Revolution that is not so green, after all
by Sandhya Jain on 12 Mar 2013 4 Comments

The archetypal states of the green revolution are shriveling under the cumulative impact of the overuse of chemical pesticides and fertilisers, hybrid monoculture, and over extraction of ground water, all of which have ravaged the soil health and affected productivity. Further, in just one decade, yields have peaked in genetically modified crops (Bt cotton) even as new and drug-resistant pests have emerged to attack the crop and harass the luckless farmers.


Despite these irreversible trends, planners continue to project genetic engineering (GE) as the panacea for all that ails Indian agriculture. Worse, refusing to learn from the ongoing history of farmer tragedies, the government proposes to extend the mistakes of the green revolution to rainfed regions.


The National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA), approved three years ago, and now revived as the linchpin of the 12th Plan, views genetic engineering as the solution to all crop requirements, such as drought resilience, salinity tolerance, improved nitrogen fixation, and water efficiency. Experts warn that this could cause loss of potentially useful genetic biodiversity. More dangerously, farmers would lose control of seeds and would be forced to rely on monopoly biotechnology companies, as has happened in the case of cotton farmers; Bt cotton comprises over 92% of all cotton grown in India.


Yet the NMSA moots genetic engineering as the future route for all crop improvements, and even proposes extending it to livestock, fisheries, poultry and microbes. It suggests that GE should be used to convert crops of certain efficiency (C3) in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (thereby reducing the carbon footprint) into C4 crops for improved photosynthesis.


Experts feel this is unnecessary and that it is better and safer to rely on traditional C4 crops like maize and millet. It is pertinent that the Parliamentary Committee on agriculture and a committee appointed by the Supreme Court noted concerns with GM Policy and demanded a precautionary approach till appropriate regulations are in place. Early experiments with GM plants had adversely affected animals that accidentally ate the crop residue, though these were quickly hushed up by vested interests.


The mission’s main thrust is on technology and mechanized agriculture, with emphasis on promoting tractors, laser land levelers, drip and sprinklers, all of which have failed in states like Punjab and Haryana where they cannot check the declining productivity caused by virtually barren soil and poor water table.


The 12th Plan aims at 4 per cent growth rate in agriculture as against 3.3 per cent and 2.4 per cent in previous years. It pays lip service to small farms, but its approach will adversely impact small farmers, food security, and even the status of agriculture in the economy.


Farm collectivization, once virulently opposed by Choudhary Charan Singh, could make a backdoor entry via the 12th Plan, which virtually punishes farmers with marginal land holdings. Stressing the “viability of farm enterprise and focus on small farms”, the Plan proposes that small farmers leave agriculture and lease their lands as land banks which can be leased to farmers’ cooperatives. A presumed surplus population in agriculture is thus yanked out of the farmstead without providing alternative livelihoods. Instead, it is glibly suggested that the displaced farmers work under MGNREGA or become slum dwellers in cities!


The threat of forced cooperativisation is serious, with an array of changes in the Tenancy and Land Lease Acts and APMC Act being mooted to make the idea work. There is little concern that this would further marginalise and impoverish the farmers. It is claimed that “lands will not be given to corporate entities”, but experts say this is an indirect admission that the government is aware that the powerful food industry and land grab sharks will make a killing.


The lopsided nature of the approach paper is evident from its assertion that agricultural production must shift from cereal to pulses, horticulture, and value addition through food processing, as India has enough food grains reserve till the end of the 12th Plan. Actually, as NSSO data reveals, there has been a sharp decline in food grains consumption in the last two decades in both urban and rural areas, which has serious implications for food and nutrition security. The document urges lower minimum support price for rice and wheat and higher MSP for pulses and oilseeds. The government has reduced food security to availability of food in the market, linked up with the public distribution system and cash transfer based on Aadhar.


The emphasis on food processing is unsettling, as food processing industries are lobbying hard for subsidies in agriculture. This means processed food will be treated at par with food grown in farms and will receive government subsidy. If that happens, policy changes will ensure that the lion’s share of public funding goes to food processing (private capitalism).


Much attention has been given to private investment in agriculture. Worldwide, private capital in agriculture has focused on production of oilseeds, agro-fuels, wheat and feed for livestock for meat production. In India, private investment in agriculture has focused on farm mechanization and micro irrigation. The 12th Plan hopes to attract investment in back-end infrastructure like food processing, warehousing, rural connectivity, insurance products, most of which is expected as FDI in retail.


The Plan does not envisage curbing alienation of agricultural land. Current estimates show that an additional 11 million ha agricultural land is needed to feed the rising population. Despite this, nearly 3 million ha of agricultural land (much of this multi cropping) has been diverted to non-agricultural use since 1990-91, according to official statistics.


India needs to overhaul the current system of input-intensive agriculture based on monoculture and hybrids, biotechnology, and mechanization. Sustainable agriculture can only be based on diversified production models and conserving genetic bio-diversity of crops and livestock in partnership with local communities. It must accommodate the reality of subsistence agriculture in the country, and encourage non-pesticidal farming and use of bio-fertilizers.


Finally, we need strategies to cope with climate change. Increased temperatures have already adversely affected wheat and paddy yields in some places due to increased water stress and reduction in the number of rainy days. Parts of western Rajasthan, southern Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Northern Karnataka, Northern Andhra Pradesh, and Southern Bihar are perceived as vulnerable to climate-induced stress.


The Pioneer, 12 March 2013 

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