issues and debates
The serious ecological and economic crisis in farming community in India and other countries has led to evolution of new models of agriculture which are based on sound ecolog- ical principles making effective use of local resources and natural processes. Across the Indian states lakhs of farmers are now switching over to adopt these agro-ecological prac- tices to sustain their livelihoods. These initiatives are called variously as ecological farming, natural farming or organic farming based on the main focus, philosophies, the clients and driving forces.
Characterising the new revolution: The main objective of this new Agro-ecological revolution in agriculture is internalis- ing the inputs and is based on principles of the ecological farm- ing viz., a) locally adopted cropping systems, b) based on crop and genetic diversity, c) locally adopted seed, d) improving soil and crop ecology to have ecological balance of insects and microbes, e) conserving and effective use of local natural resources like soil, water, biomass. These set of practices and behind have evolved from reinterpreting, refin- ing the tra-
ditional farming practices with modern scientific learnings. As many believe this is not continuation of the old traditional prac- tices which are not relevant today but contem- porary innova- tions with newer understanding of agro-ecology evolved at dif- ferent nodes by farmers, civil society organisa- tions and few agriculture scientists. These new practices and new products have shown very promising results. Based on the location spe- cific problems and the expertise of the indi- viduals and organisations there were several starting points for this new revolution. For example, Deccan Development Society work- ing in dryland areas of Medak dist focused initi- ated works with millet based mixed cropping systems and moved on to seed conservation and to ecological agriculture which provide food security to the farmers. The Biofarming initiative supported by All India People Science Network sup- ported by Vigyan Prasar of Department of Science and Technology has shown that agro ecological approaches can help to sustain farming.
Centre for Sustainable working in high commercial crop growing areas of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Punjab focused on Non Pesticidal Management which do not use chemical pesticides but uses farmers knowledge and ecolog- ical practices to manage the pests. The initiatives by Agricul- ture Officers like Surendra Dalal and Rajendra Singh in Jind in Haryana have shown that by improving insect liter- acy farm- ers can manage the insects without depending on the insecti- cides. Once convinced about managing the pests without pes- ticides it became easy for farmers to adopt viable soil pro- ductivity management and seed conservation prac- tices even in the commercial crops.
India is one of the rich mega-biodiversity hotspots in the world. Unfortunately, the in the name of modernizing agricul- ture much of this diversity evolved over years to suit to par-
ticular situation and use has been replaced by a very narrow range of crops and varieties. Initiatives by people like Natwar Saranghi from Odisha, Ghani and Nagappa in Karnataka, Dr. Debal Deb in Odisha and West Bengal to conserve and re- vive traditional varieties have shown that there are several tra- ditional varieties which outperform the modern varieties in terms of adapting to particular situations and more specifical- ly with specific characters. Farmer Breeders like Kobragade from Maharashtra, Prakash Raghuvansi from Utter Pradesh, Kongara Ramesh from Andhra Pradesh have bred several new varieties in crops like paddy, wheat, redgram, groundnut etc. Initiatives by organizations like Deccan Development Society, Sahaja Samrudda, Beej Bacho Andolan, Navadanya have institutionalized the conservation efforts and Centre for Sustainable Agriculture,
On managing soils effectively Similarly the Zero Budget Natural Farming initiatives by Sri Subash Palekar in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Punjab and Dr. Nammalvar as Organic Farming in Tamil Nadu, use various desi cow dung/ urine based preparations to improve soil fertility and pest and disease management.
Agronomic innovations like System of Rice Cultivation which was initiated in Madagascar and now practiced world over including many states of India has showed rice can be cultivated without ponding water and excessive use of chem- ical fertilisers and pesticides. The learnings were extended further for wheat, sugarcane, ragi and other crops too. Simi- larly individual plant culture by adopting wider spacing has shown to yield more in red gram and castor. While all these results were from fertile, moisture rich areas, The High Den- sity Plantation System with Desi cotton varieties initiated by Central Institute of Cotton research proved that by increasing
the plant population in rainfed areas, shallow soils the produc- tivity per acre can be improved though per plant productivity would be lower.ever estebins Using
Scaling up: These initiatives started as small experiments and took years to understand the principles and establish on a scale. These are scaled up on to a large scale. There are more than 10 lakh farmers across the country who have are now practising the natural farming which is promoted by Sri Subash Palekar. In Andhra Pradesh NPM is practiced in more than 35 lakh acres in more than 11,000 villages by col- laborative work of Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty, Mandal Mahila Samakhyas. Similarly there are lakhs of farm- ers who follow Dr. Nammalwar and practice organic farming in Tamil Nadu. All these experiences have clearly showed that
a) all the production inputs can be internalised into the farm and local resources, farmers knowledge and skills can effec- tively replace external purchased inputs, b) new theories and new interpretations are required to understand these practices,
c) we don’t need astronomical quantities of inputs, d) produc- tivity of crop and soil can be maintained and enhanced, e) these practices are not highly difficult or labor intensive but simple and easy to practice, and f) these prac- tices and mod- els of agriculture can be easily scaled up to larger scale pro- vided proper support systems and institution- al systems are in place.
