The Pandemic Must Transform Our Agriculture
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
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
In India about half of them live in the
vast stretches of the Deccan and East Indian plateau, practising 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:
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
· 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
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 fertilisers; 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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