Reviving tradition in India Agriculture
by Sandhya Jain on 17 May 2016 25 Comments

The “green revolution” that India has been following for several decades has contributed an enormous amount of greenhouse gases, mainly nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4), to the atmosphere. A single molecule of nitrous oxide, a by-product of urea usage, when released through a process of denitrification, stays in the atmosphere for 150 years, and has five times the heat-trapping power of carbon-di-oxide.


Nitrous oxide has been rampantly used for nearly half a century in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh to boost rice and wheat yields. Now, the costs of farming based on chemical fertilisers, chemical pesticides, and water-intensive farming, has come home to roost in the form of dried aquifers, degraded soils, polluted ground water, polluted rivers, and vanished biodiversity. K.P. Prabhakaran Nair, chairman of the Supreme Court-appointed Independent Expert Committee on Bt brinjal, who campaigned successfully for GM-free agriculture in Kerala, feels the green revolution must account for its contribution to global warming.


On the eve of the NDA government’s second anniversary, Prime Minister Narendra Modi endorsed the intellectuals who decried farming practices that inject poison into the earth and create problems for humanity and other species. At a three-day Agriculture Kumbh, also called International Vichar Kumbh (May 12-14), hosted by the Madhya Pradesh government and coinciding with the Kumbh at Ujjain, scholars, thinkers, seers, experts and activists debated the deleterious impact of the green revolution.


The cumulative effect of chemical fertilisers and chemical insecticides in poisoning soils, ruining soil texture, and disrupting the centuries-old bio-diversity of agriculture while destroying soil-nourishing elements, was intensely debated. The poison is now pervasive in our food-chain. Birds (sparrows, vultures) and bees are disappearing due to the use of fertilisers and pesticides. The collapse of bee colonies is affecting farm fertility worldwide. Empirical studies show that species other than those targeted by pesticides are affected by over 95 per cent of sprayed herbicides and 98 per cent of insecticides. The planet is paying a very heavy for the quest for commercial profits from agriculture.


The World Health Organisation found that in developing countries, over 30 lakh agricultural workers are annually subjected to ‘severe’ poisoning for failing to take adequate precautions while spraying insecticides. As many as 59 per cent of deaths attributable to pesticide use are reported from developing countries, even though the latter account for only one-fourth of world-wide consumption of these chemicals.


It is pertinent to ask why precautions, even protective gear, is required if the pesticides are ‘safe’? If they are dangerous to inhale at the time of spraying, how can they be deemed safe? It is no secret that the chemicals cannot be completely washed off the skin of fruits and vegetables. Further, they enter the food chain directly in the next cropping season when the new plants absorb them from the soil. Domestic animals fed on plant leaves and stalks after harvest also ingest these harmful chemicals.


Chemical fertilisers cause increased alkalinity and hardening of soil, whereas traditional farming practices improve humus and keep soil porous. Worse, chemical fertilisers have polluted water sources, giving rise to problems of kidney failure, hypertension, anaemia, skin diseases, hair-fall and stunted physical and mental growth. Several fertilisers contain metals such as arsenic, aluminum, antimony, barium, beryllium, boron, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, copper, iron, zinc, manganese, mercury, nickel, selenium, lead, thallium, uranium etc., in quantities up to six times the safe limit.


A move away from the market-oriented homogenisation of agriculture towards a non-violent, ecosystem approach to farming is long overdue. Perhaps we need to think in terms of farming cultures rather than view agriculture as a monolithic system. Punjab has seen the writing on the wall after the spectacular failure of its Bt Cotton crop this year, and begun to move towards models proposed by the Kheti Virasat Mission.


As farming is India’s largest employer, we need to ensure that farmers receive just remuneration for their efforts. For decades, the Government of India and Planning Commission have pursued policies that forced villagers to migrate to urban slums as cheap domestic and industrial labour; these policies are now under serious challenge.


A farming model that forces farmers to buy seeds from corporates instead of saving the best seeds from the last harvest, which entangles them in a vicious cycle of debt on account of costly fertilisers and pesticides, and forces them to commit suicide, must be scrapped forthwith. What we need is to steadily return to traditional multi-cropping whereby different crops are planted in rows in a field, thereby drawing different nutrients from the soil, and preventing pests of one crop from crossing over to other rows of the same crop. The system has saved farmers from ruin in the event of failure of one crop. The western practice of mono-cultivation must end immediately.


At the same time, natural manure must gradually substitute chemical fertilisers to produce more nutritious crops. This calls for saving native species of cattle, which are disease and drought resistant, from extinction; the hybrids that accompanied the green revolution must be phased out. The dung and urine of native cows make the best manure, which combined with other products (milk, curd, ghee) form the foundation of ayurvedic medicine (‘panchgavya’). Once these initiatives gain traction, the bells will toll for the ‘green revolution’; few will mourn its demise.


On no account must India permit Genetically Modified food crops. Former Delhi University vice chancellor Deepak Pental and others have grown Bt Brinjal and are clamouring for its commercialisation. Since this is simply illegal, they must be made to disclose the farm where the crop has been grown and all material destroyed in totality. Farmers whose crops may have been contaminated by GM pollen must be compensated and Pental and his colleagues held accountable before the law.


Natural farming means that farmers grow crops compatible with the soil. Vidarbha’s water table is reeling from cultivating water-intensive sugarcane, which should ideally be grown in Bihar. Now, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, whose scientists have been brainwashed by association with a seed multinational, have expressed a desire to create a GM sugarcane that will allegedly guzzle less water. As India has more than enough varieties of every native crop, the Government of India would do well to clamp down this madness without further ado. 

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