Sunday, July 8, 2007

Making small agriculture viable and competitive
Role of civil society, state and agribusiness

A Kheti Virasat Mission perspective presented by Umendra Dutt, Executive Director, KVM at Regional Consultation on Tackling Crisis of Agricultural Sustainability in Northern Region: Role of State, Civil Society and Agribusiness organised by Indian Society for Agribusiness Professionals and Oxfam International held at Amritsar on 18 April 2007

We all are witnessing a deep crisis in the agrarian sector all around us, in all states of the country. We are seeing farmers commit suicides in thousands all around - this is probably part of the Exit Policy that the state has for them. Though we call this as 'Agrarian Distress', I am yet to come across any cases of the owner/senior manager of an agribusiness enterprise committing suicides because of the unviablity of their enterprise. I am yet to see which industry - seed, pesticides, agricultural machinery etc. - is not witnessing growth trends. If it is agrarian distress, why is it not reflected in the Agribusiness economics? Why only farmers? Therein lays the crux of the role of agri-business in starting and compounding the agrarian distress around us.
We are living in an era of corporate world. At present the corporations (which include agribusiness) are trying to control everything in the Indian Society right from the way people produce and consume to the bedroom behaviors of the people. They are doing this not out of any philanthropist motive but out of sheer greed for profits. The corporations and their owner's and managers think that they are the wisest people over the face of this earth. They think that the wisdom which the people have learned through thousands of years of experience / sufferings is all trash, primitive and useless. They think that they have the unchallenged right to impose the endless greed for profits over the people and to increase their wealth at any cost to the society and the nature. For them everything existing on this earth – right from bacteria to human beings can be used, exploited and killed as and when it suits their profits motives.
Out of these dirty intentions they have brought in a model of agriculture which is exploitative and nature abusive and based on highly toxic, harmful and costly inputs which are produced by the corporations including agribusiness. This model of agriculture was brought in an unplanned manner without any research or discussion to prove its superiority over the natural way of farming. This model has proved disastrous to the people in general and the farmers in particular. The farmers trapped in unending debts are suffering physically and mentally to the extent of committing suicides. The people are being forced to consume highly poisonous foods. Whole of environment- air, water and soil has been poisoned, killing large number of small and large living beings. The natural resources have been exploited recklessly to the extent of endangering their sustainability.
There are no two opinions now that small agriculture is no more viable and competitive. This is not natural but entirely manmade. Firstly it is because of the endless, foolish and totally irresponsible greed of the rich—World Bank/ IMF/WTO pampered big business and MNCs and particularly the agribusiness. Secondly it is due to the role of Indian State, which is almost sold out to the international and national rich and which shamelessly protects their interests ignoring even the most basic needs of the masses like sustainable livelihood and basic life needs—food, clothes and house. The greed of these MNCs and big business are not only proving disastrous to the economy and social life of the people but also to the environment, precious natural resources and other species of living beings. The Indian State is not intervening effectively to stop all this.

Corporations – the letter refers to “potential being lost”. The role and activities of agro-corporations should be framed in other ways including Corporate Crimes and Corporate Accountability. This applies to the pesticides industry where many players continue to sell pesticides banned elsewhere; undertake aggressive marketing and so on as well as to seed companies which also are not regulated to ensure that the interests of farmers are protected.
There are themes like “Agriculture Crisis and Agro-Business Firms- Mitigation of Production Risk” that have been dealt with in this one-day consultation. However, it is not a case of mitigation – we should address more fundamental issues of whether such production risks were needed in the first place, especially related to production technologies – if we do not understand the political economy of agricultural technologies and the role of agro-corporations on this front, mitigation will be a useless concept to discuss. What is the role of agri-business firms in creating the crisis should be clearly spelt out.

“Making small agriculture viable and competitive – Role of community, civil society and state” -
I have chosen this theme whereas the original title was called Role of Agribusiness and State. Making small agriculture viable can and should do away with agri-business entities which have profit as the bottom-line. I know I am defining agri-business in a narrow sense here but you would appreciate that my definition flows from the reality around us today of big corporations along with their subsidiaries, dictating and directing everything about farming. These entities come with three main weapons -- technology, corporate structures which allow for bigger fish to eat up smaller fish and throw out competition and thirdly, legislative/policy support for their activities. These three weapons that agri-business corporations have employed have been directly and indirectly responsible for the lack of viability of small agriculture today. Certainly, India needs small agriways for a small village is adequate and appropriate. There is neither a need for nor place for big in small setting.

