Agriculture in Transition -
Bernard was born in 1948 in a small rural village in Flanders (Belgium). Farm work was still relying on manual labour; together with other children and women he went from farm to farm helping with the potato, beet or wheat harvests and tending the cows (early mornings before and after school and during holidays). As a child he discovered that one could actually plant trees; fascinated by this fact he started tree-planting on vacant plots since the age of 7 or 8 years. As a teenager he joined the green movement as an active member, concentrating on promoting tree planting. Early on he got interested in yoga; but it took 10 years before he made the step to come here in 1975 to Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. He is still involved in land reclamation work in Auroville at Pebblegarden, Aurobrindavan, as that is one of the things the Earth needs rather badly in these times.
1. The word organic, derived from organism, was introduced by Lord Northbourne in 1940. In his view a farm is like a living organism whose interrelated parts form a living whole. It is interesting to note that Sri Aurobindo, in his ‘Back to the Land' of 1908 emphasized the need for the growing middle class to return to the village to revive agriculture.
2. Lady Eve Balfour was niece of Lord Balfour, Conservative British Prime Minister. At the age of twelve she decided to become a farmer. She was the first woman to take a degree in agriculture in England . At 21 she used her inheritance to purchase a farm. She became an expert in plowing with horse team and looked after the animals herself.
3. K.M.Munshi was a student of Sri Aurobindo in Baroda and was profoundly influenced by Him. Sri Aurobindo went out ofhis way and received Munshi in his room in 1950
1. Jaap and I were delegated to represent the Auroville Food Coop. We met people who surpassed us immensely. In subsequent meetings it was an honour for me to meet Dr. Richarria who related the whole Indian experience of rice cultivation and Marjorie Sykes who fundamentally questioned modernism.
3 The role of Auroville in shaping the movement in its initial stages is acknowledged by its leaders.
4 Published by Other India Press, Mapusa, Goa.
Berlan, Jean Pierre & Lewontin, Richard C. 1998 Cashing in on Life:Operation Terminator translated by Malcom Greenwood, Le Monde Diplomatique, Paris
Bourguignon, Claude 2005 Regenerating the Soil, The Other India Press Goa
Dabholkar.S.A. 1998 Plenty for All: Prayog Pariwar Methodology, Mehta Publishing House, Pune
Gandhi, Maneka 1994 Heads and Tails. The Other India Press, Mapusa, Goa .
Goldsmith, Edward 1993 The Way Shambala, Boston
Higa, Teruo 1996 An Earth Saving Revolution. Sunmark Pub, Tokyo
Ho, Mae-Wan 1997 Genetic Engineering: Dreams or Nightmares?
RSFTE, New Delhi & Third World Network.
ICAR 1997 Handbook of Agriculture. ICAR, New Delhi
Jeavons, John 1998 Biointensive Sustainable Mini-Farming:
Growing a Better Sense of Humus. Seeds Savers Harvest Edition,
Seed Savers Exchange Decorah , IowaJeavons, John 1979 How to Grow More Vegetables Ten Speed Press, Berkeley
Kate, Tarak 1996 Indigenous Knowledge and Future Prospects of Organic Farming. in Natural Resource Management edited by Khurana et al.
Moxham, Roy 2001 The Great Hedge of India . Harper Collins, New Delhi
Peavy, Willian S. & Peary Warren, 1993, Super Nutrition Gardening. Avery Publishing Group Inc. Garden City Park , New York .
Pretty, Jules N. 1996 Regenerating Agriculture. Vikas, New Delhi
Robinson, Raoul A 1996 Return to Resistance, Breeding crops to reduce pesticide dependence. AgAccess Davis , California .
Sheldrake, Rupert 1988 The New Science of Life. Paladin, London
Shiva, Vandana 1991 The Violence of the Green Revolution, Third World Network, Penang
Shiva, Vandana 1996 Globalisation of Agriculture and the Growth of Food Insecurity, RSFTE, RFSTNRP, Delhi
Weaver, Don 2003 To Love and Regenerate the Earth, Further Perspectives on The Survival of Civilization. http://www. remineralize-the-earth.org.
Organic farming is defined as a system of practices inspired by ecological processes in nature. It is a method of learning from and working in harmonious cooperation with natural processes and natural wealth. Beyond this a deeper philosophical and spiritual dimension can be stipulated – and this is where organic farming finds itself diametrically opposed to current conventional agriculture – expressing itself in an attitude of care and respect for all life on earth or a perception that Nature is Sacred.
Conventional agriculture, also referred to as chemical, intensive, or modern farming, on the other hand ends up coercing and exploiting nature in the name of maximizing food production. It is a constant struggle against the natural processes in which man has to overcome nature. Its underlying principle can best be illustrated by the word “cide” which means to kill; pesticide, insecticide, fungicide, nematidicide, germicide, vermicide, bactericide leading ultimately to ….homicide ?
