What ails Modern Agriculture?

Understanding the current crisis of agriculture, requires a study of the history of global development since the Second World War. Initially, immediately after the war, the USA was faced with the problem of re-orienting the production of its massive war oriented industry and agriculture. This was done, on the one hand, by making civilian cars, trucks, tractors, planes and cargo ships instead of armoured vehicles and on the other by transforming the explosive manufacturing units into fertiliser and pesticide producing units. Obviously so many cars, tractors, planes and ships and so much fertiliser and pesticide could not be consumed by the Americans alone and so the high flying consumerist lifestyle of cars and private jets and heavy eating of processed meat and cereals was spread all over the world and a market created for these products. Cattle can eat much more cereals than human beings and so the people of the developed world were encouraged to eat the meat of the former and the people of the poorer countries were fed the excess cereals resulting from increased use of fertilisers and pesticides along with the cattle.

A significant development was the worldwide adoption of soy bean at the behest of the Americans who pushed its exports and cultivation through cheap aid to developing countries so as to provide cheap feed for beef production and also cheap edible oil for processing this food into ready-to-eat marketable forms. Thus an artificially high productive and environmentally unsustainable agricultural system was established worldwide backed by massive state subsidies. A golden era of capitalist development, booming on the production and sale of the “world car” and the “world steer” by multinational corporations (MNCs), ensued in the nineteen fifties and nineteen sixties.

The party came to an end in the nineteen seventies with a double whammy being delivered by nature. Firstly, the biologist Rachel Carson sounded the first warning cry in 1962 about the way in which chemicals and especially pesticides were causing immense environmental and health hazards thus sparking off the modern environmental movement and seriously questioning the excessive gorging of the ‘world steer’. The tremendous groundswell of protests that followed led to the problem of environmental pollution resulting from modern development becoming a burning issue by the early nineteen seventies with the holding of the first United Nations Conference on Environment in Stockholm in 1972. Secondly, the finiteness of the natural resources that were being so wantonly used up was driven home with the crude oil-producing Arab countries increasing price by a whopping four times in 1974 thus pushing the capitalist world economy into a deep recession by undermining the very basis of the ‘world car’.

Faced with the serious economic and environmental crisis brought on in the nineteen seventies the MNCs which straddle global production, finance and trade put pressure on the US Government, the World Bank and the IMF to push a policy, known as the “Washington Consensus” that would further open up the economies of the developing countries for exploitation through free flows of finance and commodities, which has plunged most of these economies further into debt and stagnation.

All this has had a devastating effect on Indian agriculture and the millions of people who are dependent on it for their livelihoods. The vast majority of farmers in India cultivate small plots of land on terrain that is unsuitable for flood irrigation and they have traditionally been driven by the desire to produce for subsistence rather than for profit. They have over thousands of years developed a system of agriculture that makes the most of the locally available resources in terms of seeds, organic fertilisers, soil moisture and natural pest management. This led Sir Albert Howard, the pioneer of modern organic farming who did most of his work in Indore, to remark some seventy years ago, “What is happening today in the small fields of India … took place many centuries ago. The agricultural practices of the Orient have passed the supreme test, they are as permanent as those of the primeval forest, of the prairie, or of the ocean”. The clever use of rotation of a bewildering variety of crops ensured that despite flood and drought some part of the harvest was always saved. Famines occurred not because of the failure of agriculture but because of socio-economic factors such as excessive levies by kings and colonial rulers or due to usury and hoarding by moneylenders. Indeed the levying of excessive taxes and usury have been a severe constraining factor on the development of agriculture all over the world from ancient times and in India this intensified greatly during colonial rule because the moneylender doubled up as the tax-collector also, resulting in one Bhili proverb that goes – ” I love the moneylender so much that I have given him a fat belly”.

Thus, what was necessary after Independence in India was to remove the obstacles in the path of development of this traditional agriculture and strengthen it with further research, extensive land reforms, support for in situ soil and water conservation, cheap institutionalised credit and market support. Studies have shown that the indigenous agricultural practices of India, which have been honed by farmers over the centuries, are as productive as the HYV seeds and artificial input-based Green Revolution agriculture. But this was not to be because the Americans had in the meanwhile since the nineteen thirties devised a new model of industrial agriculture in which hybrid seeds, chemical fertilisers, pesticides, big dam irrigation and machines were used to ramp up agricultural production with huge state subsidies which eventually went to the corporations which not only supplied these inputs but also owned most of the farms and traded in the outputs. So farm gate prices remained low leaving the actual small farmers who had always struggled against usury like elsewhere in the world no alternative but to gradually sell out and become unemployed, leading to tremendous destitution. Moreover, the post World War II urgency to sell the excess production of fertilisers, pesticides, tractors and trucks arising from the re-orientation of production in plants from explosives and armoured vehicles necessitated the replication of the American agricultural system worldwide.

