Industrial farming versus the peasantry

India’s government is going the ‘agritech’ route while low-input organic farming is better suited to smallholder farming households.

In July, India's agriculture minister, Sharad Pawar, talked about the role of the private sector in agricultural research and human-resource development in the country's food industry. His audience was made up of participants of an 'industry meet' put on by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). Pawar explained the conventional approach of public-sector agricultural research and development, which has been to take responsibility for setting priorities, mobilising resources, research, development and dissemination. He then explained that agricultural extension – the education of farmers in new techniques and technologies, which has been neglected for several years – is 'no longer appropriate'. Instead, he urged the adoption of public-private partnerships, through which public-sector institutes (such as those in the ICAR network) can 'leverage valuable private resources, expertise or marketing networks that [the farmers] otherwise lack'.

This is the bald commercial reasoning behind the creation of new units to oversee business planning and development in five key ICAR institutes. They will now tackle intellectual-property management, commercialisation of research, find investors and begin businesses. For better or worse, India's national agricultural-research system has decided to package and price its publicly-funded output. How will this new approach affect what India's farming households grow and what its urban consumers eat? Currently, the public agricultural research and extension system consists of ICAR and its various institutes, as well as the networks overseen by the state agricultural institutes (SAUs). ICAR funds and manages a vast network of research institutes, packed with scientific personnel at all levels. This is very important to the success of a corporate programme, in order to concentrate funds, food handling and transport systems, and to gain increasing control over what the food industry calls 'farm to fork' – the full process from the field to the consumer.

The so-called area, production and yield (APY) model of measuring agriculture in India has long been the dominant one, focusing on growth in irrigated areas, crop production in tons and yield per hectare. In following this model, central and state planners, leveraging the reach and influence of the national agricultural-research system, have automatically tended towards technology as an enabling factor and the economics of the organised food industry. This strong bias exists as a legacy of the successful years of the Green Revolution, when the massive laboratory-led creation of high-yield varieties proceeded in step with massive irrigation programmes and farm-mechanisations schemes. In the process, they have turned the needs of small-scale cultivating households into 'programmes' and 'schemes', so that these small-scale farmers become 'consumers of technology' as opposed to being recognised as holders of traditional agricultural knowledge.

This proclivity suits (and has been carefully influenced by) the global agribusiness corporations and their clients. 'Closing the yield gap' on the massive scale needed, they say, requires massive investments in rural infrastructure and institutions plus technology transfer. In India, as in much of the rest of Southasia, the agricultural extension system is unable to respond to new challenges, because it is institutionally crippled and has suffered from deliberate neglect. The Krishi Vikas Kendras, for instance, meant for district-level extension activities, have become moribund, despite being envisioned as the frontline providers of technologies and methods developed by the NARS. Yet the impact of this concentration of agricultural control and food-systems management on urban India is not discussed by either the Ministry of Agriculture or the Ministry of Food and Consumer Affairs.

Urban demand has been increasing fast in India in recent years, and dependence on districts that grow food is increasing. At the same time, the New Delhi government and the major state governments are encouraging urbanisation and a shift to manufacturing and service sectors as a means towards what they call 'faster and more inclusive growth'. Yet just three years ago, India's National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector bluntly assessed the problem as follows:

There is clear evidence that in recent years, agricultural growth particularly in food grains has declined. This has had an adverse effect on the growth of agricultural wages that have shown signs of deceleration in the 1990s making the situation even more unfavourable for the agricultural labourers. On the other hand, farmers, particularly the marginal and small farmers, are also facing a crisis due to increasing input costs and uncertain output markets. In these conditions government support in the form of policy initiatives and schemes to protect the interest of agricultural workers becomes even more pertinent. Since the economic liberalisation of the 1990s, however, government support for agriculture has steadily declined. In turn, the Commission notes, this has led to greater dependence on the private sector: 'Increasing costs of cultivation leading to higher indebtedness, crop failures and incapacity to face price shocks with greater liberalisation of the agricultural sector have driven farmers to the extreme.' This latter reference, of course, is to the large number of farmer suicides that have taken place in rural India over the past decade (see accompanying article by K Nagraj).