Another feature of this system is the “thingification” of the living. Plants and farm animals are ‘things, commodities' with ‘x' value or none. After sexing layer chickens, male chicks are roasted and fed to their little sisters. The leftover parts of slaughtered cattle, unfit for human consumption,are recycled within the industry, into animal feed for other cows. This feat of cannibalism has given the world a new type of sacrifice, that of offering hundreds of thousands of cows and birds on the altar of the many armed goddess of so-called efficiency, utility or profit margins.
Organic farming follows and enhances the path of evolution while chemical farming entails devolution. A number of allegations tend to stigmatize organic farming as primitive, unenlightened, an unproductive enterprise, good for the rich who can afford its produce but insufficient to feed the mass of the world's population. These charges are typified by remarks such as “Will organic farming feed the world ?” or “Remember that organic farming brought about huge famines in the past”. It could be argued that no agricultural system will ever feed the ‘world'. All points to the fact that only a drastic change in mindsets and lifestyles, a veritable paradigm shift could lead to a socially just and hunger free world.
In contrast conventional chemical agriculture bears epithets such as scientific, superior and progressive, highly productive, the only way to feed the starving masses.
Both portrayals need a closer look. There are 5 pillars on which the edifice of high input modern farming rests:
• Synthetic fertilizers
• Pest- and other cides
• Hybrids and HYV's
• Heavy Irrigation
• High Energy Inputs.
All of these have come under severe critique for their numerous ills by public and scientists alike. Among the most renowned critiques are those of the Third World Network: there are VandanaShiva, C. Bourguignon, J.P. Berlan, J. Hamaker, L. Kervran, and many others.
Food that Fails to Nourish
WHO estimates that at present 3 billion people lack adequate nutrition (Kcal). FAO figures indicate that between 800 million and 1000 million people suffer from malnutrition, 616 million are affected by iron deficiency, 123 million are at risk of vitamin A deficiency, and 176 million suffer from goiter.
Medical researchers have noted that 58 % of patients hospitalized in the US are malnourished. (Peavy & Peary 1993:23)
Several studies have shown that the Food Value of chemically grown crops has declined drastically since the introduction and widespread use of agro-chemicals and heavy farm machinery.
DECLINE OF MINERAL CONTENT IN SOME
(PER 100 GRAMS)
When plants are force fed with chemical fertilizers ‘luxury consumption' sets in. This means that “plants absorb excessive amounts of NPK to the detriment of other minerals called micro-nutrients and trace elements. (calcium and phosphorus, zinc, copper, magnesium, iron etc.). This happens even when minerals are abundantly available in the soil.” (Peavy & Peary 1993:15)
This explains the booming of pharmacies – springing up as mushrooms after a rain – in every nook and corner of the country. People are now driven to buy food supplements, minerals and vitamins which are missing from their plate and medicines to keep them on their legs.
Deficiencies in the functioning of the human immunity system and many of the degenerative diseases associated with ageing are now being linked to such nutritional deficiencies.
The importance of the trace elements or micronutrients (metals such as gold, silver, mercury, copper etc.) in the transmission of information in DNA is a known fact. Studies have shown that the deficiencies in foodstuffs produced by modern industrial agriculture, solely relying on chemical inputs, are most likely responsible for the substitution in the core of the cell itself of certain essential elements by others, for instance zinc takes the place of silver when this element is deficient. Even very toxic substances such as cadmium can become a terminal in the DNA.
Food is not only less nourishing, it is often unfit for human consumption. Wheat grown in France has been reported to be inedible. Milk cannot be made into cheese because of heavy antibiotic use. Grapes cannot be fermented for wine. (Bourguignon 2005:127-128)
Agro-chemicals are also extremely powerful oxidizing agents (Higa 1996:72-74). This oxidizing property is transferred to the produce derived from plants grown with agro-chemicals.
This causes allergies, impairs the body and its functions and undermines the immunity system.
Besides, such foods are very poor in regenerative substances such as vitamins and natural antioxidants.
To add “value” to the fruits of the soil commercial food processing uses more than 6000 different chemical substances. The goodies used include Diethyl- glucol also used as an anti-freeze in cars, Amylacetate which does also a very good job as oil paint solvent etc., etc. (Gandhi 1994:61)
Pesticides are needed because blown-up plants are very susceptible to all kinds of pathogens. The serious ill effects and horrors of ‘…cides' are universally known and widely accepted. Yet their widespread use continues unabated. In spite of the extravagant use of chemical pesticides, pest and diseases are destroying about 1/5th of all crop production worldwide. (Robinson 1996:ix). There is a progressive insect resistance to pesticides rarely acknowledged by the promoters of chemical farming. Farmers have noticed, from the very beginning, that pesticides control only a percentage of pests while the survivors develop a resistance. Newer and more potent pesticides have to be introduced to control the super pests. In effect pesticides foster the evolution of increasingly robust pests.
Considering the fact that parasite damage does not occur in wild ecosystems, some researchers are asking the question “…why should such appalling pest and disease losses occur in agroecosystems, in spite of all this spraying… ?”
“After all we do not spray wild plants and the world is still green” (Robinson 1996: ix) If by breeding one can make tomatoes square why can there be no breeding for pest and disease resistant tomatoes and other crops ? “There are some powerful vested interests that are determined to maintain the status quo concerning crop breeding and pesticides” (Robinson 1996:123).
The very same agro-chemical companies who produce poisons also control the seed industry. Breeding resistant varieties becomes an unprofitable business venture. Motivated by profits, the agro-chemical corporations remain blind to suffering, deaths, & disabled children due to pesticide poisoning. The whole ugly issue of pesticide shows how crude humanity still is. It illustrates very well, what Sri Aurobindo points out, that man in his present make up is too imperfect, too ill equipped in his instruments to be kept at the helm of a possible earthly evolution.
Let us put the chemicals back into their bottles before they put us into our coffins.
The Hype about Hybrids
There are two apparently opposing but complimentary forces in seeds as in all living things, the capacity to reproduce and multiply with conservation of existing characteristics and the possibility to change, to evolve. The capacity of seeds to multiply ‘true to type' is a source of annoyance and insecurity for the seed industry.
For after investing effort and capital in breeding and promoting new plant varieties, seed companies would lose heavily if farmers buy a few of their seeds and multiply them endlessly. In response to this ‘hitch' research in hybridization commenced in earnest in the US in the 1920s after the rediscovery of Mendel's work. Starting with maize dozens of plants – even animals – were submitted to this hybridization craze.
The launching of hybrids (hybrid in Greek means monster), is an attempt by the seed industry and its vassals to hijack and manipulate natural processes (the forces of conservation and change governing evolution of all plant life) for exclusive commercial advantage. In fact hybridization is a way of sterilizing plants. The offspring of hybrid crops is useless as seed material. The farmers are thus obliged to buy new seeds every year. In a single stroke the seed companies succeeded in sidelining the age-old, creative contribution of farmers in nature's progressive manifestation.
Hybrids thus constitute one of the earliest in a series of successful ploys foisted by the seed industry to enslave the natural world of plants.
In the US “From the start of the development of “hybrids” (1922) – when the Department of Agriculture imposed the technique on reluctant breeders – to their conquest of the Middle West in 1945-46, the maize yield increased with 18% while that of wheat increased by 32%. But the
small wheat breeders only serve the general interest, while the “hybridisers” create a new source of profit and therefore become scientific heroes.” (Berlan & Lewontin 1998) It took 15 years of arrest of biological breeding methods for the hybrids to out-perform the open pollinated varieties.
The professed high yielding quality of hybrids, rather than being a feature intrinsic to the method, has more to do with pushed selection and the inputs that need to be pumped into the system (chemical fertilizers and irrigation). In turn this causes devastating ecological consequences.
From the growers' perspective, uniformity is perhaps the only advantage of hybrids, again serving only commercial interests. A hybrid seed will grow normally, produce a uniform crop but the seeds thereof will not reproduce anything worthwhile further. It is ecologically incomplete; it cannot reproduce itself nor produce by itself. This absence of lifeforce in hybrid food crops seems congruent with the decline in the human sperm count in the western world. This was revealed in the study of Dr. Niels Skakkebaek published in the British Medical Journal which shows that in the period between 1938 and 1990 the quantity of spermatozoids in the human sperm had declined by nearly 50%.
‘There's more to yield than grain' -
Next to the hybrids with the entry of the High Yielding Varieties (HYVs), mainly in rice and wheat, the world seed and plant heritage received another major blow. These so-called HYVs came to be widely cultivated in the last part of the 20 th century. Heralded as harbingers of a new era for humanity, they actually brought us to the brink of an ecological disaster.
While filling the treasuries of the richer countries, they created severe deficiencies in the diet of the peoples of the tropics, undermining their native strength and resilience. While these varieties are lauded for their ability to produce more grain, they in fact produce more carbohydrates but lower percentages of minerals and other life giving substances. (Peavy & Peary 1993:15)
These varieties are also not high yielding per se. Their total biomass production remains the same. Only the straw to grain ratio was selected in favor of the grain. Such dwarf varieties produce much less straw. Less straw means less fodder for cattle which simply means less manure. (One afterwards remarks that there is not enough manure and organic matter for organic farming!) Hence synthetic fertilizers become necessary.
Such varieties have thus led to the depletion of organic matter in the world's agricultural soils. The shortage of straw has led to severe overgrazing of the commons. The destruction of the vegetative cover on grazing lands and forests has drastically increased the rate of erosion. This has caused the rapid silting up of water bodies and thus a decrease in irrigated area, inexorably leading to a degenerating vicious cycle.
The “new seeds”, as they are often called, are now against all ecological sense, occupying vast areas and pushing the native seeds, the landraces or heirloom varieties, out of existence. IR 36 created by IRRI in 1977 and supposed to resist 8 major diseases and pests, was during the height of the green revolution cultivated on 11 million Ha., an ecological absurdity. Two new viruses, ragged stunt and wilted stunt as well as BPH created havoc with this new variety and farmers lost heavily.
Yet not only are the native seeds used to “produce” the new seeds but without them no varietal progress is possible, a paradoxical situation.
