The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the risks of an unhealthy diet and the extreme fragility of food systems. The economic reconstruction that will follow the pandemic is the perfect opportunity to provide better nutrition and health to all. The pandemic should spur us to redefine how we feed ourselves, and agricultural research can play a vital role in making our food systems more sustainable and resilient.

Family-owned farms still produce some 80% of the world’s food. There is an inextricable link between farmers with small landholdings and our survival and the health of our planet. They play a highly critical role in protecting the environment. But they are among the most underserved population.

They often lack the technology, infrastructure, and market access needed to increase their productivity and incomes. This makes them extremely vulnerable to economic and climactic variability.

In India about half of them live in the vast stretches of the Deccan and East Indian plateau, practicing rainfed farming due to lack of irrigation. Farming is therefore typically limited to monocropping, and is done only in the monsoon months.

Small farmers often lack basic tools and new technologies and don’t have networks to access them, the financial services to afford them, or the markets to profit from investments in them.

They are also plagued by low productivity as they do not have access to quality farm inputs such as good seeds and fertilisers, training and capital and technology and knowledge that can make their enterprises commercially viable.

Hence, they remain trapped in a cycle of low investment, poor productivity, low value-addition, weak market orientation and depressed margins, leading them to abandon farming and migrate from rural areas, often in conditions of great and slow distress.

According to National Sample Survey Office data, almost 70% of agricultural households have to spend more than they can earn, and more than half of all recognised farmers are in debt.

The Green Revolution started in the 1960s saw the widespread rollout of new agriculture technologies leading to a massive boost in crop production. But its focus on large-scale and water intensive farming came at great ecological cost. There were several bad consequences in the long term, such as:

  • Massive loss of local agro biodiversity and associated traditional knowledge
  • Alarming depletion of groundwater in most parts of the country,
  • Undermining of seed sovereignty
  • Increased dependence on credit to purchase proprietary seeds, insecticides and pesticides
  • indebtedness on part of farmers due to low monetary returns from agriculture
  • Damage to soil health and stagnation in productivity
  • Low value of agricultural produce
  • Toxic levels of pesticide residue in food

One of the cruel legacies of the Green Revolution has been the shift away from diversified agriculture to the dominance of cash crops such as cotton and sugarcane, and grains such as wheat and rice.

The Green Revolution brought in new strains of seeds generated through modern methods of plant breeding which gave high yields; intensified the use of fossil fuel fertilizers; increased acreage through double cropping; used pesticides and mechanical equipment extensively and massively; and drilled into groundwater reserves through deep borewells.

Native heirloom seeds adapted to local diets and conditions were replaced by expensive corporate-produced hybrids, often dumped in the country after having failed elsewhere.

Although the new high-performance varieties guaranteed high yields, they degraded soil quality, harmed biodiversity, polluted the environment and irreversibly damaged human health.

With water intensive agriculture came the problem of water-logging and soil salinity, increased incidence of micro-nutrient deficiencies (especially zinc) and soil toxicities (on account of iron released by chemical fertilisers), which slowed down yields and threatened the sustainability of food systems.

The large-scale cultivation of a single crop variety made it highly vulnerable to pests. These unwise farming policies have caused millions of farmers to lose their livelihoods, and hundreds of thousands to end their lives.

There has been a failure of agricultural strategy over the last decade. Food crops have gradually been abandoned in favour of cash crops which are more profitable but are also highly water-intensive.

The high yielding variety (HYV) seeds which entered Indian fields during the Green Revolution were less resistant to droughts and floods and needed delicate management of water, insecticides, pesticides and chemical fertilisers. Farmers found them highly sensitive to climate variations.

These crops also attract more pests forcing farmers to apply chemical pesticides to save them. So, every year the farmer had to spend more to grow such crops. Typically the commercial seeds had to be purchased year after year, and farmers could not reuse seeds from their crop, with seed manufacturing giants filing lawsuits against small farmers who did so.

It became a perpetual treadmill. Families faced crippling healthcare costs, crop failures, loss of income, and debt, all directly related to pesticides.

This method of agriculture is also irretrievably damaging biodiversity. The loss of biodiversity has its connection to another loss – that of indigenous cultures – in the ecosystems. From animals to insects and plants, the biodiversity loss is unprecedented and difficult to imagine; it also leaves us highly vulnerable.