Establishment’s anti-response: Unfortunately all these com- munity initiatives are not accepted by the mainstream agricul- ture establishments like Agriculture Universities, Research In- stitutes and Extension systems which dismiss saying all these are unscientific. They are still caught in the conventional re- ductionistic understanding of agriculture see organic farming from the chemical lens and dismiss the merit of the models
and methods. These institutions are arrogant and refuse to take note of any of these experiences in spite of lakhs of acres and lakhs of farmers have transformed and their successes are staring at them. Even after the large scale failure of the chemical green revolution, and is promot- ing the new para- digm which is driven by the genetically mod- ified crops which are more ecologically and economically damaging and com- pletely take out the control out of farmers’ hands. The biosafety issues are compromised. The organ- ic farming is accommo- dated as a model to meet the niche market markets which is high external input intensive and many times costlier than the chemical agriculture.
Policy response: Agriculture in India was always a neglect- ed sector. It took sixty years for the Indian government to come up with a comprehensive policy for agriculture. Sixty years of experience and large crisis in agriculture have not brought in any rethinking on the models of agriculture adopt- ed. The dominant paradigm is still caught in high external input based chemical agriculture. The new trade interests have made nine states to come up with organic farming poli- cies. The many of the north eastern states and Uttaranchal have declared them- selves as organic states but the depart- ments of Agriculture and Agriculture Universities in these states still continue with their chemical promotion. Interestingly Kerala government has declared to bring entire agriculture in the state under organic and go GM free. The state government has taken the agricul- ture university and department of agriculture into confidence in taking this initia- tive but still need to wait and see how the policy would be operationalised. Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty, the GO-NGO of Government of AP which works with the Women Self Groups and their Federations is promot- ing ecological farming on a larger scale. The program which
started with Non Pesticidal Management of insect pests has moved into establishing ecological farming practices. The pro- gram has attracted the attention of the Centre and is now sup- ported under the Rastriya Krishi Vikas Yojana.
Organic Trade: Organic farming is a promising agricultural method with positive effects on the human ecological and social environment. But today it is mainly driven by the trade interests. Many countries all over the world have established a certification and accreditation system in order to protect the justified expectations of consumers with regard to processing and controlling the product quality of organic goods and to protecting producers from fraudulent trade practices. As they are relevant to international trade, these standards do not only influence the organic farming movement on the national level but also have a converse impact across national bor- ders. Organic farming was established in a bottom-up process as farmers aimed to design sustainable ways of using natural resources. Farmers’ traditional knowledge and their awareness of ecological, as well as, of social affairs was the main base for the development of organic farming. Since public interest in organic farming has grown rapidly, the own- ership on the process of defining organic farming is no longer in the hands of farmers and the original principles and aims of the movement seem to be threatened by a bureaucratic view of “recipe”-“Standardized” organic farming. The organ- ic farming movement which has started with the objective of internalising the inputs has finally externalised the trust. The certification agencies and the organic traders make most of the profits. Though farmers are getting a small premium over the existing markets no one in the organic market are sure on how many these premiums will continue. The products are aimed at urban rich niche markets and the product carry
astronomical costs. In spite of the premiums, the share of farmers in the consumers’ price is very less and many times lesser than the regular products.
New initiatives with Participatory Guarantee Systems with Internal Control Systems and self declaration labels are under experiment by many farmers’ organisations and civil society organisations.
The growing health awareness, understanding the risks of climate change and ecological and economic crisis with the modern external input agriculture and the large scale shift happening across the country to ecological farming by the farmers will hopefully turn the tide in the interests of farmers and will sustain the future.