Pondering over Productivity
If all the outputs and agricultural inputs are converted into energy units and the ratio is studied and analysed, it shows that traditional systems are outstandingly more productive and efficient than modern chemical farming. This is a common conclusion of most energy accounting studies, aimed at comparing agricultural systems, however varied they might be in their approaches. It has been claimed that with modern farming techniques crop yields increased by 200 to 300%. That inputs have increased concomitantly by 1000 % and more is seldom ever mentioned. David Pimentel showed that it takes 10 calories of inputs to produce one calorie of food.
In a polyculture system, 5 units of input are used to produce 100 units of food thus having a productivity of 20. In an industrial monoculture, 300 units of input are used to produce 100 units of food, thus having a productivity of 0.33. (Shiva 1996:17) A polyculture system is thus 60 times more productive then a ‘high yielding' monoculture.
The Hidden Costs
Looming large over the failure of chemical farming to stand up to its claims of high efficiency and bumper yields, is the issue of its devastating effect on the environment.
Chemical Farming, which is so heavily dependent on fossil fuel, produces, as Fukuoka puts it, crops grown from oil rather than soil. A true organic farming on the other hand bases itself on carbohydrates (organic matter) rather than hydrocarbons (oil). This massive use of petroleum at every stage; fertilizer production, transport, irrigation, mechanized cultivation & harvest, together with the fact of fluctuating oil prices and limited reserves, have led to a belief that it might be the Achilles' heel of chemical farming. But in fact the weak points are all over.
Water tables have dropped as much as the oil inputs have risen. Worldwide, people are over-pumping groundwater by at least 160 billion cubic meters a year. Although today six billion people of the world share the same quantity of water shared by just one billion people in 1800 much of that water has become unfit for human consumption!
Hybrids and improved varieties are very water demanding. These plants have been bred to direct all energy towards one particular yield at the cost of quality, pest and drought resistance, resilience etc.
In spite of a science and technology at its peak and after many decades of drenching the world's soils with its toxic substances, chemical farming has failed to provide. It is acknowledged that in spite of the tall claims of modern farming there is definitely a negative balance on its food security account.
Crop yields in spite of adequate application of synthetic fertilizers are at best stagnating. In fact since 1983-84 a decline in yields of cereals all over the world because of soil fatigue due to loss of soil biological activity is noticeable (FAO). Soil fatigue occurs on 10% of agricultural soils in France with a decline in yields ranging from 10 to 40 % in spite of good levels of potassium, phosphorus, nitrogen etc. (Bourguignon & Gabucci 2005:165) At Barrackpur Research Station yields of wheat have declined from 4.4 to 3.3 t/ha. and in Patnagar rice has fallen from 6.4 to 5.2 t/ha. (Pretty 1996:7)
Critics have reacted to the flaws of chemical farming with genuine concern and growing alarm.
Even the defenders of the conventional system now acknowledge the tragic side of the ‘old' chemical approach, referring to it as a ‘necessary evil'. A new structure is now being erected to prop up the crumbling edifice of chemical farming – that of GMOs. Genetic engineering, euphemistically called genetic modification, isthe new banner signaling renewed hope, to not only solve pending challenges of eradicating poverty and hunger, but also save the world from the old chemical evils.
Take for instance herbicide tolerance, which encompasses 75 % of all commercial GMO plants (24 % are BT). How this can help to solve world hunger is a complete mystery. Plants are resistant to a complete herbicide because they can absorb huge quantities of it without being killed. They can actually store so much herbicide in their tissue that theirgrowth is impeded. Therefore together with the herbicide-resistant component another component digesting some of the herbicides and transforming it into “degrading metabolites” is inserted in such plants. What the effect of such metabolites on the human body could be, is anybody's guess. Imagine an animal fed with herbicide-tolerant soya on a daily basis. The herbicide residue builds up in the tissue of the animal. What happens to people eating “herbicide” animal products, besides the dozens upon dozens of processed food stuffs derived from or containing herbicide soya ?
What is the effect of the said metabolites in the fields, on rodents eating leftovers, on birds eating rodents? Herbicides can cause allergies, disturbances in the endocrinal system of adults etc. and can cause malformation in the brains of babies. The introduction of herbicidetolerant plants has in the US , between 1997- 2002, created an increase of 72 % in the sales of glyphosate – the one and future herbicide.
The fundamental premise of genetic engineering, bordering on superstition, is the belief that everything is in the genes to the exclusion of the physical and non-physical environment and the play of nature's creative forces. However, characteristics are seldom determined by a single gene. Some scientists are now talking in terms of gene sequences or by epigenetic pathways and cellular networks. The concepts of Morphogenic Fields, Morphic Resonance and Formative Causation are more illuminating in the understanding of behavior patterns and their development. (Sheldrake:1988) Genetic engineering is a technology designed specifically to transfer genes horizontally between species that do not interbreed. In her scathing critique of Genetic engineering, Mae- Wan Ho warns us that in order to “transfer genetic material and to overcome the power of rejection by the recipient organism, very potent pathogens (virulent viruses etc.) are used as vehicles.
