Sunday, July 17, 2005

`Sustainable agriculture is more profitable'

Volume 22 - Issue 15, Jul 16 - 29, 2005India's National Magazine
from the publishers of THE HINDU


`Sustainable agriculture is more profitable'

Kisan Mehta of Prakruti (in the swing, right) tries innovator Chandrakant Pathak's (to his left) swing-powered drip irrigation system. With every push, water spurts over a patch of cultivation.
Kisan Mehta, 82, is a Sarvodaya worker, freedom fighter and crusader for establishing an environmentally viable society through sustainable agriculture and natural living. He responds to Lyla Bavadam's queries on sustainable agriculture and the issues surrounding it. Excerpts:
The idea of organic and sustainable farming has been around for a long time and yet when it is suggested to farmers they react as if it is some dangerous new policy. What is it that they fear and what prevents them from ending a farming practice that even they acknowledge is depleting the soil?
One must consider the conditions that were prevailing in the late 1940s and early 1950s when India and other colonised countries witnessed a withdrawal of colonial powers. India suffered one of the worst famines, which claimed about five million people. Although known as the Bengal Famine it was not restricted to Bengal. No exact data were maintained about the famine deaths. Another five million died during the transfer of power. Agriculture was in serious trouble. Shortage of food, and not maldistribution, was cited as the reason for the deaths. The United States enacted PL480 for free supply of food to India and other starving countries. Actually the food was not supplied free; the importing countries were required to pay the cost but the amount remained deposited in these countries. The Ford Foundation and umpteen other charity organisations were given the deposited amount to carry out welfare programmes.
The integral sustainable agriculture concept developed in India, based on thousands of years of farming with the specific knowledge of local and regional climatic conditions, was in a shambles. The British changed the crop pattern in India to suit the needs of Britain's Industrial Revolution. Fine cotton, with which the finest Dacca muslin was woven, was replaced by coarse cotton to meet the needs of Manchester and Lancashire. We were depending on doles. So the Green Revolution and the Japanese method of rice cultivation [actually a copy of Panini's system devised thousands of years ago in India] were introduced.
The hybrid seeds that were dumped on India required massive inputs of synthetic fertilizers and toxic pesticides. No parasite existed in the local food chain for the pests that came along with the imported seeds and food. The American bollworm is one such gift of American food imports. The government introduced subsidies and incentives linked to the use of hybrid seeds, fertilizers and pesticides. Records show that the average yield for rice in Chingleput district [now Kanchipuram] in Tamil Nadu was 3,500 kg a hectare against 1,590 kg a hectare a couple of years ago after the changeover to the Green Revolution happened. The Green Revolution changed the mindset of the people, particularly farmers. Whatever the government said was good and worth copying. Subsidies and incentives support this thinking.
Another depressing and disappointing metamorphosis is that we feel we have to extract the maximum from the soil for our benefit. We are not worried what would happen to the soil in the process. Over one-third of India's cultivable land has become barren in the past 50 years. Farmers feel that the best method to meet the decline of the soil is to use more chemicals. The government started setting up synthetic chemical factories since the 1950s. The government itself is the largest manufacturer of fertilizers and pesticides. It wants its undertakings to flourish and so subsidies and incentives are given to these institutions.
Farmers of the last generation have seen their parents die at a young age. Yields have been dwindling. Farmer families are impoverished ... they have lost self-confidence and depend on doles from the government and big business. These farmers have not seen the working of integrated farming practices followed probably three generations ago. They have seen the so-called successful and immediate impact of pesticides. Business has entered into farming though there are directives that say that farmland cannot be taken over by non-farmers. Soil is treated as an exploitable commodity.
About 78 per cent per cent of Indian farmers are marginal farmers owning less than 0.8 ha but accounting for 20 per cent of India's cultivable land. The remaining are absentee landlords who believe in, and are immersed in, the commercial approach. Marginal farmers cannot afford synthetic chemicals. Their lands are not irrigated so they cannot use these chemicals. Absentee landlords do not care for soil health and are exploiting the land for maximising profits. They avail themselves of all government support. Our rich farmers have expanded by taking over lands from small farmers. For them instant profits and maximum returns from the soil is the object.