Farming in India evolved over centuries of farmers’ innovations in identifying locally suitable cropping patterns and production practices. The crisis of food production and geo- political considerations during 1960s created conditions in many developing countries particularly in India to strive for food self-reliance. The country has chosen the path of using high yielding varieties (more appropriately high input respon-sive varieties) and chemicals which brought about what is popularly known as green revolution. This continued as a quest for modernization of agriculture which promoted the use of more and more of high yielding varieties/hybrids, chemical pesticides and fertilizers across crops and sitúa- tions displacing farmers’ knowledge, own seeds and practices. The country could become self reliant for a while, farmers lost self reliance in the process due to excessive depend- ency on external inputs and are caught in serious ecological and economic crisis. This crisis is manifesting itself in the form of migration, indebtedness and in extreme cases as farmers’ suicides.
Realizing the ecological crisis caused by the chemicals in agriculture agricultural scientists and industry has initiated middle path approaches like Integrated Pest Management (IPM), Integrated Nutrient Management (INM) etc where chemi- cal inputs were partially replaced by bio-inputs derived from botanicals, microbes and other biological sources. This middle path approaches though reduced the chemical usage to an extent could not make head way in shifting agriculture into more sustainable model as the approach itself in based on the safe external input based farming concept. In midst of this farmers and various organizations associated with farm- ers supple- mented by hitherto neglected ecological agricultur- al science initiated new models of farming by making best use of natural processes and locally available natural resources. Most of the inputs are internalized into farm itself. The framework of un- derstanding each component in agricul- ture is different for them. For example, when dung is applied to the fields INM/ chemical framework understands soil nutri- tion as a chemi- cal property and counts the nutrients in dung and calculates how much quantity of dung is needed. They come with astro- nomical figures and say it is impossible task. Whereas in eco- logical approach focus is on enriching the soil microbes and building the soil health therefore dung is applied as a fermented product which is seen as a microbial culture. The nutrient con- tent of these products per se may be lower but the amounts of nutrients that can be biologically are enormous. Therefore in this approach one needs only small quantities of dung where as regular chemical science and INM calculates astronomical quantities of dung to be applied to meet the nutrient require- ments of the crops and hence jus- tify chemical fertilizer use. Similarly pest management also is understood as using prod- ucts to kill insects where as the ecological approaches like
Non Pesticidal Management understands pest management as restoring ecological balance.
Many of the ecological initiatives remain small owing to lack of proper support from the mainstream organizations as it does not fit in the dominant paradigm. The groups working on these ecological methods also could not take them onto a large scale as they could neither articulate the new approach in the way the mainstream institutional science understands nor could demonstrate on a scale to create conviction.
There are several competing philosophies today that un- derwrite one or another form of agricultural practice. Although it is relatively easy to describe goals for a more sus- lainable agriculture, things become much more problematic When it comes to attempts to define sustainability: Everyone assumes that agriculture must be sustainable. But we differ in the inter- pretations of conditions and assumptions under which this can be made to occur. As Andrew Campbell right- ly puts it ‘at- tempts to define sustainability miss the point that, like beauty, sustainability is in the eyes of the beholder…it is inevitable that assessments of relative sustainability are socially constructed, which is why there are so many defini- tions. None the less, when specific parameters or criteria or selected it is possible to say whether certain trends are steady, going up or going down. For example, practices causing soil to erode can be considered to be unsustainable relative to those that conserve soil. Practices that remove the habitats of insect predators or kill them directly are unsustain- able compared with those that do not. Planting trees is clear- ly more sustainable for a com- munity than just cutting them down. Forming a local group as a forum for more effective collective action is likely to be more sustainable than individ- uals trying to act alone. At the farm or
community level, it is possible for actors to weigh up, trade off and agree on these criteria for measuring trends in sustainability. But as we move to higher levels of hierarchy, to districts, states and countries, it becomes increasingly diffi- cult to do this in any meaningful way. It is, therefore, critical that sustainable agri- culture does not prescribe a concretely de- fined set of tech- nologies, practices or policies at these lev- els. The definitions of sustainability are time and location spe- cific. As situations and conditions change, so must our con- structions of sustain- ability also change. Sustainable agricul- ture is therefore not a simple model or package to be imposed. It is more a process of learning, a way of looking and a way of thinking.
Broadly, sustainable agriculture involves the integrated use of a variety of seed, pest, nutrient, soil and water management technologies and practices. These are usually combined on the farms to give practices finely tuned to the local biophysical and socioeconomic conditions of individual farmers. Most represent low-external input options. Natural processes are favored over external inputs and by-products or wastes from one component of the farm become inputs to another. In this way, farms remain productive as well as reducing the impact on the environment.