Apr 19, 2009

My Vision for a Global Agriculture

When you are invited to share your vision for a global agriculture, the underlying message is loud and clear: you have now joined the ranks of the elderly people. In India, they call it elder citizen.

So when I was invited by the UK Food Group and Sustain to make a presentation on My Vision for a Global Agriculture at a Dialogue on Agricultural Trade Reform, Subsidies and the Future of Small and Family Farms and Farmers, held at London, on June 30, 2004, I realised that I was perhaps getting old.

My Vision for a Global Agriculture comes at a crucial time in the history of international agriculture. I wish the powers that be, and that includes the agriculture ministers of the G-8 countries, and international agencies like FAO/IFAD/World Bank and the likes had paid some attention to it, and the world wouldn't have been faced with the kind of crisis that we are confronted with now. It is my strong belief that sooner or later the world will have to return to a sustainable pathway in agriculture, the sooner it happens the better it will be for humanity.

This paper was written in 2004, and hence certain data/figures may appear outdated. This is drawn from my writings and experiences. But the essence remains the same. If you find it useful, please do share it with your friends and colleagues.

My Vision for a Global Agriculture

By Devinder Sharma

Picture the three scenarios:

Scenario 1: At first impression, news reports that appeared in 2002 the American media looked like emanating from a drought-stricken village in India’s hinterland. Till of course you see the dateline. You continue to read in utter disbelief. About 100 desperate farmers and rural residents praying for rain at the St. Patrick parish church in Grand Rapids, Ohio. With hands clasped and eyes cast downward, they seek divine intervention. "None of us have control over whether it is going to rain or not," said Sister Christine Pratt, rural life director for the Catholic Diocese of nearby Toledo told Reuters, the wire agency. "But the people are praying for one another and there is some hope."

Another report in the Washington Post stated President George Bush did not extend finances under drought relief in addition to the support that came from $180 billion farm bill he signed in May 2002. The president however underscored his commitment to helping farmers under current programs, including the Agriculture Department's decision that provides $150 million in surplus milk --- "spoiled milk," as Democrats called it – to be made available for use in animal feed in four drought-stricken states, including South Dakota.Cattle were dying and crops shrivelled. Fodder become scarce, and, therefore, the need to feed surplus ‘milk’ instead.

There was a scramble for new water sources as town and city residents were asked to stop watering lawns and washing cars. In heat-baked fields ranchers sold off herds rather than let them starve for lack of pasture. "I have never seen it like this and I'm 60 years old," said Richard Traylor, who owns 37,000 acres in Texas and New Mexico but had sold off much of his cattle herd.

Serious hydrological problems with wells and reservoirs emerged. Streams went dry. The groundwater table fell drastically. Wildfires became more rampant, and an estimated 4.6 million acres, had been scorched, twice the average acreage burnt in the previous decade. "It is pretty dire," Mark Svoboda, climatologist for the National Drought Mitigation Center was quoted as saying. From southern California to South Carolina and from Montana to New Mexico, individuals and industries were suffering, the news agencies reported.

America was faced with its worst drought since the days of the great ‘dust bowl’ of the 1930s. By a strange coincidence, far away, India too was reeling under its worst drought of the century. As many as 26 of the 50 American States were reeling under a severe drought, with "exceptional drought" conditions --- the worst level of drought measured – prevailing in thirteen states, including New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah. In India, drought had ravaged through 12 of the 28 states. Such was the crop damage that like the drastic reduction in foodgrain production in 2002-03 in India, the US wheat production too was anticipated to fall to its lowest levels in nearly 30 years.

Scenario 2: Let us move to another part of the world. Monica Shandu was adjusted the best small-scale sugarcane grower for 2001 in the Entumeni hills of South Africa. She farms four acres with sugarcane, and the harvest brings her an equivalent of US $200. Despite being a progressive farmer with high productivity levels, Monica lives in penury barely managing to survive against all odds. Far away in France, Dominique Fievez cultivates his farm of 400 acres with sugar beet. His is an average farm, which remains untouched by the price fluctuations in international market since 1984. The reason: Fievez receives a huge subsidy support under the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy at the rate of US $23,000 for each of the 33 acres that he grows with beet.

Such heavy subsidy depresses the international sugar prices making it difficult for developing countries to export. Monica Shandu gets a low price for her cane harvest because of the subsidies that farmers like Fievez in France continue to pocket. As Kevin Watkins of Oxfam says: "The $1.6bn a year the EU gives to the sugar barons of East Anglia and the Paris Basin generates surpluses that deprive countries such as Thailand and Malawi of markets. Mozambique loses almost as much as a result of EU sugar policy as it gets in European aid."

Take another example. In cotton, India has the dubious distinction of having the largest area under the crop and one of the lowest average yields. This unexplained paradox was exploited by the multinational seed company Monsanto to hastily push in its genetically modified 'Bt cotton' variety in 2002. The Department of Biotechnology as well as the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) too used the productivity yardstick to justify the approval granted to Bt cotton. By reducing pesticides use, Bt cotton was expected to reduce crop losses thereby increasing per hectare productivity. The rise in productivity will help farmers get more for the produce, and also enable them to export.

