Feb 8, 2009

Conservation Agriculture: For Who's Benefit?

The 4th World Congress on Conservation Agriculture (from Feb 4-7, 2009) was held in New Delhi. This comes at a time when global agriculture is faced with a terrible crisis in sustainability.

At the face of it, it looks that agricultural scientists all over the world are now trying to mend ways, trying to learn from the farmers on the need to conserve natural resources with a view to improve efficiency, equity and environment. The unprecedented global food crisis in the first half of 2008, and the continuing agrarian crisis in India, I thought had brought about this change in their thinking and approach.

It didn’t take me long to realise that I was wrong. They haven’t learnt anything from the agriculture debacle, nor are they serious in tackling the fundamental crisis of sustainability that agriculture is faced with. Using the right vocabulary, and ensuring it is politically correct they have now come up with another buzzword -- Conservation Agriculture. It looks so appropriate and timely, that for once you feel like patting agriculture scientists. ‘Better late than never’ you would say.

It isn’t so. Conservation Agriculture is all about “sustainable agricultural intensification” – and I wonder how intensive farming practices can be termed sustainable? At this rate, I wouldn’t be surprised if in the near future they start promoting chemical pesticides under the garb of “sustainable pesticides use”. Coming back, wasn’t Green Revolution all about intensive farming, wasn’t it aimed at increasing cropping intensity, increasing per unit productivity?

Conservation Agriculture is in reality about no tillage. At least, that is what appears as of now. It is based on minimal soil disturbance, organic residue retention and crop rotations. It is believed that the shift to zero tillage or minimal tillage will not disturb the soil and therefore help in conserving natural resources. In a country where earthworms are integral to the soils, I thought earthworms were the nature’s tillers. If nature had provided us with tillers where does zero tillage comes in. Moreover, Bhaskar Save tells us that earthworms turn around 6 tonnes of soil in its short lifespan. Doesn't Zero tillage, therefore, sound unfamiliar in the Indian context?

But there must be some reason for promoting zero tillage? Otherwise, why should GM seed companies like Mahyco (which collaborates with Monsannto for GM research in India) sponsor a dinner for the Congress delegates?

GM crops are also part of Conservation Agriculture.

You guessed it right. Zero tillage has brought about its own set of industry. And that is what primarily interest’s agricultural scientists. Among the new conservation technologies required are: Laser land leveller, which is so far being imported but some of its parts are now being fabricated locally; Zero till planters, including the second generation ‘Happy Seeders’ and ‘Turbo Seeders;’ Rotatory Disc Drill used for intensive soil working; and of course a range of herbicides.

These equipments have been suitably modified and redesigned. Among the planter prototypes, you now have the multifunctional-multicrop-ferti-seed-zero till/raised bed planters. Before you try to understand its multifunctional operations, you realise there are 150 fabricators and entrepreneurs breathing down your neck. And that makes me wonder why agriculture scientists do not think beyond costly equipments and chemicals? Why do they have to rely on imported concepts of sustainability and the technology options? Why can’t they look inwards, search for the wonderful low external input technologies that farmers have perfected over the years?

The answer is that the industry does not gain when you promote low external input technologies. And when the industry is not interested how can the scientists be promoting LEISA practices. Scientists therefore are actually not working for farmers. Farmers just happen to be incidental, came in handy to promote the machines, chemicals and the hybrid/GM seeds. For instance, it has taken a lot of public pressure for the Indian Council fof Agricultural Research (ICAR) to finally accept SRI technology as an altertaive rice cultivation practice. Why it took so long was primarily because there was no industry supporting the SRI technology, no machine to be sold. (Also see: The Politics of Farm Technologies http://www.indiatogether.org/2005/oct/dsh-poltech.htm and another article 'Seeds and Robbers' available on http://www.stwr.org/food-security-agriculture/seeds-and-robbers.html)

If only scientists listened to farmers, spent more time to understand and then improving the sustainable farming systems that farmers have evolved, the face of Indian agriculture would have been ever-smiling. Farmers have all the answers, and can show us the way towards sustainable agriculture, wherein the natural resource base remains protected and preserved. They have done it for ages.

We do not need an agriculture which is dependent upon external inputs. We do not need an agriculture that destroys the soil health, mines the groundwater and contaminates the environment. We don’t need an agriculture where farmers are pauperised and the service providers rake in money. We need a farming system where the entire input needs of the farming community should be locally available from within a radius of 100 Kms. We need a sustainable farming system which is economically viable, where money flows into the pockets of the tillers. We need agriculture where farmers don’t think of quitting farming. Only then can agriculture become truly sustainable. #

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