Whenever we hear about serious problems relating to farmers and farming and how to resolve them, we hear this generally in the context of three versions. One version is of existing and upcoming big business interests who want to have an increasing role and ultimately domination in the farming sector. The second version is of the government which while supporting this corporatization on the whole tries also to dress this up and somewhat modify this in such a way that the government may appear to be also protecting the interests of farmers in some ways. The third version is of the mainstream farmers’ movement whose main emphasis is on ensuring an adequate price to farmers for their produce.
Unfortunately none of these versions is capable of resolving the crisis of farming and farming in a long-term, sustainable way. The longer-term sustainable solutions have to be found outside the paradigm of these three dominant versions. Unfortunately the media discussion is often confined to only these versions, or a mix of them. On the basis of such discussions we can at best get only temporary and patchy solutions; at worst we will just go from one crisis to another.
Let us consider some of the solutions which have been offered in the past by these three versions. The big business interests have often talked in terms of GM crops, a new version being gene-edited crops. There is enough scientific evidence to show that this is nothing but a recipe for disaster. The government has often mentioned contract-based farming, with some safeguards, but the past experience shows how this can be very harmful for ordinary small farmers, also in terms of pushing wrong cropping-patterns and endangering food security.
The mainstream farmer movements have been pushing repeatedly for a higher price which is often stated by them to be 50 per cent more than the broadly defined cost of cultivation. This has been discussed so often and emphasized so much as to create an impression that this provides an ultimate solution for the woes of farmers, while the basic fallacy of this approach has been entirely neglected.
The basic fallacy of this approach is that as soon as a price in certain excess of cost of cultivation is demanded, there is an implicit acceptance of rising costs and the most important task of decreasing costs of farming gets neglected. Since the advent of green-revolution technology, the most important cause of increasing economic problems of farmers as well as their increasing debts relates to increasing costs of farming. So the task of reducing costs is very important. A very important component of the increase in costs relates to ever- increasing costs of those industrial, cash-purchased inputs which are also harming farm-ecology like never before. So a basic task has to be reduce these cash-purchased, costly, ecologically harmful inputs as much as possible by bringing in cost-reducing, ecologically beneficial, self-reliant methods which make optimal use of village resources while removing or reducing dependence on external input cash purchases.
While this is eminently reasonable, the industrial interests do not want this approach because their earnings increase only when farmers purchase inputs from them. The media gets advertisement revenue mainly from industrial interests. Political leaders are often in collusion with industrial interests. There is increasing intrusion of big business in agricultural research and extension as well . Hence what is most needed in farming sector in reality does not generally get the support of the most powerful interests.
It is only farmers who can raise the most genuine demands but a lot of efforts are made to entice some of them or some of their leaders towards raising their demands in such a way that the heavy dependence on industrial inputs is not reduced or disturbed. Hence the demand for keeping purchase price in certain excess of costs is raised. It can be 50% excess or 70% excess, this is not the real issue. The real issue is that as soon as you present the main demand as a demand for a price in excess of costs there is less incentive for deceasing costs, as rise in costs will only lead to rise in price the farmer will get. Having trapped the farmer in this narrow demand, politicians then compete for the vote of farmers by satisfying them within these narrow limits, without bothering about the really needed change of moving towards eco-friendly, sustainable, self-reliant, extremely low-cost farming.
The danger is that with everyone looking at their narrowly defined interests the real objectives of justice, sustainability, protection of environment and creative durable livelihoods will be neglected. So we have to move out of the current narrowly defined paradigm of farm debate as the solutions based on justice, sustainability, protection of environment, checking climate change, ensuring very creative and durable livelihood to present day farmers as well as landless workers, protection of soil and soil-organisms , pollinators, care of farm animals etc. lie largely outside the current paradigm of farm debate. Interested readers may also look at my article in countercurrents.org dated November 25 2020 titled ‘Social Agro-Ecology is the Key to the Real Progress and Security of Food and Farming Systems’. Suffice it to say here that we need a meeting of the three main objectives of justice, protection of environment and ensuring adequate healthy, safe food to people.
Bharat Dogra is a veteran freelance journalist and author who has received several prestigious awards for his writings on rural development. His latest books include Planet in Peril and Protecting Earth for Children.