‘Agro-ecological Farming is the way to India’s Future’ – Report of the workshop held in Bangalore on 6th August 2019

Workshop panellists and audience members

The workshop was hosted by Environment Support Group at SCM House, Bengaluru, on the 6th of August, 2019. The introduction to the workshop was given by Leo Saldanha of Environment Support Group, in which he highlighted the implications of agriculture in India being taken over by agribusiness corporations. “This is one of the most dangerous things to have happened to the farmers in India as it takes away their capacity to decide for themselves”, he said. Such disempowerment of farmers has been happening for a while now in many forms, he said, especially from the 1960s when Green Revolution was introduced extensively by the State, and with the engagement of agricultural universities and corporations, and the same institutional networks was later used in the 1990s to promote Genetically Modified Organisms in farming. And now the ‘last bastion of hope for farmers and consumers to produce and consume safe food’, which is in agroecological farming, is being taken over through an intricate network of international and national financial institutions buying into the introduction of Zero Budget Farming (ZBF), which also saw support in the Union Budget of 2019. Farmers have not been integral to any of these decisions, he explained. 

The first part of the recording of the workshop
Leo Saldanha giving the introduction to the workshop

The promotion of ZBF (which essentially is Zero Budget Natural Farming – ZBNF, now renamed after its promoter as Subash Palekar Spiritual Farming – SPNF) by the Union Government in this manner, is a very serious development as it assumes this one method can address the demands and futures of diverse agricultural zones and practices across India, on which 65% of India’s population is dependent for its livelihoods, and the entire nation for its food security.

A deeply worrying concern is that the entire system is perceiving farmers as part of a technocratic system, and thus treats them as a part of a massive machinery. Besides, without the farmers’ consent, decisions are being made to retrofit them into newer modes of agrarian production. In the process, farming has become highly commodified and deeply corporatised. and this presents a real danger to the future of sovereign farming and the dignity and empowerment of farmers of our country. This is particularly the case when the Central Government is capable of attacking the most fundamental rights of rights without any second thought. Our Constitution’s text and substance is to not employ power to muscle a particular decision or way of thinking, but it is to deal with complex issues with nuance, care and compassion. In the prevailing political climate that provides for very little debate and dialogue, it is disturbing that ZBNF/SPNF is being promoted as a one-size-fits-all solution to the nation’s farming. Worrying also is the fact that various UN agencies and a network of global and Indian financial institutions and foundations, are claiming this method can build food security globally. 

Dr Vandana Shiva of Navdanya emphasised that India must return to its ecological roots to address the Agrarian Emergency which includes farmer suicides, malnutrition, hunger, destruction of rural livelihoods and so on. The emergency, she argues, is a result of five decades of chemical based Green Revolution, two decades of corporate globalisation and the disaster of Bt cotton (India’s only commercially released GMO). All this has come together with increasing control over food and agricultural production by corporates who have designed a system that forces farmers to increasingly depend on corporate seeds and chemical inputs. The grave agrarian emergency can only be answered by returning to our agroecological roots, she argued.

Dr. Vandana Shiva addressing the audience

Dr. Shiva explained how organic farming is indigenous to India. When Albert Howard was sent to India in 1905 to “improve” Indian agriculture, he found that the soil was fertile and there were no pests in the land, which he found was the result of multi-cropping and the law of return. Therefore”, Vandana argued that when statements like “organic farming is worse than an atom bomb” is made (alluding to such a statement that had recently been made by Subash Palekar), it demonstrates a complete ignorance of India’s agricultural history. Organic is a way of life, not a product nor is it merely a technique”, she asserted. The organic worldview is based on non separation and awareness of the fact that humans are intricately part of a living world, quite in contrast to the mechanistic, industrial world view which sees humans as masters and manipulators of nature. Organic principles also exclude GMOs. “India is being diverted and misled to prevent us from our turning to our ecological roots and traditional knowledge systems to address the emergency and defend our sovereignty” Dr. Shiva highlighted.

 The richness of imagination of our oneness with nature, and our languages are being extinguished by an imported and imposed phrase , Zero Budget Farming ,which is meaningless not only in Hindi or any other Indian language, but also in English . “Zero Budget” is mente nullius, and creates empty minds who cannot think for themselves. “Zero Budget Farming is a corporate driven agenda to empty our minds of knowledge and intelligence highly capable of making sustainable and just choices , and in the process empty the farmers pockets”. The Andhra Pradesh experiment with ‘zero budget natural farming’ is not based on Zero Budget for the  state because it is supported by billions of dollars of loans which will have to be paid back . “First we were told that chemicals will feed us, next we were told that GMOs will feed us and now we are being told that zero will feed us”, said Dr. Shiva. She called out to the wide public to defend authentic ecological systems and stop the fraud of ZBF which is following the same path as that which was beaten by the Green revolution and then the GMO programme. Only that now it is a direct assault on the economy of the farmer based on foreign loans.