They do not depend on soil for sustenance and hence are the least worried about the health of the soil. They have now started food processing - sugar is one such example.
You have to see what we are up against [while promoting sustainable farming] in this context.
How feasible is organic farming? If a farmer has 50 acres (20 ha), can he expect the same yield from it with the use of organic manure as he has come to expect with chemical fertilizers?
Sustainable agriculture is more profitable in terms of money and soil conservation in the long run. Without doubt, it can meet the requirements of the country. Prakruti [a non-governmental organisation Kisan Mehta is associated with] tried to study this issue in the earlier years but very few farmers follow the whole set of practices required in sustainable agriculture. Sustainable agriculture means not only the withdrawal of three things - synthetic chemicals, hybrid-genetically modified seeds and heavy agricultural implements; it is an elaborate system that tries to simulate the conditions found in nature. Multiculture, intercropping, use of farmyard manure and remnants, mulching and application of integrated pest management... If this is followed then there is no reason why agriculture cannot be economically viable in addition to being environmentally sustainable.
The abrupt withdrawal of all this would reduce the yields initially but within three years normal yields can be got. After this yields will keep increasing. Multiculture and intercropping, as against monoculture followed in commercial farming, also provide a cushion against money loss. Viability is misunderstood. Also, farmers do not consider the invisible savings in money and labour as a benefit.
There is no question of sustainable agriculture not being viable or not meeting the needs of the country for food and fibre. Following U.S. sanctions, Cuba was left with no option other than to have recourse to sustainable practices. Its agriculture is now fully organic.
Could you explain how subsidies have affected farming practices? What can help speed up the organic/sustainable farming movement?
It is a global cancer. All rich industrialised countries dole out heavy subsidies in a bid to take over the entire food business of the world. The U.S. gives $339 billion a year as subsidies to its farmers, practically one billion a day. France, Germany, Britain, Australia, Canada and others do the same. With the World Trade Organisation operational, no country can refuse to allow imports of food from any country.
On the other hand, rich countries, especially the countries of the European Union, have developed large-scale animal husbandry to meet their meat needs. They export processed foods, milk and meat on a large scale. In order to maintain their cattle stock, they import coarse food items at cheap rates from poor countries. Poor countries, in order to earn foreign exchange, have shifted from crop for humans to crops for animals.
In India, the government fixes a Minimum Support Price (MSP) for all crops year after year. The MSP has to be lower than the lowest international prices for crops in order to prevent them from flooding the Indian market. Thus the MSP is not a price based on the cost of farming or the sustenance of farmers. In order to avoid handing over the material to the government at the lowest MSP, the big business and all grain merchants purchase food in the markets at a price slightly higher than the MSP. This is not a fair or reasonable price for farmers. But they have no recourse but to sell the produce to meet their debt and other obligations.
Prakruti and a few other NGOs understand that farmers should be paid reasonable and fair prices higher than the mandi prices to ensure a good basis for them to survive. Sustainable food should be preferably consumed within the region to avoid other expenses. We, therefore, recommend linkages between farmers and consumers. In some countries, the concept of community-supported agriculture is working satisfactorily, whereby farmers and consumers are formally linked to assure quality food and reasonable rates and necessary support to farmers. In the U.S., small farmers [that is, those owing less than 120 ha] are under threat. The community-supported agriculture helps in sustaining small farmers.
What are the implications for sustainable farming in the present context of contract farming?
Contract farming is totally against sustainable agriculture. For example, the Nashik region [of Maharashtra] represents the sale of our soil and resources to European wine-makers. Foreigners send their strains of grapes to be grown in India and take away the crop. Our resources are priced lower than those in the rich countries... just as our highly qualified technicians are used for their technical advancement at a lower cost.

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