Ultimately, however, government commissions are permitted to do only so much. Technological breakthroughs have been neutralised by a host of issues, including degrading soil-water ecosystems, increased stresses on crops brought on by disease and other factors, dwindling support to agriculture in general (and research and education in particular) and inefficient governance. Meanwhile, expanding the area used to cultivate crops is curtailed on the ground by urban spread on the one hand and creeping environmental degradation on the other. When the impacts of global climate change are added to these obstacles – extreme weather events that make sowing or harvesting difficult, seasonal shifts in the entire crop calendar – cultivation as an occupation for rural households becomes less feasible.

Back to the land
What kind of agricultural knowledge, science and technology is needed to solve the pressing social and environmental problems of agriculture in India and Southasia? An extremely valuable contribution to agricultural science and public policy was made by a three-year international study designed to answer these questions, the International Assessment of Agriculture Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), released in 2008. The IAASTD study selected 400 scientists from a wide range of relevant disciplines, who analysed the impact of agricultural knowledge, science and technology on the current state of agriculture, food supply and the environment. Its central conclusion: 'Business as usual is not an option'.

An important set of conclusions and recommendations by the IAASTD report drew from its recognition that past technological innovations could not be employed to solve new problems – that, for instance, trade to benefit poor people in fact had not done so, and that industrial farming systems had caused harm to the environment. The voluminous report strongly recommended far more research on the social patterns of crop cultivation and the need to mainstream traditional knowledge into government programmes.

The IAASTAD report was, and continues to be, ignored by India's agri-science establishment. In April 2008, Robert Watson, director of the IAASTD, emphasised the multi-disciplinary nature of the study:

Agriculture has a footprint on all of the big environmental issues, so as the world considers climate change, biodiversity, land degradation, water quality, etc, they must also consider agriculture which lies at the centre of these issues and poses some uncomfortable challenges that need to be faced … we believe that by combining local and traditional knowledge with formal knowledge these challenges can be met.Sadly, these are perspectives that have systematically been shut out of India's agriculture establishment. Instead, the valuable documentation of and learning from traditional farming knowledge has been mainly done by community-based organisations.

Had any countrywide enquiry on the lines of the IAASTD methods been encouraged, it would spell good news for households in India's cities, which are burdened by the steady rise in the real prices of food. But supporting local agro-ecological systems is not part of the approach being used by ICAR and the Agriculture Ministry. Partly, this is because India's agricultural-research system is not equipped (nor encouraged) to adopt such practices. It is only through the rejection of the APY view of crop cultivation, coupled with the simultaneous spread of locally apt farming systems – the home gardens of Wayanad in Kerala, the millet diversity of Khammam and Warangal in Andhra Pradesh, the salt-tolerant rice of the Sundarban (in both West Bengal and deltaic Bangladesh) – that could bring about change.

These 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. But since they cannot help to achieve short-term profit-oriented goals, both the commercial effort of the NARS and the private sector ignore them. Finally, the cost-benefit of conservation of resources can be determined by the scarcity value of those resources. For instance, will urban food consumers be willing to pay for watershed protection in a district from which they import food? The only way to get a positive answer from this question is by investing in public education, and by building it into public policy at an institutional level – where it immediately runs into political and business interests. The development of community-supported organic agriculture in India can provide an alternative, which will depend more on the ability of associations of organic farmers to organise, rather than on state support.