Though their mobility genes have been deleted, these pathogens can still attach themselves or recombine with other pathogens to form "super strains”. (Ho:1997) The inherent danger is that such pathological super strains are escaping into the environment with hazardous consequences.
GMO's act as powerful agents that stimulate oxidizing processes in the human body. As a result some transgenic foods have caused irritation and “allergies” to consumers (Brazil nut in Soya). Rats fed exclusively with GMO feeds showed extreme anomalies in their physiognomy, brain deformations and tumors and severe liver defects!
In the case of Bt cotton, no one has the slightest idea as to what can happen to the human skin and health in general once such fabrics start to be worn. There are already remarks by farmers about allergic reactions while handling Bt cotton at harvest and storage. Complaints of crop failure in the same fields sown after Bt cotton throws up serious worries about the effect of transgenic crops on soil biological life and soil health. What about animals fed with Bt cotton seed meal and the possible hazardous effect on humans consuming such animal products ?
Even the much flaunted advantage of transgenic crops to stave off plant parasites is under a shadow of great doubt. “The genetically engineered resistances will fall easily within the capacity for micro-evolutionary change of the parasite. That means that the parasite can produce new strains which will be unaffected by the transgene in question”. (Robinson 1996:400) It has been predicted that within 10 years of its release insects will overcome the Bt. barrier (this is happening right now). Moreover the competition between this reductionist breeding mechanism and the adaptation of the parasite is expected to cause unprecedented environmental spoilage.
It is alarming that an increasing number of GMO's are literally thrown on the market with absolutely no concern about informing consumers. Watch out for potatoes with vaccines, whether you want it or not, frogs in tomatoes, scorpions in maize, fish in strawberries…...
“We don't have to guarantee the safety of genetically modified food stuffs. Our interest is to sell as much of them as possible” (representative of Monsanto, incidentally also the producers of ‘Agent Orange' as quoted by V. Shiva).
The new turn in agricultural science which sees gene manipulation as the principle technological solution to feed the world, remains squarely within the same exploitative mindset as the earlier approaches with all its consequent ills. The hazards it engenders might be even worse. We are warned about the perils of genetic engineering even by eminent scientists “You can stop splitting the atom ….you can stop using aerosols … but you cannot recall a new form of life". (Chargaff as quoted in Goldsmith1993:316) Such a system cannot possibly accompany us on the path to our evolutionary destination.
Looking Back – India 's Agricultural Heritage
The East can look back on a very rich and ancient tradition in farming. The West cannot. From the early middle ages even up to the times of the industrial revolution the West has repeatedly suffered scarcity and starvation. Looking back at its own past, the Western eye sees an agricultural tradition inseparable from dreaded episodes of food shortages and deficiencies. This perception, transposed to the East, has created a distinct Euro-centric stain, coloring post colonial attitudes towards India 's agricultural history.
India is described, by the supporters of the ‘modernisation' of Indian agriculture, as a land of starving millions, wrecked by famine, with agricultural practices and tools that haven't changed since the Vedic times, unscientific, backward, moribund, with no hope whatsoever.
In contrast are the descriptions of rural India by foreign travelers and the facts recorded by colonial officials. The descriptions of rural scenes in India by Chinese travelers Fa Hien (5 th century AD.) and Huang Tsang (7 th century AD), by Francois Bernier (1656-1688) and Mr. Le Tavernier (18 th century AD.) about the marvels and abundance of India (Sonar Bangla) might be coloured with romanticism, though temple inscriptions in South India seem to confirm their view. From these inscriptions ( 9 th to 12 th century AD.) it appears that rice yields for instance were remarkable.
They mention rice yields in Tanjavur equivalent to 12 to 18 tons per hectare, in Coimbatore 13 tons and in South Arcot 14,5 tons per hectare !
The same holds true for pre-colonial Africa and South America . Two French travelers, Poncet and Brevedent (18 th . Century AD.) described the Gezira in Sudan as God's country ( Belad Allah ) by reason of its great plenty. The old Chinampas of Mexico , the ancient Waru-Waru of Peru or the Terra Preta of the Amazon were possibly the highest food production systems ever developed by man.
Many reports by British officials like A. Walker (1820) and Dr J.A. Voelcker (1893) equally point to surprising facts of abundance in India .One of the most detailed reports is by Thomas Barnard.
In the 18th century (around 1770), Thomas Barnard, a British engineer, conducted a survey in Chengalpattu district near Madras covering 800 villages. The results show the average yield of wetland rice to be 3600 kg/ha and 1600 kg/ ha for dryland rice. In 130 villages the average yield for wetland rice was 8200 kg/ha, while the yields in many surpassed 10,000 kg/ha. The present day average for rice in the same area is3177 kg/ha. The Indian average is 1667 kg/ha. ( ICAR 1997:763)
Per acre productivity of wheat in India in 1804 was almost three times higher than that of England . In 1903 wheat production in the Allahabad area was about 4000 kg/ha.(Kate 1995). The average wheat production in France in 1985 was 3760 kg/ha. The sophistication of agricultural practices in the 17-18 th century was beyond even the comment of colonial officials. Technologies such as the use of seed drills and cropping of cereals with legumes had already been perfected centuries ago, while in Europe these were introduced as late as the mid 18 th century.