While the impact (both negative and positive) of Bt cotton was too small to make any dent on the national production figures, the fact remains that cotton has lately emerged as the crop that has increasingly pushed growers into a death trap. In 2002, more than 100 suicides were reported alone from 12 districts that constitute the Vidharvha region of the eastern Maharashtra. Faced with mounting debt, a failed crop for the second year and government indifference, cotton farmers are resorting to suicides as a way out of misery. Government's denial notwithstanding, thousands of cotton growers have committed suicides throughout the country since 1987.[4]

In contrast, America remains the world's largest exporter of cotton. Armed with roughly $3.4 billion in subsidy, US farmers in 2002 harvested a record crop of 9.74 billion pounds of cotton, aggravating a US glut and pushing prices far below the break-even price of most growers around the world, including India, China and west Africa. In 2002-03, US cotton farmers pocketed even more, thanks to the farm bill signed by President Bush in May 2002. The government program ensures farmers reap about 70 cents a pound of cotton by making up for any shortfall in the market with state support.

Although relatively small share of the farm population -- just 25,000 of America's 9,00,000 farming families actually raise cotton -- their affluence and influence is legendary. The average net worth of a full-time American cotton-farming household, including land and non-farm assets, is about $800,000, according to the US Department of Agriculture. And more than half of it comes from the government subsidies. The slump in world prices therefore has no impact on their lifestyles. But in turn brings misery to farmers in the majority world.

Scenario 3: Thirty-five years after the Indian farmers pulled out the perpetually hungry millions from the clutches of ‘ship-to-mouth’ existence, it is now their own turn to be fed. To stave off starvation among the farming community, the Tamilnadu government had in 2003 launched a free mid-day meal programme for the small and marginal farmers, agricultural labourers and their families.

The tragic and shocking reversal of the role – feeding the farmers who have been feeding the country all these years – is the culmination of national policies that have neglected agriculture and farming in the wake of globalisation and economic liberalization. Tamilnadu’s courageous decision to provide free noon meal to farmers and their families will soon trigger a domino effect, with many more states announcing similar programmes for farmers in distress. After all, denials from the government notwithstanding, over 24,000 farmers have committed suicide throughout the country since 1995.[5]

An ungrateful nation ignored agriculture. In fact, the pink newspapers and some pro-liberalisation economists led the assault on farming saying that it is not the poor farmers who needed adequate infrastructure, cheap credit, an assured market, and a remunerative price but the small percentage of rich industrialists, business and trade that needed to be showered with the state exchequer.

In these three scenarios is hidden the story of modern agriculture, the crisis and complexities that confront sustainable farming systems, and the faulty answers being proposed to bail out agriculture. The tragedy of modern agriculture is that those who created the problem at the first instance are the ones who are being asked to provide the solutions. Those who tilled the land for ages, and have the knowledge and wisdom to provide the right answers, are being ignored and for obvious reasons.

Take the first scenario. The American agriculture that we all studied in the universities and appreciated had fallen apart with one year of severe drought. The drought proofing that we heard so much about the American agriculture appears to be untrue. It is a known fact that Indian agriculture falters because of its complete dependence on monsoons. For developing countries, with the fragmented land holdings, subsistence farming methods, low productivity and the exploitation of the natural resource base as a consequence have cast serious doubts over the sustainability and viability of the farms. The only escape for the country, we are invariably told by agricultural scientists, is to follow the American model.

With the kind of industrialisation and technology advance that took place in American agriculture, and with the amount of investments made, we were always told that the US agriculture is the model for world agriculture.

One year of severe drought, and the scientifically sophisticated industrial farm model crumbled. In any case, the kind of investment that has gone on into American agriculture in the form of energy cannot be provided by developing countries.

In the second scenario, the huge cotton subsidies that go into its production and marketing makes the United States dominate the world market. As if this is not enough, a federal farm subsidy program is paying nearly $1.7 billion to American agribusiness andmanufacturers to buy American cotton that is already one of the most highly subsidized crops in the world.[6] The question therefore that is conveniently brushed aside is that even if the developing country farmers were to double the cotton productivity, how can they ever compete the American cotton producers who receive a lavish federal support? More the cotton productivity in countries like India, for instance, more would be the resulting crisis for the farmers as well as the country's food security and economy.

To ask Monica Shandu in South Africa to work towards raising sugarcane productivity therefore is a sure recipe for disaster. Similarly, asking the sugarcane growers in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra in India to raise productivity so as to be globally competitive is to further push them towards an uncertain future unless the sugar subsidy regime in the European Union and the US is first cleansed from manipulations.Also, the productivity increase prescription comes at a time when with the phasing out of quantitative restrictions on agricultural commodities in India, the import of cotton (from the US) had increased from 21,200 tonnes in 1999 to 48,805 tonnes in 2000.

Strange isn't it, that the government, which asks domestic farmers to improve productivity so as to attain global competitivenes should allow highly subsidized imports so as to help the American cotton growers?[7] Behind the cotton story is also hidden the manipulations and machinations that go into promoting free trade essentially to ensure profit security for the agribusiness companies. Whether it is cotton, sugarcane or rice or for that matter other agricultural commodities, the negative impact of the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) ....... continued

The full paper in a PDF form is available at:

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