and enlarging the scope of future trading are also aimed at helping agribusinesses.

In pursuit of this World Bank model of agriculture, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh invested huge amounts into industry-driven agriculture. This led to an environmental catastrophe and destroyed millions of rural livelihoods. The rate of farmer suicides in both states has been increasing.

Both states have made it smoother for big agri-industry (backed by foreign financial insitutions and international banks) to move into the rural areas. Andhra Pradesh's Vision 2020 document talked of reducing the number of farmers in the state to 40% of the population, but did not have any significant programme to rehabilitate the 30% of the farming population that would be driven off the land.

The Rs 1,000-crore Indo-US Knowledge Initiative in Agricultural Research and Education, launched by American President George Bush in Hyderabad on March 3, is expected to bring Indian agriculture under the direct control of US corporate groups. If the first Green Revolution was facilitated by the introduction of the land grant system of agricultural research and education, the second Green Revolution is being tailored to the needs of American corporate interests.

In 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Bush signed a farm technology agreement. Addressing a joint session of the US Congress, the PM said, "The Green Revolution lifted countless millions above poverty.... I am very happy to say that US President George Bush and I have decided to launch a second generation of India-US collaboration in agriculture."

The agreement was prepared without transparency and its details have been kept confidential. Two multinational giants-supermarket leader Wal-Mart and the seed multinational Monsanto-are part of this Indo-US initiative. The two multinationals have already said they are not interested in research and development but in the increased trading opportunities that India offers.

Corporate concentration in national and global agrifood markets

Seed and agrochemicals

Bulk commodity trading

Food manufacturing and processing

Food manufacturing and processing

Source: 'Power Hungry: Six reasons to regulate global food corporations'; (Action Aid Intl, 2005) Johannesburg. January 2005. p13; * FAO (2004)

One implicit objective of such agreements is a transfer of the unwanted and risk-laden technology of genetic engineering of plant and animal species. The US sees India as an easy dumping ground and has used the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to ask India why it is curtailing the import of genetically modified food. The process is being put in place without first ascertaining the reasons for the terrible agrarian crisis, which in part is due to the imposition of an alien and damaging technology.

This 'knowledge initiative' is, however, a boost for the cash-starved ICAR, the umbrella organisation for agricultural research and education in India. It will give plant scientists an opportunity to justify the huge public sector investment in the monolithic and gasping research insitution. The ICAR has clearly shifted its goalpost - from subsistence to commercial farming.

Even in America, the entry of retail chains in the agricultural sector has transferred the profits to a clutch of middlemen-retailers, processors, certification agencies, quality controllers and others. Farmers earn only 4% from whatever they sell. In 1990, farmers could earn as much as 70% from their sales. In Canada, the National Farmers Union has shown in a study how the combined profits of 70 retail and agribusiness firms have multiplied while the farmers' losess have mounted. The same model is now being shifted to India.

Nowhere in the world has big agribusines worked in real cooperation with farmers. In North America and Europe, agribusiness companies have pushed farmers out of agriculture. Only 900,000 farming families are left on the farms in the US. In 15 countries of the European Union, the number of farmers has dwindled to less than 7 million. The underlying message is crystal clear: farmers should get out of agriculture. A similar process will lead to a catastrophe in India, worsening food insecurity and multiplying hunger.

As part of the process, the Economic Survey 2005-06 categorically talks of dismantling the minimum support price (MSP) and the procurement-based food subsidy system in India. This will enable the food retailers to directly purchase from farmers. In other words, Indian farmers will have to face not only the vagaries of the monsoon but also of the market. The Economic Advisory Council to the prime minister has prepared a report that calls for a shift in price policy - leaving the farmers at the mercy of the market forces.

In a country where land holdings are meagre, the big challenge lies in making agriculture more sustainable for the small and marginal farmers. In the former Green Revolution areas of Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh, parts of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, agriculture faces a severe crisis of sustainability. Punjab and Haryana are fast heading towards desertification - a process that renders the land unable to sustain the production levels achieved during the 'revolution'.

The answer does not lie in allowing private corporations to take over through contract farming. Private businesses enter agriculture with the specific objective of garnering more profits from the same piece of land. Contract farming has already done irreparable damage to agriculture in countries like the Philippines, Zimbabwe, Argentina and Mexico.

The private corporations, as experiences in other countries show, bank on intensified farming practices, drain the soil of nutrients, suck groundwater in a few years and leave the once-fertile lands almost barren after four or five years. They are then likely to hand back the barren and unproductive land to the farmers who leased it to them and move to another fertile piece of land.

This is already happening in many parts of India. Contract farming accentuates the crisis of sustainability by destroying whatever remains of the land's production capacity. The monoculture methods of contract corporate farming destroy biodiversity in the region, which further affects long-term sustainability. Contract farming is the modern version of 'slash and burn' agriculture.

It took decades to realise that the technology promoted by the USAID and unthinkingly followed by national agricultural research systems in developing countries, was disastrous. This realisation came about after the technology had already inflicted irreparable damage on human health and the environment. It would be dangerous to believe that the second Green Revolution promoted by the United States, that is being allowed through open doors into India by the government, will not leave behind still more damaging consequences.

We must ask several pertinent questions-how will the second Green Revolution aggravate the existing agrarian crisis? Will it push farmers out of agriculture and allow agribusinesses to take possession of the farm land and then destroy its production capacity? Will it not disable and drive out farmers and create an enabling environment only for agro-industries? With what untold consequences will the vital power to produce food be shifted into the profiteering hands of multinational food giants?

(Devinder Sharma is a Delhi-based agricultural scientist, researcher and policy analyst who specialises in issues related to global food and agriculture. He was invited to address six Parliaments in Europe in 2004-05.)

InfoChange News & Features, October 2006