In 1873, after the opening of the Suez Canal , the first wheat shipped from India arrived in England . The British envisaged India as a potentially secure source of wheat for the Empire. “Though much rice and wheat were exported, domestic availability grew at about the same rate.” (Shiva 1991:57) The export of food grains from India to the West rose from £ 8,58,000 in 1849 to £ 19.3 million in 1914. Oil seeds export increased from 2 million to the staggering figure of 5 million in a period of 19 years. (Since then the export of protein from India to the West is continuing unabated.)
Over and above the export of food grains, the Indian peasants were also burdened by heavy taxes, which were levied irrespective of prevailing conditions. In 1750 the farmer had to pay for every 1000 units of produce, 300 units as tax, out of which only 50 units went to the Central Authority, the rest remained in the locality. But in 1830 the farmer had to give away 650 units as revenue, 590 of which went straight to the Central Authority.
Warren Hastings, in 1772 a year after the great famine of Bengal in which 10 million people perished, wrote: “Not withstanding the loss of at least 1/3 of the inhabitants of the province and the consequent decrease of the cultivation, the net collection of the year 1771 exceeded even those of 1768... It was naturally to be expected that the diminution of revenue should have kept an equal pace with the other consequences of so great a calamity. That it did not, was owing to its being violently kept up to its former standard.” (Shiva 1991:57)
“Out of the millions they collected in1770-1771, the Company gave back 90,000 Rs. in famine relief – 90,000 Rs. for 30,000,000 people!” (Moxham 2001:42)
The ‘Great Hedge', started by the East India Company, which became an immense impenetrable live barrier of thorny shrubs and trees 1500 miles long, was a part of the Custom Line that ran across the Indian continent. It was maintained by 12,000 armed guards to prevent untaxed salt and other essential commodities from reaching those who had always depended on such trade. The taxes were so high that people could not afford even salt.
The disturbances in Europe between 1914-1945 equally had a severe impact on food availability in colonized countries. The 24 famines in the later part of the 19 th century with a total of 20 million victims were the climax of decades of exploitation, rather than the failure of traditional agriculture to provide. The same is true of the Irish potato famine. When the potato crops failed throughout Ireland and one million people died from hunger, the British lords were exporting wheat and meat from their large well-endowed estates to England .
A return to the past, however glorious, is not possible or even desirable – Sri Aurobindo teaches us that the past is good where it belongs … in the past.
What is to be remembered and kept for our future evolution, is that reverence for life, thatresilient spirit and the essence of its knowledge – the continuity of the living, the understanding that all is inter-connected, the living and the inert, and foremost that the earth is sacred, that nature is the Mother. The farmer is a co-creator in Her unfolding process. To be attuned to nature is to prosper, to go against her ends in ruin.
Genesis of Modern Organic Farming
The history of the present organic farming (1) movement starts with Albert Howard in India and Rudolf Steiner in Austria .
Howard declared that “By 1910, I had learned to grow healthy crops practically free from disease, without the slightest help from mycologists, entomologists, bacteriologists, agricultural chemists, statisticians, clearing-houses of information, artificial manures, spraying machines, insecticides, fungicides, germicides, and all the other expensive paraphernalia of the modern Experimental Station”.
His method, called the “ Indore ” process, was basically the traditional Indian farming system which he learned from the local farmers but strengthened with a proper composting technique. The work of A. Howard was widely publicized by J.I. Rodale in the US and became known and influential world wide. This new concept brought about spectacular improvements in agriculture and spread the world over.
Inspired by the work of Howard, Lady Eve Balfour (2) , an agronomist, started her Haughley experiment in England . In her meticulously designed experiment spanning almost a decade she proved that organic farming can in all ways out-perform its chemical counterpart.
In the West, after WW I, chemicals were introduced in agriculture on a wide scale. The factories that produced nitrogen for the manufacture of ammunition and bombs now turned out urea for throwing on the land. But soon after this farmers began to notice the decline in the vital force of their seed material. They requested Steiner to enlighten them on this issue and in 1924 the renowned lectures on Agriculture took place in Austria . Ehrenfried Pfeiffer studied and developed the teachings of Steiner and refined the system now known as biodynamic agriculture.
Pfeiffer brought biodynamic agriculture to Holland and later to America .
It was in the wake of WW II that modern chemical farming spread to all corners of the world. The industry that produced tanks and other war materials and vehicles on the conveyer belt now rolled out combine harvesters, pick-ups and tractors. No wonder that after the mechanical harvesting of beets or potatoes the fields look like “ Verdun after the Great War”.
After Indian independence K.M. Munshi (3) , the first Minister of Agriculture, drew up a plan for renewing Indian agriculture. He was well aware that India should develop agriculture on its own inherent strength and tradition and not imitate the exploitative Western trend.