Aruna Rodrigues, Lead Petitioner against GMOs in the Supreme Court, spoke on why India must not allow GMOs and gene editing. She argued that “GMO and Non-GMO agriculture cannot co-exist because of contamination by the former of the latter.  Contamination of our germplasm and foundation seed stock by GMOs will change the structure of our food at the molecular level. Any toxicity that there is will remain and will be irreversible. Our choices for organic/agro ecological farming will vanish.”

Aruna Rodrigues addressing the audience

Herbicide Tolerant(HT) and Bt crops, which form a large part of GMOs are unsustainable technology at the ground level, she explained. “HT crops have given rise to intractable superweeds and no yield gain. Bt crops, where the objective is to control cotton bollworm infestation, is increasingly unsustainable with insect resistance on the rise worldwide”, Rodrigues shared. Bt cotton has other negative consequences which includes low yield. (hovering at below 500 Kg/ha over the 14 years of 2005 to 2018) and increased cost of cultivation which is almost 4-fold higher. When bt cotton was introduced in India in 2002, the price of a packet of bt cotton was 2000% higher than non-Bt cotton. Indian farmers may have paid a staggering additional amount of Rs 14,000 crores on Bt-Cotton seeds during the 17-year period, 2002-18, she analysed. Despite GMOs being an absolute failure, the private seed sector was allowed to remain in the business. “The official and dangerously misleading regulatory position today remains that Bt cotton is an outstanding success to be replicated in our food crops, despite its fantastic failure.” said Aruna Rodrigues. 

“Agroecological farming, however, has evidence in its favour. Non-GMOs, traditional plant breeding and newer methods, continue to outperform GMOs, in all regions, at much less cost per trait. India’s uniqueness is the treasure-trove of a super-rich germplasm, it is one of 17 acknowledged global hot-spots. India’s biodiversity is the passport to agricultural security in climate-resilient crops, which is already a requirement, with climate change looming over us”, Aruna concluded. 

Vishala Padmanabhan of Buffalo Back Collective spoke about her experience engaging with Food Standards and Safety Association of India (FSSAI). She also spoke of her experience in community farming, based on her ongoing work with extremely small and marginal farmers in Bannerghatta, near Bangalore. About her experience engaging with FSSAI, a regulatory body that functions under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and is entrusted with the protection and promotion of public health through regulation and supervision of food, Vishala said it appears to be working contrary to its motto: “Inspiring Trust, Assuring Safe and Nutritious Food”. 

The second and concluding part of the recording of the workshop
Vishala Padmanabhan addressing the audience

According to Vishala, Bangalore has around 550 stores that claim to be selling organic food products. But what actually constitutes as real organic food is still not clear among the consumers. 95 percent of what she found on the shelves of the organic stores were industrialised organic food that had been neatly packaged and certified by FSSAI on the claim they had been organically grown. In order to figure out for herself what the consumers understand as organic food, as the obvious first step, she went back to the guidelines and regulations that FSSAI has prepared for consumer information on organic food. Reading the one and a half page document she realised that FSSAI has no idea as to what safe food means. 

While engaging with FSSAI she also realised that the regulatory body’s mechanism to give certification is extremely complicated, especially for small farmers. Although FSSAI has provisions like Participative Guarantee System Certification, through which small farmers can get certified, the regulator has still not figured out how to make this scheme accessible to small farmers and food processors. This is because FSSAI works as a corporate body managed by a CEO and bases all their regulations and best practice guidelines for processing food on data produced by the big corporates, and thus designed to supervise massive scales of operations. Moreover FSSAI shares an antagonistic relationship with the Ministry of Agriculture which further complicates the issue.

In her quest to figure out how to disentangle problems that now make the certification process easier, Vishala learned Ministry of Agriculture has developed a technology tool, a form of questionnaire, that requires every farmer to enter their data on production and keep a daily journal of their activities as organic farmers. This mechanism apparently has been put in place to ensure safety of organic food and to secure it from being compromised by or contaminated from non-organic or conventionally grown food. However, she explained, “the technology has been formulated in a way that all the entries  are required to be made strictly in English. The question thus arises how farmers can at all be expected to comply with such rules”. With the aggressive promotion of ZBNF across the country, in which systems for collecting data on farming methods and production have been specifically evolved, the entire focus has shifted towards integrating the ZBNF technology system with the Ministry of Agriculture’s technology tool. Rather than come up with methods that are accessible and simple to use, ridiculously tough procedures are in place for acquiring certificates, which puts the entire mechanism out of the reach of all farmers, especially the small and marginal ones. 

Bablu Ganguly from Timbaktu Collective spoke on his experience as a farmer, his experience working with farmers for over 40 years and his concern about the degradation of soil in India. Bablu said that Timbaktu Collective cooperative processes and sells 800 tons of organic food every year. And if there is good rain, it may go up to 1,500 tons. “The question is”, he raised, “how does one sell in the market in the scenario where the FSSAI gives the farmers cooperative headaches?” Although Timbaktu Collective was one of the first to have begun working with Participatory Guarantee Scheme, Bablu is yet to figure out what they are up against. 

