Oct 22, 2014

British agriculture is headed for a doom. Time to shed the false pride and learn sustainable farming from India.

British agriculture has to undergo a radical transformation if it has to survive. 
Pic by Telegraph

Some years back I was at a dinner meeting hosted by the then British Secretary of State for International Development, Hilary Benn, in London. Among those present were a select group of leaders of charities and people’s organisations working on sustainable agriculture, biodiversity, environment and worker rights. The discussion was broadly on how Britain could extend help to developing countries in promoting sustainable agriculture and food security.

After the first round of discussions, Hilary Benn turned to me. Being the only outsider at the meeting, he asked me how I perceive Britain’s role in promoting sustainable agriculture in developing countries. In a sense the question related to my expectations from the DFID, the department responsible for promoting development and the reduction of poverty. If I recall correctly, I replied: “I don’t understand how UK can help India in promoting sustainable agriculture. Your own agriculture being ecologically and environmentally devastated, please tell me how is DFID qualified enough to teach us sustainable agriculture?” 

It took some moments for Hilary Benn to understand the implications of what I was trying to say. He quipped: “Well, I get your point. In that case what do you expect British DFID to do?” My answer was simple. I told him that aid should be a two way channel. Instead of imposing the British development agenda, it was time DFID invited some farmers from India and make them go around the country educating farmers and educationists and thereby create awareness about the importance and need for sustainable farming practices. 

As you would have guessed my suggestion never received a second thought. But if Hilary Benn, and also some of the agricultural experts present at the dinner, had actually ignored the national pride tag that they were wearing on their sleeves and launched a serious effort to resurrect British agriculture, the doomsday warning could have been easily averted. A study by the University of Sheffield warns of a serious 'agricultural crisis' unless dramatic action is taken. (Britain has only 100 harvest left .. http://ind.pn/1ySqLt9)

The Sheffield study only establishes what I have been saying for long. British agriculture is one of the most intensively farmed, and of course one of the most devastated. With cultivated soil turning infertile, researchers found that soils in urban parks and kitchen gardens were much healthier. "Allotment soil had 32% more organic carbon, 36% higher carbon to nitrogen ratios, 25% higher nitrogen and was significantly less compacted."  

Britain, like many other countries, is encouraging people to farm in the available urban places. Citizens are allowed to apply for allotment plots -- small patches in urban centres where they can grow food for themselves and their families. Currently there is a waiting list of 90,000 people wanting allotment plots. Interestingly, unlike the corporate farms,  the small scale producers know the importance of maintaining soil health and therefore tend the gardens to maintain an ecological balance. With the rural landscape turning unhealthy, the hope now rests on the urban farming. 

But peri-urban agriculture may not be enough. Britain will sooner or later have to revert back to restoring its soil health. It is therefore high time that Britain sheds its false pride in agricultural superiority, and learns from countries which have shown an agro-ecological pathway. It's time DFID becomes a channel to draw from the expertise of ecological farmers from countries like India. There is nothing to feel ashamed. If only Hilary Benn had seen the merit in my argument, perhaps we could have identified a group of smart farmers from India who could have helped British agriculture to regenerate. It isn't too late even now. 

Further reading: Climate change provides the right opportunity to reorient agriculture..

No pesticides, No Bt, No Pests


Anonymous said...

What a fitting reply you gave to the British secretary sir! It is indeed reassuring to me! This forthrightness is what needed by our country's intellectuals today to save it from the destructive pieces of advice and policies of foreign nations that are steeped in chemical agriculture, when our own country has an unending treasure-trove of outstanding knowledge, wisdom and practical experience in this field, as do in many other ones.

It would be unspeakably shameful if India with it's ancient knowledge of the most sustainable and productive farming based on that sublime gift of God - the Kaamadhenu or the "cow" seeks the advice of foreign countries esp. of the Europe and the West which have little regard for environment, let alone revering it as is the case in India. It is they who have to humbly approach India to get any idea of how wonderfully can man and nature live in a symbiotic relationship.

So to conclude I can say only one thing - it pays handsomely to be unabashedly or rather proudly "fundamentalist" in agriculture!! That is urgently switching back to the "fundas" or the traditional, simple but immensely effective practices which our ancestors happily followed without much ado and concerns!

Thomas Gunnarson said...

It's maybe possible to translate to english...


Sanjeev Sandal said...

In Britain, about 30 % population depend on agriculture profession hence mechanized intensive agriculture is the best option for drawing maximum productivity in comparison to India where more than 70 % depend on agriculture profession for livelihood and agriculture ranges from subsistence farming to profitable sustainable agriculture. It will not be appropriate hence to compare Britain and India for sustainable agriculture. Intensive agriculture on long term basis leads to drastic soil health loss, environmental pollution and so on. There is a need to promote discussion among the countries on sustainable agriculture with conservation farming using modern tool, education on soil health etc. I think the strong agriculture extension system in India especially Farm Science Centers (KVKs) in each district of India need to be replicated in Britain also.

Rose Bridger said...

Now there's a good idea, smart farmers from India to come to the UK to help revive our increasingly sterile soil. It would shake up the dominant view that agriculture is 'science' and the 'experts' are people in laboratories wearing white coats and wedded to corporate interests.

Devinder Sharma said...

Let me make a correction to a letter above. According to the UK Food Group only 1.2 % of the working population in UK is engaged in agriculture.