Plan Munshi was rooted in the philosophy of self-reliance and strengthening the ecological base of agriculture, as expressed by Gandhiji, J.C Kumarappa, Meera Behn and Payarelal. The plan to rebuild and regenerate the ecological base of agricultural productivity was worked out in detail. It was founded on a bottom-up decentralized and participatory methodology.
Repairing nature's cycles and working in partnership with the natural processes was viewed as being central to the indigenous agricultural policy.
Independent India however tragically abandoned this ecologically sound option, submitting instead to pressures from US institutions promoting the capital intensive, industrial model for a ‘modern' Indian agriculture.
The drought of 1966 and the heavy import of food grains were used to firmly establish new policies which continue to dominate the agricultural scene even today.
Voices of dissent never remain stifled for too long and there has been a healthy resurgence in recent decades.
Winds of Welcome Change – India/Asia
In 1984 the first all India organic farmers conference was organized in Sevagram, Wardha (1) . For the first time the severe shortcomings of modern farming were thrown open for public debate. Startling facts about falling yields, declining soil fertility, tremendous losses of indigenous genetic resources, poured in from all sides. The restoration of forest cover, as a buffer for a sustainable agriculture, was given great importance. This event marked a revival of pride and confidence in India 's hidden potential as revealed by outstanding individuals such as Dharampal the distinguished historian, Banwarilal Choudury, Gandhian and untiring village worker, Dhabolkar the eccentric agrimathematician, young avant garde, Vandana Shiva, Korah Mathen and Claude Alvares and many others. Since then organic farming has grown steadily and is thriving in many states as well as at the national level. The Organic Farmers Association of India – OFAI – has taken the work of ARISE (2) a step further and is presently coordinating efforts of Indian farmers to remould Indian agriculture.
In Tamil Nadu the organic farming movement has taken remarkable shape in recent years. With more than 20,000 farmers shifting to organic practices in the last 3 years, this movement owes its success largely to the work of pioneering farmers and dedicated individuals rather than institutions. There are thriving networks within networks. A vibrant internal dynamism is obvious and large numbers of innovative farmers are now enthusiastic trainers. Their cowshed classrooms burst at the seams with farmers seeking change. Many farms deserve to be recognized as centres of excellent research. Publications, magazines and books on organic farming are flourishing. The leaders are constantly on the move, addressing farmers' gatherings attended by the 100s in villages all over the state. Although the focus is on developing and promoting organic farming techniques, the change being encouraged is wide ranging. The movement also addresses the need to revive Siddha traditions of medicine, the need to inspire youngsters to return to the land, the need to conserve natural resources and above all the need to love nature and serve her.(3)
Everywhere in India the organic farming movement is growing strong, with mounting numbers opting for ecological alternatives. The Organic Farming Source Book (4) will soon have to run into several volumes.
The resurgence is not limited to India alone. Worldwide, farmers' movements filled with the spirit of their indigenous heritage have brought about unique and amazing innovation in farming. They have brought productivity on par without the destructive consequence' characteristic of chemical agriculture. In many cases crop yields are now rising, doubling and even trebling the ceiling of conventional farming,. ‘Masipag' in the Philippines created sophisticated organic practices based on indigenous genetic resources in rice cultivation that shadows the high input conventional system. Voly Vary Maroanaka or SRI, a rice cultivation method developed by a priest in Madagascar revolutionized rice cultivation to the extent that all modern rice research and breeding appears as a child's prank in comparison. In South America the Waru Waru are being reclaimed, the wonders of Terra Preta are being revealed and the original Indian communities are finding back their lost greatness.
Everywhere in the Western world, South America or Africa, organic farming is rising and becoming a force that can bring about the needed change in agriculture, and hopefully in society at large.
The Pathogen within Organic Farming
As organic farming makes rapid advances and offers bold technological alternatives, a familiar danger lurks menacingly round the corner – its abduction by big business interests. With the rising popularity of organic products, the tropics are increasingly eyed as cheap sources of organic foods for Western countries. The tropics are being invaded by the certification drive. As this is a costly enterprise, small farmers are immediately excluded. Large business concerns have entered the field attracted by bumper profits. Clever entrepreneurs are buying up agricultural land from poor farmers and besides making motorbikes or soap are now joining the organic bandwagon on a grand scale, raking in nice profits. The link between forests and farms has been driven to the background if not totally eclipsed. Trade across nations and even continents is as old as civilization itself but the extent and content were most likely very different then. While it is true that people in the cities have the right to safe food, and even if export of surplus foodstuffs can earn farmers a better income, certain questions still remain.
Is it socially sound to feed the rich in the West with organic food from poorer countries? How environmentally sound is it to transport food over large distances ?
The British colonial administration considered the availability of 200 kg. of food grains per person per year as the absolute minimum. Below that is famine. Food grain for human consumption as late as 1990 was 180 kg. per person. The per capita food grain availability in India in 2000 was 201 kg. Evidently this has not changed in the last 3 centuries and is the lowest in the world today!