Agribusiness must

Control its endless greed to maximize its profits and increase wealth recklessly.
Behave in a socially and politically responsible manner.
Invest in R&D of environment friendly and farmer oriented ways of agriculture.
Popularization of environment friendly and farmer oriented agriculture.
Help and organize storage and marketing of natural, organic and chemical free foods.
Invest and help in the management of natural resources to ensure their sustainability.
Stop doing business in the ways of agriculture which are neither pro farmer nor environment friendly.
Stop exploiting the natural resources in the ways which endanger their sustainability.
But it is totally utopian idea. The past experience is exactly opposite of the above and thus not worth considering. The agribusiness is not going to behave like that-we may organize endless no. of seminars and conferences. Their modus oprandi is totally anti farmer, anti people, anti nature, inimical to the environment and anti national in character.


The reality of our farming is that of small land holder agriculture. It is a way of life, it is their livelihood. Exit policies being pursued by the agribusiness and supported by the Indian State are just inhuman and unmanageable, given the millions of people that we are talking about. Blindly emulating western development models are not the answer for us here.
Smallholders are more productive and by default usually, more ecological and sustainable in their farming. They need to receive special incentives straightaway. This includes priority access to institutional agricultural credit, marketing facilities, storage facilities, infrastructure facilities, other social facilities and insurance etc.
Further, the technologies promoted for such farmers should be ones that internalize all inputs related to seed, soil productivity and pest management into the farming system. Such technologies should first aim to bring down the cost of cultivation dramatically. Interestingly about 44 % farm debt in Punjab was spent to purchase farm inputs only. According to data derived from various KVM snap studies and village level farmers’ dialogue and field discussions it is estimated that most of villages in Punjab are facing money outflow ranging from Rs 40 lakhs to Rs 7 crores depending upon crops, area under cultivation and other factors, for farm inputs only. We want to minimize this process. The experience of natural farming for many Punjabi farmers shows that reduction in cost of cultivation and even bringing it down to Zero has in itself made agriculture viable as net incomes shoot up. The rich and highly successful experience of such farming techniques in some of the states of India have been knowingly ignored by the agribusiness and Indian State.
Community level institutions and systems have a great role to play here. Farmers organizing themselves are important for knowledge-sharing and scaling out of such viable technologies. The experience from other states shows that such organizations also help in setting up micro-enterprises at the community level for input production which help all those producers who cannot completely internalize their inputs immediately. Agricultural workers can get into innovative ways of service provision related to production too.
Civil society, given the space available for innovation, newer perspectives and flexible functioning, can help in setting up alternatives at a convincing scale which will showcase the viability of smallholder farming with alternative approaches in the institutional framework and the technologies. This valuable role cannot be dismissed. They also act as watchdogs and often, they are even being victimized by agro-corporations for taking the side of people.

Finally, the state has a role to uphold the best interests of the poorest in society, first and foremost. It is only later that promoting business interests should come in, especially in a socialist welfare state. The state also has to take its role of regulating business entities seriously for any accountability to be fixed. It has been seen time and again that the state is completely lacking in its regulatory abilities and enforcement. This is the case with GM crops, pesticides, seeds and so on. The state has to provide special incentives for smallholders for their ecological farming – including subsidizing labor costs instead of subsidizing chemicals which are environmentally destructive – and also provides adequate social security like life/medical insurance for smallholder families, food entitlements, pension, and basic amenities and so on. Importantly, the state also has to take Indian farmer-friendly steps in all its decisions related to liberalized trade. Right now, that is not the case. For all those crops which the farmer will sell in the market after she meets the household food security needs, there have to be supportive and remunerative markets ensured by the state.