India's organic farming systems grow a variety of cereals, tubers, leafy vegetables, fruits and tree crops without chemical fertiliser and pesticide and largely depend on saved seed. There are well-established biological and energy benefits of organic and agro-ecological farming that, under the growing shadow of climate change and energy scarcity, become even more compelling for farming communities. For instance, the density of soil is far lower on organic farms, indicating better soil aggregation and physical condition. This means that the soil on organic farms both drains water more quickly so that waterlogging becomes an infrequent problem, and is also capable of retaining water longer because the soil structure is far more complex – on organic farms the soil fauna is healthy and rapidly recycles organic matter and crop residues, and the mix of minerals is far greater. In India, studies have found up to a 30 percent increase in the organic carbon of soil in organic farms compared to conventional farms, which is a strong positive indicator of the relevance of organic farming systems to the needs of encouraging low-carbon economies.

Next, farming using zero tillage (with no mechanised ploughing and furrowing) reduces fuel use for farm power in agriculture by up to 75 percent. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has pointed out, 'conservation tillage' could be an important source of carbon sequestration in tropical soils. In Southasia, there has been wide recent adoption by small-scale farmers of zero tillage in rice and wheat systems, with recorded increases in wheat yields of 11 percent.

Agrologistically speaking
The ministry and the research network has seen agriculture technology in India as largely a public-domain activity, and is now inviting increasing participation by the private sector. Technology generation by the public sector consists of a supply-driven process of putting technologies on the shelves of scientists, with insufficient regard given to the needs of farming households. Dealers in agricultural inputs (fertiliser, seeds, pesticides, machinery, insurance) have donned the role of extension workers, and it has been left to this highly commercially oriented section to provide advice to the farmer. Given their poor grasp of technological issues and, more importantly, their interest in selling their inputs, this replacement of trained extension is indisputably harmful.

Moreover, within India's national agricultural-research system there is little recognition of the need to systematically study nutrition and health, of either humans or crops. Many local cereal varieties – what are called 'minor cereals' by the ministry – might have advantages over higher-yield types; for instance, numerous studies have shown that many 'minor' millets have several times more nutrients than wheat, rice or maize. But not only are these not studied in India's NARS, they are excluded from the curriculum entirely. This partially explains why there has as yet been no emergence of a community-supported agriculture that symbiotically binds urban consumers with foodgrain-supplying districts. To carry out such research would require that agricultural research centres have the mandate to do so – and they do not, due to the extraordinary neglect of the agricultural research system.

In India's Planning Commission's Mid-Term Appraisal of the Eleventh Plan (2007-12), the chapter on agriculture summarises some of this neglect. 'The generation and dissemination of technology is hampered not only by lack of investible resources,' it states, 'but also by its sub-optimal priorities across crops, regions and institutions, and lack of incentives and autonomy in most of the public research institutions.' The Mid-Term Appraisal notes that out of the two major institutions – the ICAR system and the state agricultural universities – there has been a substantial increase in budgetary support to ICAR 'but most of SAUs are facing a serious resource crunch'. This crunch exists despite the fact that two significant constituents of the ICAR network, the National Agricultural Technology Project and the National Agriculture Innovation Project, include among their financial supporters the World Bank. Even so, said the Mid-Term Appraisal, 'just pouring in more resources in public R&D, without commensurate institutional reforms, is not likely to make the existing system deliver efficiently.'

The result is that better economic opportunities are being denied to the conservators and growers of such crops (particularly 'minor' crops), and better nutrition is denied to the huge and growing number of urban households who are forced into a limited set of choices. At question is the integrity – personal and scientific – of the people in India's NARS. Whether one has to manage to crop, livestock, trees or other related non-farm activities, one must learn from local practices. But this is precisely what is currently being ignored. If the Agriculture Ministry has its way, rural India would be a patchwork not of villages and hamlets but of 'intelligent agrologistic networks combining consolidation centres, agroparks (agroproduction and processing park) and rural transformation centres', as the new agri-industrial infrastructure has been described by one Indian financial institution, Yes Bank. The techno-centric idiom cannot conceal the Indian government's intention to encourage a dangerous new dimension to urbanisation, by sanctioning infrastructure that will encourage a tightly controlled internal trade in agricultural produce and forms of their consumption.

~ Rahul Goswami is a freelance journalist and researcher based in Goa.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian