Apr 2, 2010

Transforming Agricultural Research for future needs

The first Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD), organised by the Global Forum on Agricultural Research, aimed at drawing up an action plan and strategy for improving agricultural research in order to make maximum impact on development, especially of the poor, concluded at Montpellier in France on Mar 31.

This conference was the brain child of G-8 countries. The research mandate has now been adopted by the G-20 countries, especially -- Brazil, India and China -- which have taken an aggressive lead in promoting an industrial farm research agenda. As SciDev.Net reports: "Millions of people across the developing world are alive today because of advances that have conquered deadly pathogens, kept pests at bay, boosted yields, and squeezed more food out of less land and water.

"That’s the good news. Yet despite tremendous innovations and progress in agricultural research over the past half century, more than one billion people remain undernourished in a modern world because the benefits have been spread unevenly, often failing to reach the billion poor people who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.

So while the world has rightly learned to look to science for answers, the solutions we have in hand today are taking far too long to help poor farmers. And those most in need of help have little opportunity to direct research agendas."

Laudable words indeed.

But I fail to understand how the international agricultural research community hopes to make agriculture sustainable and economically viable with the same destructive American model of farming, which has outlived its utility? How long will the scientific community use hunger and poverty to exacerbate the crisis in farming? If the model that GFAR supports is so good, I want to know why are the farming communities all over the world quitting agriculture? Why has agriculture become environmentally devastating? Why does global agriculture lead to more global warming?

Why is global agriculture leading to destruction of habitats, loss of biodiversity and soil erosion? Why has the groundwater become highly contaminated from leaching of chemical fertilisers? Why is it forcing farmers to commit suicide?

It doesn't end here. Much of the world's health problems are also because of the kind of food that is being produced and eaten.

It is high time the world took a fresh look at transforming agricultural research for development. Let us not feel ashamed in accepting where we have gone wrong, and let us make a concerted effort to restore the pride in farming.

Dependence syndrome

By Devinder Sharma

If the American model of research is so good, then why should our farmers be in distress and agriculture virtually ruined?

Some years back, I was invited to a meeting of the civil society leaders to come out with ways in which the British government could help the developing countries in promoting sustainable agriculture. This meeting was called by the then UK Secretary of State for International Development Hilary Benn, and had some 15 people sitting around the table.

After a lot of ideas were put on the table by the British NGOs on how the British DFID could provide consultancies and projects on sustainable agriculture in India (likewise in other developing countries), Hilary Benn asked for my suggestions.

I said: “British agriculture in my opinion is among the most environmentally devastated farming systems anywhere in the world. I don't know how your universities and private institutions are therefore qualified to teach sustainable farming to Indian farmers and NGOs.” I argued that if the British universities, who have a degree course in sustainable development, were so good, at least they could have succeeded in resurrecting the island’s agriculture.

Benn was visibly taken aback, and asked me to explain then how can the British DFIF be of help. “British government instead should invite farmers from India who have demonstrated excellence in sustainable farming systems, and try to learn from them,” I replied. Needless to say, I never heard again on the subject.

Damage done

Before we start blowing the trumpet on Kapil Sibal’s initiative to allow the foreign universities to open up campuses within the country, I want to draw your attention to the damage done by the imported agricultural education and research system. As we know, the first agricultural university under the imported ‘land grant’ system of education from America was set up at Pantnagar, now in Uttarakhand. Since then more than 50 agricultural universities have come up.

Nothing better illustrates the change in mindset than what has been achieved 50 years later through agricultural research and education. The agricultural research and education system was basically tailored to what America does, not what we do in India. We are told that our agriculture is sub-standard, backward, and inefficient.

This is what we are taught in our agricultural universities, all programmed after the US farm curriculum. If you really want to improve Indian agriculture you have to follow the American model of agriculture. We have learnt it the hard way and no wonder today we are faced with one of the biggest and worst crisis in agriculture.

There would be many who would think that the American agricultural research and education system has done a lot for India. After all, the Green Revolution happened and it has turned the country self-sufficient. While the jury is still out on how successful Green Revolution was, the fact remains that the prevailing farm crisis is also the outcome of the same research and education system.

Whether we accept or not, all that was taught as part of the education system that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) brought into India has actually resulted in an unprecedented blood-bath on the farm. We cannot say that agricultural research and education being conducted in India at present is not in any way responsible for the terrible agrarian crisis that the country is passing through. It is, and let us accept that.

Why is it that in a country, which has the second largest public sector infrastructure in agriculture research in the world, farmers should be dying or wanting to quit agriculture? If the American model of agriculture research and education is so good then why should farmers be in distress and agriculture virtually ruined?

Whether it is agriculture, medical sciences, technology, or management, we are taught that everything we have got is sub-standard, backward and inefficient. We are told there is no escape but to follow the western model of development, including in management.

Our Indian Institute for Management (IIMs) and the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) are no better. They use the public money to prepare students for the private sector. I often think that if IIM graduates have to join the corporate world only then why can't the corporate world finance these institutions? Why should tax payers’ money be used to fund these institutions?

Unwanted technologies

There is a need for a historic correction here. The agricultural universities as well as the 100-odd national centres of research need to be redesigned to make them more meaningful and appropriate for the domestic farmers, to improve upon the existing sustainable technologies rather than importing risky and unwanted technologies from abroad.

Instead of spending bulk of the research funding on risky GM crops, why can't the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) launch a country wide programme on adaptive research and development on the 4,000 traditional technologies that it has documented?

Why can’t agricultural research curriculum be so designed that it helps raise farm incomes, lead to long-term sustainability, produce safe food without any pesticides and fertilisers, and does not add onto global warming? Why can’t our farm research ensure that no farmer ever commits suicide? We can do that, provided we get out of our obsession with everything alien.

Source: Deccan Herald, April 2, 2010

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