So at the behest of the research foundations set up by American MNCs and with financial support provided by the World Bank and the money from the exports of American wheat to India which were recycled for this purpose, the American agricultural pattern was promoted with the introduction of foreign hybrid varieties of wheat and rice as Green Revolution agriculture in the late nineteen sixties in a few pockets in the country leaving the other areas literally high and dry. The Americans forced the Indian government to forcibly sideline Indian agricultural scientists who had developed indigenous strains and opposed this introduction of foreign hybrids. This form of agriculture has now become problematical throughout the world because of reasons to be discussed a little later and can be continued only through the provision of massive state subsidies to the MNCs that produce its inputs and trade in its outputs.

The direct government subsidy to agriculture in the USA peaked in the year 2000 to US$ 30 billion and constituted about 40% of the net cash income derived by it. The biggest 10% of the recipients of these state subsidies, which are big corporations, which included billionaires like the media mogul Ted Turner, cornered 65% of this huge amount. Somewhat in the same way as our own movie star Amitabh Bacchan has got himself recorded as a farmer to be able to own large tracts of agricultural land that he does not himself cultivate. A less dramatic but similar state of affairs prevails in Europe. In this way the comparative advantage that the Third World countries have in the agricultural sector is not only neutralised but the excess production thus achieved is dumped in those countries devastating their agriculture. In fact, the current Doha round of trade negotiations of the WTO has brought out as never before the hollowness and hypocrisy of the WTO’s claims of promoting “free trade” and it is deadlocked at the moment because the developed countries are refusing to reduce these subsidies.

According to an estimate the input subsidies in India’s case had reached the unsustainable level of 164.02% of the central government’s planned annual expenditure on agriculture by 1992 . When the subsidy that was being given in the form of free electricity and free water from dams and for the procurement of the produce of the farmers at artificially supported high prices is also taken into account the long-term economic un-sustainability of this agriculture was inevitable. Unlike in the USA, a greater proportion of the subsidies in India were going to the actual farmers, big and small. The pursuit of economic liberalisation from the nineteen nineties and financial constraints, forced the Indian Government to drastically reduce the quantum of subsidies in agriculture, investment in irrigation, price support and budgetary support for cheap institutional credit to the farmers. This withdrawal of support came precisely at the time when Green Revolution agriculture was beginning to fail. The main problem with artificial input agriculture is that there is a natural limit to the artificial inputs that the soil can take and so the amount of fertilisers, pesticides and water to be applied goes on increasing while the yields go on falling and sometimes the crop fails altogether.

Consequently the economic costs go on increasing while the realisation of the value of agricultural products in the market does not keep pace. Inevitably this leads to farmers falling into the clutches of moneylenders and spiralling debt. The crisis has now assumed serious proportions with thousands upon thousands of farmers having committed suicides, sold their lands, houses and even their kidneys . Things have come to such a sorry pass that forty percent of the respondent farmers expressed the desire to give up farming and take up other professions in a survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Organisation of the Government of India in 2003.

This collapse of the agricultural sector, not only in India but also all over the developing world, has created a parallel problem of massive seasonal or permanent migration from the rural areas to the cities which offer comparatively better livelihood opportunities due to the greater investments taking place there. However, once there, these migrants occupy the base of the occupational pyramid earning only subsistence wages. So even after working for a considerable time, these people cannot afford to buy legal accommodation and other civic amenities and so have to live in illegal slums without proper drinking water and sanitation facilities continually under the threat of eviction.

Given the severe lack of resources with governments for the provision of proper infrastructure in these slums and the pressures from private property developers to displace them and build high value buildings instead, urban sustainability has become the newest challenge for development planners. In the developed countries on the other hand there is the problem of inner city decay as regular manufacturing jobs are decreasing due to the shift of manufacture from these countries to the developing countries, leaving the once comfortable working class in dire straits doing casual menial jobs for a living and unable to maintain their homes any more. The affluent people are moving out of the cities to the suburbs thus reducing the tax base of urban governments and their capacity to renew the inner city areas.  So the movement of capital is creating problems in both the rural as well as the urban areas all over the world by changing the structure of the global economy in ways that harm the poor.

The tremendous economic and political power of MNCs like Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta, Dow and Bayer, which are directly or indirectly in control of the input industries, the agricultural processing industry and marketing entities that make up the agriculture cum food chain has meant that instead of turning to more sustainable agricultural practices the crisis in modern agriculture is being sought to be solved through the application of even higher and far more costly bio-technology. This involves further state subsidies given the higher levels of funding required for the expensive research and application techniques involved and also uncharted environmental dangers resulting from gene tampering.

The American MNCs’ maniacal obsession with promoting more and more beef eating worldwide as the panacea for the ills of the inevitable market slumps that hound capitalism has now manifested itself in the development of genetically engineered Bovine Growth Hormones to push up beef production which has driven the cows also mad! The continuing loss of natural bio-diversity, the concentration of genes of landraces in the hands of MNCs and patenting of life forms by them have together created a serious danger of the future of the planet being permanently mortgaged to their greed for profits.

