By Bharat Mansatta
The tide is turning. All over the world, farmers and scientists are conceding that agro chemicals are devastating the soil, water and biodiversity. And leaving toxic residues in food. But though organically grown produce is admittedly superior and kinder to the environment, can we get an adequate amount? Is it ‘economically viable’?
Farming in harmony with nature, replies Bhaskar Save, ‘has the blessings of Annapurna, the goddess of abundant food for all that lives.’ This remarkable Indian farmer—akin to the Japanese pioneer, Masanobu Fukuoka—based in district Valsad of Gujarat, India, speaks with quiet conviction, grown from long experience: ‘One grain of rice yields several thousand in a short cropping cycle of a few months. The marital palm can provide 350-400 coconuts every year for a century. A chikoo(sapota) tree feeds 18 generations descendant from the original planter. Each can yield 180,000 kg of fruit in its lifetime….Many such useful plants grow in this country. So why should anyone have to suffer lack of food or any basic want?’ Save’s commonsense may seem too embarrassingly simple if one has not seen his farm.
But who planted the primeval forest? Who tilled, manured and irrigated it? Can any modern system rival the forest’s enormous productivity and the myriad life forms it supports? For over four millennia, organic farming in India sustained one of the highest population densities on this planet. And enabled the prosperity and culture of the great ancient civilization that fascinated travelers from around the world. There were no agro chemicals on the scene then.
In Tending the Earth (Earthcare Books), Winin Pereira reveals how traditional Indian agriculture rates high in all aspects of total productivity, sustainability, self-reliance, diversity and the depth of its indigenous knowledge. Much earlier, Sir Albert Howard—considered by many as the father of sustainable agriculture in the West—wrote in An Agricultural Testament: ‘I regarded these (Indian) peasants as my professors. I learnt from them how to grow healthy crops without the slightest help from artificial manures or insecticides.’
So what went wrong?
The first reverses came under colonial rule. Large tracts of forest were felled for timber. Many fertile fields were forced to grow monoculture cash crops such as opium, tobacco, cotton, indigo, tea coffee for export. The zamindari system and the high revenue extracted by the British added to the farmers’ woes. Community water resources like tanks were neglected.
After the British left, Indian agriculture had a brief respite. Influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of Gram Swaraj or local self-reliance, K.M. Munshi, India’s first agriculture minister, emphasized the restoration of the fertility and water cycle in each village and bioregion. While yield increased, much of it was consumed in the rural areas itself. Small surpluses of mixed, perishable produce from many scattered farm were not administratively convenient for distant city markets.
But Jawaharlal Nehru’s dream of urban-industrial growth could not be pursued if agricultural surplus came to the cities. Planners said that if farms could be drawn to use chemical inputs, they would grow marketable produce for enough cash to enable future purchase of such inputs. Of course, huge subsides and easy credit were dangled as incentives. Dwarf hybrids of grain were bought in place of traditional, tall verities that lodged (or bent over) with the use of artificial fertilizer.
Support prices for such produce were offered. And because irrigation needs were greatly increased, large dams were built at state expense. Unwary farmers could hardly suspect then that the increase in their cash income was at the cost of soil fertility, self-reliance and crop diversity. Inexorably, they were hooked to the market economy, while their lands were hooked to the chemicals. The realization slowly dawned the more and more chemicals were needed with each passing year, just to maintain yields.
Costs were increasing. And so were problems like new diseases, pests and soil salinity. But changing course was a daunting choice, for without chemicals, the yield from the crippled soil would dramatically fall. While healthy nature is never miserly, nature wounded must first heal herself. Patience is required, or sufficient biomass inputs to hasten the restoration of soil fertility. For most farmers, neither is easy. They have also lost their traditional seed varieties, their knowledge of mixed farming methods, and their self-confidence. Consequently, while disillusionment with chemicals is near universal, the actual transition to the organic way is still slow and hesitant. Sheer distress, however, has heightened farmer interest in alternatives. This is witnessed in the high turnout for workshops on organic or natural farming.