The overuse of chemical fertilisers for augmenting yields in the short term led to physical and chemical degradation of the soil by altering the natural microflora and increasing soil salinity and alkalinity.

Higher yields and profits in the short term have come at a huge socio-ecological cost such as biodiversity loss, environmental pollution, land degradation, increased damage from climate change, decline in human health and livelihood, and the erosion of agricultural expertise.

Exposed to competition from highly subsidised agrobusinesses in Europe and the USA, farmers were encouraged to breed a limited number of high yielding crops which would serve as cash machines. They found this switch to “modern industrial agriculture” would force them to buy commercial varieties of seeds, which often come with licence fees in perpetuity.

The peril of monoculture is something we have witnessed repeatedly in recent times. A bumper crop has usually been followed by a fall in prices. Alternatively, infection by pests can result in entire harvests being wiped out. Multi-cropping and crop diversification is beneficial just for humans, but also for the crops themselves.

Indigenous communities’ valuable knowledge of sustainable agricultural practices must be used such that these indigenous communities gain from it. Their knowledge covers all aspects of agriculture, from non-toxic biofertilisers and pest control methods to flood and groundwater management; from multi-cropping and seed preservation to food storage.

Experts are calling for a dramatic shift in the short-term profits approach to agriculture and advocating the use of traditional knowledge and time-honoured practices. Instead of industrial agriculture with misplaced technologies, they argue, farming should cooperate more closely with nature, with intelligent plant breeding and a return to old and proven crop varieties.

Formerly, societies might depend on 200 to 300 crops for food and health security, but gradually we have come to the stage of four or five important crops: wheat, corn, rice and soybean. This homogenisation increases profitability for a handful of owners, to the detriment of everyone else.

The cultivation of indigenous and heritage crops has the potential to make agriculture genetically diverse, sustainable and resilient to climate variability. Indigenous landraces have evolved in the region over thousands of years of agrarian practice and culture.

India is now seeing reverse engineering. There is now a growing emphasis on polyculture or planting a basket of crops, where multiple food grains such as millets, pulses and oilseeds are inter-cropped with other food crops. For instance, millet needs very little water, grows well in poor soil, grows fast and suffers from very few diseases. Once harvested it stores well for years.

Apart from enhancing soil fertility, multicropping provides multiple crops from the same piece of land. This maintains soil fertility, arrests soil erosion, and ensures the availability of different types of food in the household.

Crop rotation techniques ensure that no single botanical crop family has predominance in the rotation; hence pests are not able to thrive as they are usually specific to certain crop families.  Apart from hedging the risks, crop rotation also allows the soil to be revitalised.

The use of diversified and eco-friendly farming that is nutrition-sensitive and climate-resilient is a better alternative to industrial agriculture. It is also less polluting and generates less farm waste, which is usually converted into animal feed and bio-compost by using organic additives, and can also be converted into energy.

Thus there is additional income and household nutritional security along with enrichment of biodiversity. Animal fodder is one of the important by-products of diversified agriculture.

Small farmers lack risk mitigation tools. A crop failure, an unexpected health expense or the marriage of a daughter are perilous events for these families. An adverse weather change, for example, can lead to a drastic decline in output and the farmer may not be able to recoup the costs of planting. Sometimes, farmers have to attempt to plant seeds several times because they may go to waste by delayed or excess rain.

Farmers in most middle-income countries need more capital than they can afford to generate through their savings. In fact, “developed” agriculture means capital-intensive agriculture.

Most farmers have been made to descend the socioeconomic ladder, where a farmer becomes a sharecropper, then a peasant without land, then an agricultural labourer, then is eventually forced into exile. These circumstances must be changed.

Small and marginal farmers are also denied access to institutional credit. Most of them depend on village traders, who are also moneylenders, to give them crop loans and pre-harvest consumption loans. Credit histories and collateral may serve to qualify middle-class customers for loans, but most rural smallholder farmers have neither.

The superior bargaining power of village traders and the middlemen means that the prices received by farmers are low. On account of the small size of the farms, they can rarely apply technological solutions that work best on a large scale. And with government extension workers not properly trained, small farmers do not have access to knowledge about best practices, for example, crop rotation techniques to help reduce pests.

