Harvesting a nought

Unless technology is adapted to local conditions, our farmers will remain vulnerable and food security a mirage
Thursday, September 15, 2011

Agriculture is the only vocation which relies on dynamics of nature. While friendly earthworms enrich the soil, abundant daily sunlight and a graceful period of showers bless you with a bountiful of food. Humans understood from very early on that to reap maximum harvest from the nature, they have to adopt different strategies for different areas. They got to know that while soil near the riverbed will be more fertile, the one in the dry area will be low on nutrients and shifting agriculture may help sustain the productivity.

With advent of farm technology, however, we seem to have lost touch with the ground realities and age old learnings , approach of “one shoe fits all” is being implemented in the name of advanced tool. Technology which is used for farming in 1000 acre plots in US is developed for use in tiny farm lands of India with or without testing. Generalisations are drawn from bathroom-sized experimental plots if at all any tests are done.  We fail to acknowledge that the amount of sunlight, soil quality besides the amount and distribution of rainfall we experience in India is quite different from US.

With advent of farm technology, we have lost touch with ground realities. Approach of “one shoe fits all” is being implemented in the name of advanced tool. Technology which is used for farming in 1000 acre plots in US is also put to use in tiny farm lands of India

In fact, within India we have so much diversity in local conditions. Quality of soil differs, some areas are rain fed while others are irrigated through rivers and canals and even the amount of sunlight we get in south India varies from north or central India what to talk of US. Photosynthesis depends largely on the duration of sunlight and daytime variations in temperature.  Still we are quick to replicate their models. Our agricultural universities are also toeing the line of West without questioning the utility of latest advancements in Indian fields.

Since we cannot change our resources and conditions we can only make changes in technology.  We have to develop technology based on our local conditions. The reductionistic approach in science is leading to several environmental, economic and social problems.  For instance, for pest management, a single pesticide is recommended for a particular pest whatever the climatic condition or cropping system. Pesticide use itself selects insects for genetic resistance killing the weaker ones and disturbing the ecological balances forcing the farmers to use greater amount of sprays, or frequent sprays or more powerful pesticides.  In fact, pest incidence (kind and quantity) in a cotton crop adjacent to tomato would be completely different from a cotton crop next to a jowar crop.  Hence, pest management needs to be customised to the level of farms. This is because while same pests infest tomato and cotton, jowar is infested by different kind of pests.

Pest kind and quantity in a cotton crop adjacent to tomato would be completely different from a cotton crop next to a jowar crop.  Hence, pest management needs to be customised to the level of farms. Agricultural research has to move out from lab farms to real fields.

Agricultural research has to move out from lab farms to the real fields and work in collaboration with farmers since they have better understanding of their situations.. They have been strategising, learning, unlearning and evolving best agricultural practices since the time first grain was grown. When the entire world was wearing leaves and hides Indians were growing and wearing cotton There is evidence that India has been growing cotton since the time of Mohenjo Daro, one of the initial civilisations of the world.

Today we are learning growing cotton from US. After industrial revolution spinning wheel was introduced.  To suit the machines long staple American Cottons were introduced to replace short stapled desi cottons.  With American cottons came American Bollworm for which we got pesticides. However, as is the order of nature, the pest developed resistance to the chemicals with time and has to be dealt with a higher dose or more potent pesticides. Class I, Class II, Class III, Class IV, Class V pesticides were introduced and when pests developed resistance to all of them and awareness about the pesticide problems began increasing, the same companies have come up with genetically modified insect resistance crops introducing Bt genes, claiming they don’t need pesticides. Belying all these claims, the Bollgard I variety of Bt Cotton failed after some years due to the same law of nature that living organisms develop resistance to a life threat after being exposed to it over a period of time. Now Bollgard II variety is being sold on the same principle of efficacy. With time, this would also turn out to be an exercise in futility.

By using chemicals, we feel we are helping plants produce food. We forget that plants are the only self-sustaining organisms in this world. They don’t rely on others. They make food for themselves and for others by utilising the resources available to them. 

By using chemicals, we feel we are helping plants produce food. We forget that plants are the only self-sustaining organisms in this world. They don’t rely on other animals or plants to get food. They make food for themselves and for others by utilising the resources available to them. A farmer, if not bothered with the bogey of scientific research, would rely on crop rotation, locally available resources  than chemicals to deal with pests. Monoculture or growing a single crop is one of the major reasons why pests persist and perpetuate.

By adopting such simple techniques of preventive care and curative measures, we can easily deal with agricultural crisis. The example of farmers in Andhra Pradesh stands as testimony. Not only have they halved their input cost by leaving out chemicals, the yields have also increased. Community managed sustainable agriculture which started as small initiative to reduce pesticide use in 225 acres of two villages, expanded to 25,000 acre in 450 villages by 2005. Today, we have 35 lakh acre in 7,000 villages under ecological farming. As is typical of scientists, they questioned the basis of this success since no standard package was being offered to the farms. In 2010, two independent studies done in 18 districts found out that pesticide use had reduced by 100 per cent in the sample farms and fertiliser use had been halved in the study area whereas the yield is slightly better than that generated earlier from the same fields using chemicals.

Last year, when moratorium was placed on Bt Brinjal in 2010, the then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh had mentioned that neither pesticides nor insect resistant GM crops are inevitable as the 2 lakh farmers in Andhra Pradesh have shown by adopting non pesticidal management.  However, there lot of political and business interests are involved in promotion of GM crops. The GM crop seeds are costly and farmers can’t grow them on their own because in India they are only sold as hybrids.  Also the patents on the crops prevent reuse even if they are introduced in varieties which can be regrown as is happening in the West.

The GM crop seeds are costly and farmers can’t grow them on their own because in India they are only sold as hybrids.  Also the patents on the crops prevent reuse. So, the farmers have to buy the seeds at a high cost from the market every time they want to grow a crop.

So, the farmers have to buy the seeds at a high cost from the market every time they want to grow a crop. Also, if you prefer to grow non-GM crop while your neighbour is growing GM, there will be cross pollination which will contaminate your crop leaving traits you may not wish to have in your crop. The risk is real and we need to fight it with two pronged strategy. While ecological farming needs to be adopted to fight imposition of illogical technology in the fields, political pressure needs to be built on our leaders to thwart any attempt of a sell out to corporates.

Dr Ramanjaneyulu is the executive director of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA), Hyderabad.

Photos: Kheti Virasat Mission, Punjab

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