With farmers quitting agriculture, farm suicides becoming a global phenomenon, I sometimes wonder why intensive agriculture is not being replaced with safer agro-ecological methods of farming, which are sustainable in the long run and economically viable. The moment I mention this, I face a strong wall of opposition. “This is like romanticizing agriculture,” I am often told. “In the absence of technological progress the country cannot meet the future challenges of feeding the nation,” goes another refrain. This is however not true.
Stanford University in collaboration with the China Agriculture University has in a path-breaking study compared the prevailing farming systems with the alternative approaches. The study conducted for three years between 2009 and 2012, and spread over 153 locations in the intensively-farmed regions of Eastern and Southern China has conclusively established what I have been suggesting for long. An integrated soil-crop system (ISSM) involving crop selection, method of planting, time of sowing and nutrient management produces higher yields with a significant drop in environmental damages.
“If we can combine much higher yields with much lower environmental consequences in China, there is a real hope that those challenges can be met around the world,” said Stanford biology Professor Peter Vitousek who led the exhaustive study. The integrated approach, applied in case of wheat, corn and rice achieved 97 to 99 per cent of the highest yields with no wastage of chemical nitrogen and a significant drop in the greenhouse gas emissions. More importantly, the farm incomes have risen without causing any environmental and health damages. In a paper published in Nature (Sept 3, 2014) the authors claim that even if the farmers were to achieve 80 per cent of the crop yields (on the same land area as in 2012) in the year 2030, China would be able to provide enough food for its human and animal populations, and at the same time reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent and reduce nitrogen losses by 50 per cent.
Stanford University believes that the technology can be applied in other areas of the world, where the yields can be improved without causing any economic hardship to farmers as well as any further destruction to the environment.
The Stanford study comes at a time when Andhra Pradesh (and now parts of Telengana) is already witnessing what is perhaps the world’s largest agro-ecological farming transformation. While the climate-change impact that the Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture (CMSA) leads to is still to be studies, but what is clearly evident is a sharp decline in environmental pollution arising from the use and abuse of chemical pesticides. Spread over 36-lakh acres across AP and Telengana, some 20 lakh farmers are adopting non-pesticides management practices. This integrated and community-based approach began from a tiny non-descript village Punnukula in Khammam district way back in 1999.
Like in the Stanford study, crop yields under CMSA in Andhra Pradesh are very high with accompanying decline in environmental damages. The soil health has improved, groundwater table has stabilized, insect attack has come down and the resulting clean and safe environment has reduced the health costs for the farming communities. By simply stopping the use of chemical pesticides, some villages which had mortgaged the entire farm land, have been able to recover it and at the same time pay back the entire interest. . On top of it, CMSA regions have not witnessed any farm suicides
Let’s be clear. The integrated approach that is being followed in China and in Andhra Pradesh is also a technological development. The only difference being this integrated-soil and nutrient-technology is not branded by multinational corporations and is not backed by financial institutions and banks. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi stresses on the need to provide soil-health cards to farmers, integrating it with low-external input sustainable agriculture (LEISA) practices as demonstrated in AP can bring about a rapid switch-over from chemical agriculture.
The Indian Council of agricultural Research (ICAR) and the Ministry of Agriculture need to shift the research focus from the so-called cutting-edge technologies, which come with a high environmental cost, to the time-tested sustainable farming practices that were in vogue. Agriculture universities must follow a dual approach of lab-to-land and also the reverse pathway from land-to-lab.
This reminds me of yet another simple method of farming perfected in China that helps raise farm yields enormously. In a front page dispatch, and in the midst of the raging GM crop debate, The New York Times had called it a ‘stunning’ simple technique. Scientists at the Oregon State University in America and the Yunnan Agricultural University in China were able to demonstrate that by shifting from monoculture to more diverse cropping systems, farmers were able to double the yields of rice without spending a single penny on buying expensive fungicides to control the deadly rice blast disease.
This large experiment covered 100,000 acres and involved tens of thousands of farmers. Scientists had asked farmers to plant two varieties of rice in their fields – one susceptible to rice blast disease and the other variety being resistant. This was compared with the performance of a monoculture plot. The results were astounding.
At a time when the global debate is on promoting mitigation strategies for farmers to escape the fury of climate change, the Stanford University experiment in China provides an alternative route to instead reduce the contribution of agriculture in raising global temperatures. I have often emphasized that the best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, which accounts for 25 per cent of the total emissions, is to change the existing cropping systems to more ecologically sustainable farm practices. The Stanford study has shown that it is scientifically possible to do so. Instead of pushing risky GM crops, agricultural universities need to shift the research focus to integrated farming systems.
I see no reason why we can’t have an agriculture which does not devastate soil health, which does not contaminate the ground water, which does not lead to drying of water aquifers, which does not cause environmental pollution, which does not create super weeds and super bugs, which does not contaminate the food chain, which does not lead to global warming and which also does not force farmers to commit suicide. It is certainly possible. All it needs is a political will. #