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Industrial farming versus the peasantry

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Vegetable vendor, district bazaar, Maharashtra

The October-November 2010 issue of Himal Southasian is out and includes a contribution from me. The issue is themed on agriculture and ruralscapes in Southasia (that’s how Himal spells it, one word). Here’s an extract from my article:

India’s government and its agricultural research establishment are forging new compacts with the private sector food industry. Their reasons for doing so are the breakdown of agricultural extension and the need for food infrastructure. Yet low-input organic farming yields sufficient produce in tune with local conditions, and is well suited to smallholder rural farming households. This benefit is opposite to the ‘agritech’ demands of food industry powers in India, and at risk is the farm livelihood of the country’s massive majority of farmers.

In July, India’s agriculture minister, Sharad Pawar, talked about the role of the private sector in agricultural research and human-resource development in the country’s food industry. His audience was made up of participants of an ‘industry meet’ put up by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), assembled to discuss four issues: seed and planting material; diagnostics, vaccines and biotechnological products; farm implements and machinery; and post-harvest engineering and ‘value addition’.

Vegetable vendor, district bazaar, Maharashtra

Pawar explained the conventional approach of public-sector agricultural research and development, which has been to take responsibility for setting priorities, mobilising resources, research, development and dissemination. He then explained that agricultural extension – the education of farmers in new techniques and technologies, which has been neglected for several years – is ‘no longer appropriate’. Instead, he urged the adoption of public-private partnerships, through which public-sector institutes (such as those in the ICAR network) can ‘leverage valuable private resources, expertise or marketing networks that they [the farmers] otherwise lack’.

The so-called area, production and yield (APY) model of measuring agriculture in India has long been the dominant one, focusing on growth in irrigated area, crop production in tons and yield per hectare. In following this model, central and state planners, leveraging the reach and influence of the national agricultural research system, have automatically tended towards technology as an enabling factor and the economics of the organised food industry. This strong bias exists as a legacy of the successful years of the Green Revolution, when the massive laboratory-led creation of high-yield varieties proceeded in step with massive irrigation programmes and farm mechanisations schemes. In the process, they have turned the needs of small and marginal cultivating households into programmes and schemes, so that these small-scale farmers become ‘consumers of technology’ rather than being recognised as holders of traditional agricultural knowledge.

How the price of tomatoes is determined

These sustainable agricultural systems contribute to the delivery and maintenance of a range of public goods such as clean water, carbon sequestration, flood protection, groundwater recharge and soil conservation. But since they cannot help to achieve short-term profit-oriented goals, both the commercial effort of the National Agriculture Research System and the private sector ignore them. Finally, the cost-benefit of conservation of resources can be determined by the scarcity value of those resources. For instance, will urban food consumers be willing to pay for watershed protection in a district from which they import food?

The only way to get a positive answer from this question is by investing in public education, and by building it into public policy at an institutional level – where it immediately runs into political and business interests. The development of community-supported organic agriculture in India can provide an alternative, which will depend more on the ability of associations of organic farmers to organise, rather than on state support.

India’s organic farming systems. These grow a variety of cereals, tubers, leafy vegetables, fruits and tree crops without chemical fertiliser and pesticide and largely depend on saved seed. There are well-established biological and energy benefits of organic and agro-ecological farming that, under the growing shadow of climate change and energy scarcity, become even more compelling for farming communities.

There’s more in the full article which can be found here.