Indian State must
1. Stop being protectors of the economic interests of MNCs and big business vis-a-vis the farmers and common people.
2. Provide infrastructure facilities to small farmers for viable, competitive and environment friendly agriculture to ensure sustainability of natural resources.
3. Provide market facilities for all agriculture outputs particularly the natural and organic ones keeping into consideration the interests of farmers and consumers.
4. Must provide storage facilities including cold storage facilities to store their products for small farmers
5. Ensure minimum wages as per the size of land holding, irrespective of the actual production.
6. Ensure the basic securities of life for farmers and farm laborers—food, clothing and housing.
7. Must provide free/cheap and good quality health and education facilities to the farmers and farm laborers.
8.Must help newly wed couples to set up their family.
If we see the track record of Indian State, all these things seem impossible. Thus the role of the civil society seems to be most important at this juncture. We the civil societies are for agri’ CULTURE and not for agri’ BUSINESS. We strongly advocate local markets by local people, for local benefits. The resources must remain with the communities.

Civil Society Must
1. Must expose and oppose this model of development being pursued by the Indian state to protect the economic interests of the MNCs and big business.
2. Must draw a blue print for an alternative model of development which will best serve the farmers, farm laborers and other toiling people of this country.
3. Must oppose a model of agriculture which is inimical to the farmers, common people, environment and sustainability of natural resources.
4. Must build and popularize an alternative model of agriculture which is nature friendly as well as people friendly.
5. Must create an environment to compel the Indian State to adopt the model of natural/organic agriculture which has already been tested as superior in every way to the chemical farming.
6. Must oppose tooth and nail the policy of the MNCs to push out the farmers out of agriculture.
7. Must play a role of watch dog of sustainability of agriculture, environment and natural resources.
8. Must help people to organize themselves into co-operatives and collectives to solve their problems.
9. Must help farmers to do R&D in cheap and natural techniques of farming.

Pesticides are a waste of time and money

Four decades after the launch of the Green Revolution, agricultural scientists are now discovering that chemical pesticides are a complete waste of time and money. They have realized the grave mistake only after poisoning the lands, contaminating the ground water, polluting the environment, and killing thousands of farmers and farm workers and lacs and crores of other living beings.

Says an IRRI press release (July 28, 2004): Imagine 2,000 poor rice farmers in Bangladesh, whose average farm income is around US$100 per year, suddenly take on the role of agricultural scientist. Over the course of 2 years -- 4 seasons – they prove that insecticides are a complete waste of time and money. IRRI senior entomologist Gary C. Jahn, states: "To my surprise when people stopped spraying, yields didn't drop -- and this was across 600 fields in two different districts over 4 seasons. I'm convinced that the vast majority of insecticides that rice farmers use are a complete waste of time and money.”

This is the outcome of a joint IRRI-British DFID’s Livelihood Improvement Through Ecology (LITE) project, which has demonstrated that insecticide can be eliminated and nitrogen fertilizer (urea) applications reduced without lowering yields. “We've reduced insecticide use among participating farmers by 99%, and by 90% among non-participating farmers in the same villages, Dr Jahn added.

What's more, if LITE continues as it has started, in less than a decade, most of Bangladesh's 11.8 million rice farmers -- almost a 12th of the country's population of 141 million, according to the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute, a key project partner -- will have eliminated insecticides and optimized their fertilizer use.

Similar studies in the Central Luzon province of the Philippines and in certain parts of Vietnam have already demonstrated that pesticides were not required. Does it not mean that agricultural scientists and agribusiness had pushed and promoted chemical all these years without looking for viable and sustainable alternatives? Does it not mean that the technology for productivity increase was not based on sound ecological and environmental parameters? Does it not mean that the land grant system of research had ignored the potential of agriculture growth that existed in the developing countries, based on time-tested technologies and sustainable farming system?