While the Americans have become obese from this over consumption of beef and are suffering from a number of physical and mental disorders as a result, the Bhil adivasis in Madhya Pradesh have become proportionately under nourished so as to be able to provide for this overeating of the former. With the reduction in the acreage under coarser cereals and pulses which have been replaced by soybean and the greater monetisation of the rural economy, the marginal adivasi farmers have had to buy their food from the market instead of getting it cheaply from their farms and this has reduced their nutritional levels well below healthy standards. Thus, they have become sufferers of the problem of chronic hunger that today engulfs the poor in much of the developing world and even in the developed countries because the shrinking of livelihood opportunities has meant that they are not able to earn enough to buy wholesome and adequate food. So the supply of cheap food to all, which is a basic requirement of running a capitalist economy is in jeopardy because nature has been ravaged beyond repair by the artificial input based agriculture for profit that has been intensively practised since the Second World War.

The biggest problem arising from the adoption of green revolution agriculture, however, has been that of the increasing scarcity of water. Most of the water needed for irrigation in India is being provided by groundwater extraction and this has led to a situation of “water mining” wherein water collected in the deep confined aquifers over hundreds of thousands of years were used up in the space of a decade and large parts of the country have been facing a ground water drought from the nineteen nineties onwards. Since then there has been less and less ground water available for not only irrigation but also for drinking and the cost of its extraction is continually going up. Big dams, however, are the environmentally and socially most harmful component of the green revolution package and have come in for serious criticism in recent years and dam construction has been totally halted in the developed countries with some dams even having been broken in the USA to limit environmental damage.

The World Bank, which has been a major funder of dams worldwide, was forced by public criticism arising from the fiasco of its funding of the Sardar Sarovar Dam to constitute a World Commission on Dams (WCD) to review the performance of big dams, which has submitted a comprehensive report. The report brings out the fact that the benefits in terms of irrigation and power gained from big dam construction have been at an unacceptable and unnecessary higher cost in terms of environmental destruction and human displacement. There has been lack of equity in both the distribution of benefits and costs with the poor having lost out on both counts. Considering the increasing importance of conservation and harvesting of water resources, the WCD has recommended that in future, people’s participation in these processes should be made mandatory so that more effective and less harmful solutions to the problems in this sphere can be worked out.

Worldwide there is a burgeoning movement in ecological farming combined with local area watershed development that has come up as a reaction to the deleterious effects of modern agriculture. This movement is theoretically underpinned by the green ideology of development in harmony with nature and at its own leisurely pace. Many localised efforts have thrown up viable solutions to the intransigent problems created by unsustainable agricultural production and inequity in the distribution of benefits and costs of water resource development. In the western Madhya Pradesh region, too, there have been successful localised experiments in this sphere and a blueprint for the development of sustainable dry-land agriculture backed up by local area watershed development involving the poor in project formulation and implementation has been drawn up. Thus, the comprehensive decentralised solutions to the problems of agricultural sustainability and the resulting threat to food and livelihood security of the poor are there, waiting to be adopted on a large scale.

However, the World Bank acting as a front for the interests of the MNCs, sees decentralised natural resource management only as a tool for the mitigation of the harmful effects of globalised industrial development and participatory group formation as a means of deflecting the discontent arising from this. Given its near total hegemony over development thinking it is not surprising that governments and institutions all over the world follow its lead in not questioning the centrality of capitalist industrial development and only pursue decentralisation and sustainable development as a safety valve to let off the steam that is continually boiling up as a result of the former and not as a mainstream holistic solution to the problems of unsustainable industrial development.

The net result of this massive propaganda and funding by the World Bank and the central and state governments of a revamped version of green revolution agriculture has been that the ordinary farmers in this country are unable to pursue more sustainable agricultural alternatives as the switch from the one to the other takes time and money. The ground reality in the western Madhya Pradesh region is that farmers are still trying to continue in the green revolution regime and diversifying into the farming of fruits, horticulture and other cash crops and then storing the produce in cold storages with the intention of trading through the national commodity exchange but as yet with uncertain incomes because increasingly the agricultural produce market is coming under the control of global MNCs and even financial institutions like Goldman Sachs.

To break this destructive march towards environmental and social collapse it is necessary to proceed towards an “economy of permanence” as suggested by the Gandhian economist Kumarappa, which respects both nature and the human being and prioritises leisurely decentralised communitarian living based on the collective local consumption and husbanding of renewable resources over the frenetic, non-renewable, resource guzzling pulls of globalised market led industrialisation. This can provide the rural poor with sustainable livelihood opportunities for wholesome living while at the same time reorienting centralised industrialisation to the fulfilling of the needs of the majority and so deciding the kind of science and technology to be pursued. This will in turn ensure a much more peaceful world than at present and obviate the heavy and wasteful expenditures being incurred worldwide on the military and the police.


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Rahul Banerjee Written by:

Rahul Banerjee, an alumnus of Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur (B.Tech in Civil Engineering) and Centre for Environmental Planning and Techonology University, Ahmedabad (Ph.D in Environmental Planning and Management) is a social activist and development researcher. He works along with the Bhil Adivasis (indigenous people) to synthesise their traditional qualities with modern skills and contribute to equitable and sustainable development as architects of their own future. Through the organisations Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath, a trade union and Dhas Gramin Vikas Kendra (dhasgraminvikaskendra.com), a public trust. He blogs at http://anar-kali.blogspot.in/

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