Bablu Ganguly talking to the audience about replenishing the topsoil

Bablu then drew attention to the pioneering work of Albert Howard and how he called farmers as professors in his seminal book of 1940 An Agricultural Testament. Howard had described Indian agricultural systems an example that was globally highlighted for emulation by many reputable professors and distinguished individuals. “However, very disturbingly, the same Indian agricultural system is in crisis. Farmers are committing suicide and soil degradation is extreme. Agriculture has become so bad and ruinous, that it is mind blowing”, state Bablu . 

About the status of soil, Bablu explained that post World War 2, something happened that changed the dynamics of soil management. “We began adapting techniques that were wrong for us, such as deep ploughing, pouring chemicals in, importing harvesting machineries, and stopped composting, as there was increased dependency on monocropping”. Bablu then explained that “in the tropics monocropping does not work, unlike in the temperate regions where it may work. This is because there is so much bacterial development in the tropics that we have to fool the ground by increasing the dose of chemicals so as to accept the monoculture of crops. Therefore”, he said “it is impossible to do organic monocropping here”. Bablu also said that in the tropics there are a large number of species with smaller populations, but in the temperate regions there are fewer species with large populations. The prevailing conventional techniques of farming do not factor in all these dynamics – it merely looks at soil as a medium and more or less the same anywhere, which is so wrong.

“This system has been imposed on us, especially in agriculture, and we have accepted it unquestionably” Bablu exclaimed. “We have lost our connection with the cosmos, to the Earth, to the sun and the moon and stars that used to guide us in our agricultural practices. If food is the essence of life, then nutrition of the soil is what allows for the nutrition of humans, animals and plants. Our nation becomes unhealthy if soil is unhealthy” he argued. In the extensively prevailing conventional farming, soil is extremely marginalised, with little carbon content – the building material of life. “We are now using 0.3-0.4 metric tons of organic matter in the soil, which is extremely low as compared to the minimum stipulated by University of Agricultural Sciences – 4 metric tons” Bablu said. 

It is extremely important to replenish soil with organic matter and get it back to its original texture and healthy form. But it is not an easy matter to build organic matter into the soil, if there is no biomass support system for farming, such as through pastoralism and protection of commons. But it can be done if there is a clear strategy to rejuvenating the topsoil. “What takes nature million of years to do, we can do in 30-40 years through persistent  efforts”, Bablu asserted. “Currently, soil microbes are down to chewing on minerals in soil as there is no organic matter. Soon we will be left only with sand”, he said. Soil must be good and must have organic matter after which organic methods of farming using organic pesticides and fertilizers will succeed. He firmly stated that we must add organic matter to our soil and that there are no two ways about it. Bablu concluded his talk by saying that ZBNF’s advocacy of not adding carbon to soil is dangerous therefore.

Dr, Manjunath from The School of Natural Farming, Tumkur, shared his insights on the issue. He began his talk by sharing that, according to famine indicators developed by the British, minimum consumption of food should be 270 kg per capita per year. However, currently, it is only 230 kg per capita. “Though we have reached high in production of pulses, egg, meat and other cereals, we are unable to scale up our per capita food consumption”, he explained. .

Manjunath talking about Natural Farming

Perception of growing food from traditional agriculture which gave equal importance to grains for humans and fodder for animals has changed after Green Revolution. “Humans became greedy and gave importance to grain yield. For eg: Ragi which was yielding 4 feet hay was made yield with 1.5 to 2.0 feet, to substitute its energy for grain production”, he said. With no fodder available, food grains are used to feed animals. “We are also changing the food habits of animals forcing them to eat processed food grains resulting in our own livestock becoming competitors for our food grains. This is the result of promotion of Hybrid food production” Dr. Manjunath said. 

Another major concern for Manjunath is about the low organic matter in soil, critical to sustaining microbial activity supporting farming. In this context, he explained that the promotion of ZBNF in which advocates “only application of jeevamrutha will result in degradation of the soil, and very fast, as the soil microbes will consume minerals in low carbon soils rendering them wastelands”. He reaffirmed what Bablu said on the importance of organic carbon in soil, which is very low in soils across Karnataka and Andhra. 

Manjunath invited the audience to question why agricultural policies are not developed by farmers, instead prepared by those who do not understand agriculture at all. Towards this end, Manjunath explained how a ground up process has evolved in drafting a People’s Natural Farming Policy for Karnataka, based on interactions with farmers across the state. “A major focus of this draft policy is decentralisation with respect to production, resources, markets and decision making” Manjunath explained. “Besides, it focuses on conservation of natural resources like water, forest, medicinal herbs, pasture lands, streams, tanks and rivers, along with farmers land”. Manjunath concluded his talk affirming that “we can do wonders with our traditional techniques of farming. But for this to happen, we need to re-write farming policies from the ground up.”. 

These interventions were followed by an engaging interaction with the audience on a range of topics. The workshop concluded highlighting the critical importance of promoting agroecological farming to save farmers across India, and ensure food and ecological security of all is guaranteed in perpetuity.

Discussion with the audience members

To watch the complete session, please click the link below:

Full version of the Agroecological workshop. It is available on YouTube as well.

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