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Consumers’ demand will dictate the next agriculture revolution

Andhra Pradesh is sitting pretty following the success of AP Community-Managed Natural Farming systems

Consumers’ demand will dictate the next agriculture revolution

When I was doing my graduation in agriculture, and that was some 50 years ago, one of the popular slogans was “from lab to land”. Knowing the significance and importance of ushering in an intensive agriculture, the slogan was perhaps aimed at imbibing a spirit of scientific rigour among future agricultural scientists.

Even at that time, I used to question myself, why can’t we make science a two-way channel. After all, agriculture has been practiced from time immemorial and there is a lot to learn from the wisdom that farming communities entail. My argument therefore was for rewriting the slogan, as: “From lab to land and from land to lab.”

As you guessed it right, my voice was lost in the din. But after half a century later, the society now realises the folly of ignoring what was traditionally known. Not only a folly, the intensive farming practices that have been ushered in over the past few decades has actually led to enormous devastation of natural resources, and is the reason why food farming systems are blamed for releasing a third of the global Green House Gas (GHGs) emissions.

Delivering a plenary talk at the 19th Organic World Congress in New Delhi, in 1977, I had said: “With soil fertility declining to almost zero in intensively farmed regions; excessive mining of groundwater sucking aquifers dry; and chemical inputs, including pesticides, becoming extremely pervasive in environment, the entire food chain has been contaminated. Further, as soils become sick, forests are logged for expanding industrial farming, erosion takes a heavy toll leading to more desertification. With crop productivity stagnating thereby resulting in more chemicals being pumped to produce the same harvest, the farmlands have turned toxic.”

While there are no lessons learnt, it is heartening to see a parallel international movement growing in favour of agro-ecological farming, savouring the principles of farming in alignment with nature. For over three decades now, a silent revolution has been in the making. It is now becoming more visible.

In India too, despite agricultural research and education not being in favour of anything that challenges the corporate-driven intensive agriculture design, I see the movement for agro-ecology growing. A large number of farmers and civil society groups, who have demonstrated confidence in farming in tandem with nature, have laid the foundations. Despite reluctance, policy makers are coming under increased public pressure to reframe policies in favour of environmentally safe and healthy farming practices. It may take some more time, but the growing consumer awareness at a time when the globe climate enters the boiling phase, will see a push for a transition towards agro-ecological farming.

Besides numerous stalwarts of organic farming and its different variants like permaculture, bio-dynamic farming, natural farming and regenerative agriculture, the movement is coming together as a much needed transformation from chemical to non-chemical farming.

With Andhra Pradesh emerging as a leader with the success of AP Community-Managed Natural Farming (APCNF) systems, which is being managed by a government-sponsored non-profit company Rythu Sadhikara Samstha (RySS), having already shifted or in the process of shifting nearly eight lakh farmers from chemical to non-chemical farming; and with several state governments having formulated organic farming policies, the space for agro-ecological farming is only expanding.

While the Organic Farming Association of India (OFAI) has been regularly holding bi-annual organic conventions, what brings a whiff of fresh air is not only the expanding network but also another effort being made to set up of a Farmversities Alliance. The underlying aim is to ‘regenerate and revalue organic and natural farming models, local economies, indigenous knowledge systems and ancient wisdom traditions’. Unlike agricultural universities, which rely on research, education and extension as the three activities that scientists are expected to engage in, the Alliance will focus on education, co-existence and minimalisation. These are the principles of non-violent economics that Mahatma Gandhi had also talked about.

Simply put, it leads to rebuilding farming systems that will hopefully shift the power over farming from the control of global corporations.

This is happening at a time when the agribusiness corporations are moving from Green Revolution (call it Agricultural Revolution 3.0) towards the next phase, the Agricultural Revolution 4.0, which brings a synergy between various emerging technological tools, including artificial intelligence, robotics, satellite imageries, and digital technology and thereby further tighten the corporate control over agriculture. Already, a renewed thrust to push farmers out of agriculture in the name of climate change is happening in several developed countries, with the aim to build on industrially produced synthetic foods.

But this should not be demoralizing. Why I say so is because ultimately what drives the global agenda is how the people perceive it. The withdrawal of three contentious farm laws by a steadfast farming community is a glaring example. With the call for sustainable agriculture growing, even some of the big multinational giants have been forced to launch multi-billion dollar initiatives for regenerative agriculture.

Setting up of India’s first independent Academy for Agro-ecology at Vijayawada will help fine-tune the gap in agro-ecological research and create a training environment for non-chemical farming.

But be watchful of regulatory norms that plan to set standards for natural farming. Organic farming and natural farming are two streams of the same sustainable farming system that relies on moving away from the harmful chemical farming systems that have turned farm lands toxic and polluted the water bodies.

I wonder why standards (and also caps on the quantity applied) to chemical farming were not enforced in a way that could have at least lowered the heavy intake of harmful inputs, and reduced food contamination.

Policy makers have in the past also followed industry dictums and will go by what the industry perceives as a threat to their business.

While the Farmversities Alliance will work to take safe food movement to every village and city of this country, concentrated efforts need to be made to reach out to consumers, who are already paying a heavy price with food contamination. Decolonising our minds based on a rethinking required that clearly draws the link between food and medicine is the need of the times.

That is why I have always maintained that while the Green Revolution relied on farmers to increase production, the next revolution in agriculture will be based on what the consumers demand. The times have changed. If at one time the thrust was on increasing grain output, the time now is for ensuring quality. If consumers demand naturally-grown healthy food, farmers will have to cater to what they need. And that is the truth, plain and simple.

(The author is a noted food policy analyst and an expert on issues related to the agriculture sector. He writes on food, agriculture and hunger)

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