Several such workshops have been organized in Maharashtra, India, by activists such as Vasant Palshikar and Vijay Bhatt, featuring, speakers such as Bhaskar Save, Vasnat Futane and S. Dabholkar. At the national level, the ARISE network has taken off. ARISE stands for Agricultural Renewal in India for a Sustainable Environment, and is being coordinated from Auroville, near Pondicherry. It has a large membership in the south of the country, and is consolidating in the north. However, NGO activists tend to be more vocal at joint meetings, while more attention is needed to facilitate farmer-level exchanges, visits and workshops.
This should ideally be done on a regional basis, but most regional networks are still at a formative stage. A useful survey of the resurgence of organic farming in India is provided in The Organic Farming Sourcebook, recently published by The Other India Press, Goa, India. Several hundred farmers and their addresses are listed, with brief reports on a number of them. While a majority of these may be comparatively recent converts to the organic path, and therefore still recovering, some have stabilized, and a few enjoy outstanding yields and high profits.
There are, of course, many times more unidentified organic farmers in India, including adivasis in isolated areas who never took to chemicals on any significant scale in the first place. Moreover, a number of farmers who liberally use chemicals for the produce they still prefer to grow the food their own families eat by the organic way. Rising city and export demand for organic food and the higher price it commands is now becoming a strong attraction for resourceful, commercial farmers.
But large-scale production for the market inevitably means extensive monocultures, more prone to pest damage, soil deficiencies and crop diseases. The temptation to discreetly use some chemicals again is high, through this may bring only temporary abatement of symptoms, while the deeper problem worsens. The government, on its part, seems caught in a schizophrenic mindset. No long ago, we were told that chemicals were directly needed in farming practices to feed our growing population.
But faced with a mounting Balance of Payments crisis, the government is now eager to increase organic agro exports to industrialized nations that have become wise to the boomeranging of toxins in the food they buy from us. Ironically, the revenue from organic food exports will help finance our estimated Rs.38,000 crore Eighth Plan bill for the import of chemical fertilizer and the naphtha needed to domestically produce it. With the continuing degradation of the soil, and the diversion of fertile lands and irrigation waters for cash cropping, it is quite conceivable that severe domestic food scarcity may raise its ugly head sooner than imagined.
We may then be trapped into importing stale, chemically grown, irradiated wheat to feed our hungry people, while our best quality organic foods are exported. It must be acknowledged though that in our age, financial returns are a powerful incentive for change. Since initial yields with organic farming are low, farmers need a better price to cope with their transition. On the consumer side, organic foods are more value for money, and so deserve a better price, perhaps 25 per cent more at the retail level.
Middlemen traders usually hog the larger share of the difference between the price a farmer gets and the price a consumer pays. Cooperative farm city links between organic growers and buyers can at least halve this difference., That the food supplied is actually organic is readily verifiable. A direct relationship is also more human, with attention possible to the organic food needs of the sick,. The children the pregnant mothers, and the families of farm workers.
For small, subsistence farmers, their own health and that of the land is the only incentive for change. Save recommends that it is better to totally discontinue chemicals on a part of the land than to try using less chemicals on the entire land. This is slowly happening. As farmers gradually regain their confidence in the organic way, more land can be converted in a phased and progressively easier manner. However, history may unfold more suddenly and rapidly. For a while, a disaster threatened to happen during the Gulf War.
As the prices of fossil fuels—the basic raw material in chemical fertilizers—mounted, and our foreign exchange reserves ran dry, it seemed that the free supply of liberally subsidized agro chemicals would grind to a halt, leaving no option but to revert to organic farming all over the country. The moment passed, but may appear again as the oil reserves of the world continue to diminish. A return to organic farming seems inevitable. We can ease the way by brushing up our natural resource literacy, and focusing on health rather than ballooning the economy with more hot air. A good preparation would be to plant food trees, of which we have hundreds of species.
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