Smallhold farmers need to practise smart agriculture like harvesting rainwater, using organic fertilisers and undertaking intercropping to protect these growers soil. They also need to revive some traditional farming practices that have been lost in the rush of new technology.

Several societies are now reviving the culture of seed mothers who are nurturing seed banks to curate indigenous varieties of seeds. Heirloom varieties, adapted over centuries to local ecologies, are sturdier and more adaptable in the face of problems such as pests and drought.

Another modern concept is natural farming, which is conceptually different from organic cultivation. The greatest modern evangelist of natural faming was the Japanese scientist and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka, whose “do-nothing” farming is a minimalist approach that uses commonsense, sustainable practices that eliminate the use of ploughing, weeding, tillage, pruning, pesticides, fertiliser, external compost, chemicals and several wasteful efforts.

Its recent avatar is zero budget natural farming. ZBNF is a form of agricultural system redesign that reduces farmers’ direct costs while boosting yields and farm health through the use of non-synthetic inputs sourced locally. The aim is to return to a “pre-green revolution” style of farming that will put an end to unsustainable agricultural practices and help preserve India’s genetic wealth.

ZBNF involved the microbial coating of seeds using cow dung and urine-based formulations; application of a concoction made with cow dung, cow urine, jaggery, pulse flour, water, and soil to multiply soil microbes; mulching, or applying a layer of organic material to the soil surface, to prevent water evaporation and contribute to soil humus formation; and soil aeration through a favourable microclimate in the soil.

For insect and pest management, ZBNF propagates the use of various decoctions made from cow dung, cow urine, lilac, and green chillies. Farmers are able to produce more crops, more consistently – and all this without chemical fertilisers and pesticides or big demand on limited groundwater supplies.

To make farming sustainable and resilient, farmers must be encouraged to diversify into allied activities. They can be encouraged and financed to build ponds, bunds and set up horticulture farms

Secondary agriculture too should be promoted by public/private sector. Income- generation activities that use crop residues – paddy straw, fodder blocks and crop residue briquette- can supplement income from primary agriculture. The output from the farm should also be put to gainful use- either as fodder or for mulching. Cleaning, sorting and grading of agri-produce to make it saleable must also be promoted as supplementary enterprise.

When farming fails, livestock can serve as fall back. Tribal communities already keep backyard poultry, ducks goats, sheep Bee keeping, mushroom cultivation, backyard poultry, dairying and sheep rearing can be managed by women farmers in the-family. Unlike more valuable operations on farms in India—crops or cattle, for example—goats and sheep are managed almost exclusively by women. They bring them out for grazing, take care of them when they’re ill, and sell them at the market. And the most critical point is that the money women earn from their goats stays in their hands.

The villages are slowly building a cadre of goat nurses known as “pashu sakhis,” which means “friends of the animals”. Pashu sakhis are poor women themselves who are given basic training in how to vaccinate, deworm, and provide other preventive care to goats in their community.

Another important area is forest produce such as tasar silk which is a stable source of livelihood for many tribals The Forest Rights Act is an attractive law but it is very difficult for tribals to benefit from it on account of red tape and the reluctance of forest department to concede its control over forests. Steps should be taken to make the law more roadworthy.

Agro-processing needs medium-level entrepreneurs. It’s difficult for farmers with a hectare of land or 50 to 200 mango trees to set up an agro-processing unit. .entrepreneurs doesn’t want to go to small towns, rural areas, because of inadequate infrastructure, transport, electricity. No bank will finance them either.

Sustainable agriculture must build capacity to adapt to climate variability, so that farmers can conserve resources during years of good rainfall and harvests to adjust for years with poor production.

Climate variability has always been a challenge and is set to assume historic proportions. Larger-scale innovation to make staple crops more climate-resilient is essential for food security.

We need to understand crop-specific challenges and figure out farming models that can combine the best of high-tech and environmentally sound agricultural practices, bridging the gap between scientific know-how and farmers do-how.

It is important to harness all the tools that indigenous wisdom and contemporary science can offer. Only sincere cooperation between the two can ensure an agricultural revolution suited to our times.

Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker .He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades .He can be reached at moinqazi123@gmail.com


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