If it has taken 30 years to realize that the technology promoted by the USAID and blindly aped by the National Agricultural Research Systems in the developing countries, and that too after inflicting an irreparable damage to human health and environment, was faulty; what is the guarantee that genetically engineered crops will not leave behind still more damaging consequences? Who will be responsible for the destruction that is being enforced through genetic manipulations? [1]

A must to do task:
Evaluate role of agriculture experts and business professionals. Punjab is in the grip of a terrible environmental crisis emanating from the intensive farming practices in vogue for the past four decades .Even Studies by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural research (CGIAR) have established that Punjab is faced with second generation environmental crisis. The cultivable land is sick, the environment has been heavily contaminated by the use and abuse of chemical pesticides and the underground water table is plummeting at a disastrous pace. Excessive use of chemical fertilisers has rendered the soils infertile. Organic matter in Punjab' soil is almost close to zero percent. Much of the fertiliser leaches into the groundwater making it not only unfit for drinking but also for irrigation. Excessive withdrawal of nutrients from the soil has also brought in deficiencies of micro-nutrients over the past few decades. And yet, despite the severe environmental impact from the green revolution practices, agricultural scientists did not advocate a mid-term correction by bringing in sustainable farming practices.
No agro business institution had raised this issue, why?
Punjab Agricultural University however continues to push in pesticides knowing well that these were not required in the first place. In case of cotton, agricultural scientists have compounded the problem by turning the insect profile hostile. There were only six or seven pests that worried the cotton farmers in the 1960s. Today the number of cotton pests has multiplied to over 60.
Studies done by ICRISAT and IRRI clearly demonstrate the sustainability, viability and successful economics of Non-Pesticide Management practices. Farmers in Bangladesh, Philippines and Vietnam have successfully opted for pesticide free rice cultivation. The Cuba has also shown the way. Former Director General of IRRI, Dr. Robert Cantrell had this to say: "It shows that the mistakes of Green Revolution where too much emphasis was sometimes put on the use of chemicals for pest control have clearly been recognized and corrected".
But irony of country and especially Punjab is that the agriculture establishments are not open to this truth of pesticides and even they are not tolerant to any question and debate related to pesticides and environmental health crisis. They are still in green-revolution mindset and insulated from alternative paradigm for sustainable agriculture, environment and development. The agriculture establishments feel honour of their role played in green revolution, it could be their proud. They already got pat for that, they earned whole lot of admiration for the work they had done, but now it is time to have an honest introspection and constructive criticism should be encouraged. Why agro business kept silent on all these developments. The question is whether the agribusiness people are helping the poor farmers by doing this?
An independence movement is taking shape in India to oppose enslavement of Indian people. There are enough indications to show that people are losing faith in the traditional institutions of society. Swamy Ramdev phenomenon is challenging the very powerful drug/surgery oriented high tech and very costly and highly toxic model of health and trying to replace it with very cheap, safe, non-toxic, natural, highly scientific and sustainable model of health based on yoga, life style management and ayurveda. There is a movement to boycott unhealthy ready-made foods and replace it with natural, healthy and cheap foods. There is a movement to shift to foods on which no chemicals have been used. There is a movement to save our environment from unscrupulous industry. There is a movement to save our water bodies.
There are various shades of organized movements—Muslim fundamentalism, Gandhian and swadeshi movements, farmers movements, environment protection movements and social and political movements of all shades—right from religious fundamentalism to ultra left movements. All these movements look different on the surface but one thing is common in all of them. All these are against the corporate model of economic, social and cultural way of life. All these movements are opposed to the way the institutions of Corporations and Indian State are functioning. The only one factor that there is 300 times increase in the sale of the photos of Bhagat Singh, a symbol of radicalism in Punjab is enough indication to see the direction of peoples' consciousness. Rapid rise of radical movement in India is the ever increasing challenge to the anti farmer and anti people policies of corporate/big business and the Indian State.

The people are getting ready to stop tolerating the nonsense which is being imposed on the people under the sweet word ' independent India'. They are getting ready to usher in a second independence movement. When the people rise in revolt, it is like a high velocity thunder storm, which straightens everything—it hardly matters how strong it looked before the storm was there. No body will be able to remain neutral. It will compel every one of us to take a side. Let us see which side the agribusiness, Indian State and Civil Society stand. This will be our new history.

[1] Source: Keynote address By Devinder Sharma at the national seminar on “Alternative Strategies for Development” held at the RCVP Noronha Academy of Administration and Management, Bhopal, India, from Aug 10-12, 2004

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