In this context can export of food be considered as fair trade ?
Que sera? The future cannot rely on the conventional chemical farming system to provide food for the country or the world, to do so would be suicidal, an end to evolution. The road to farming practices of the past is closed. Its know-how and resource base are lost. And now the commercialization of organic farming poses if not a threat then at least a grave concern. Once projected as a viable alternative to ecologically damaging and exploiting ways of conventional agriculture, organic farming in its exploitative commercial form is now compounding the problem of food security in India .
In this period of transition, there seems to be a lack of vision as to which road to take for the immediate development of agriculture.
Any randomly selected treatise on agriculture contains lamentations about the past, eulogies about modern farming and the promise of GMO's as the final solution. With the same breath, the importance of indigenous agriculture, farmers' wisdom and eco-sensitive practices are emphasised – a confusing khichdi of incongruous ingredients.
While ideal solutions are evasive as long as we remain within a limited consciousness, it is useful to constantly remind ourselves of the principles pointing in the right direction.
- Bring the food economy as close to home as possible.
- Develop and use simple farming technologies following Nature as a teacher
- Maintain and enhance soil fertility within the economic catchment
- Conserve & optimise use of rain water
- Reduce fossil fuel dependence as much as possible
- Protect and conserve local biodiversity – forest species, cultivated plants, macro and micro fauna
AN AUROVILLE EXPERIENCE
In the mid 1990s, after moving from Annapurna , Deepika joined me in looking after the northern corner of Aurobrindavan. We worked part time, protecting the place, planting, making a good fence. After withdrawing from training activities and our work for ARISE in 1998, we took in an adjoining piece of Auroville land and decided to concentrate there on land regeneration work.
This is a small nook in a large tract of about 8000 ha. of gullies that stretch over Aurobrindavan and beyond towards Usteri. Overexploited by pebble and soil mining, repeated cutting and grazing of vegetation, the land has become a harsh expanse of pebbles and laterite chunks embedded in poor clays.
The broader convictions that form the background to our experiment are that:
• Wastelands and marginal lands (50 million ha. in India) have a productive potential that can certainly be restored, into productive forests as well as farms.
• This can be done – with simple techniques based on natural principles, minimum financial investments, resources from home and the immediate neighbourhood – in a way that is gentle on the environment and people.
• Food security at the home/community level, the oldest form of agriculture, is the only answer to insecurities created by global trade in essentials. We are trying to translate these convictions into small scale activities on the land :
• Establishing Live Fences
• Conserving local forest species
• Creating small water bodies
• Planting mixed timber, bamboo and ‘useful' species
• Setting up a Home Garden
• Establishing an Orchard
Building Soil & Feeding the Plant
The central challenge in every area of our work has been to restore soil fertility, especially for garden crops. While many would not even try, we would like our experiment to confront these questions:
Is it possible to grow food and other garden crops on such a devastated land ? Can this be done with an absolute minimum of external inputs ? Without bringing good soil and manure from somewhere and degenerating one place to regenerate another ? By buying compost from the villagers are we not compelling them to purchase fertilizers for their own fields ?
The theoretical basis of our work is drawn from the principle of optimum sunlight harvesting and creating a living soil which governs healthy plant growth in all natural eco-systems. This natural principle has been developed into efficient systems of farming by researchers such as Claude Bourguignon and by the Prayog Parivar of S.S Dabholkar. We are relying on both systems for developing a method suited for our specific conditions and needs.
Plants feed themselves for 95 % on the atmosphere and from sunlight, while soil contributes only 5% of the diet of plants. This might make it sound as if the soil is of little importance. But the fact that the total biomass volume of roots is greater than that of the leaves indicates how crucial the soil component is. Plants can favorably harvest sunlight and express their maximum potential only when soil conditions are ideal. The ease with which roots can penetrate the soil and have access to a complete diet of minerals will determine the extent of optimal absorption of atmospheric elements. The crux is to obtain an optimal and clean leaf and canopy area by providing the best conditions for feeding roots along the drip line of the canopy.
The Prayog Parivar prescribes a method of soil building which imitates the manner in which soil is formed and maintained in a forest. If we look at the forest floor we see layers of leaves and twigs, pats of dung, bird droppings, rain, termites, ants, earthworms, burrowing animals and leaves again, year after year. For the garden we do something similar, using very thin alternate layers of leaves/biomass and soil to create beds and heaps. The process is further refined and enriched in numerous creative ways using neighborhood and home resources, recycling crop residues, charcoal, kitchen waste etc.
With this method it is possible to obtain the best possible soil which is required for optimum harvesting of sunlight and thus for optimizing production.
Adapting to our specific conditions we grow and use Acacia coleii (holosericea) and Dodonea viscosa as pioneers and recycle every bit of them for building soil for the garden area. With these hardy pioneers we have managed to grow our major biomass requirement on the site.
Together with leaves gathered manually from the neighbourhood, and soil collected from deepening ponds, within a short time we were able to build up soil for the garden. We now have about 1000 sqm. of built-up ‘forest' soil where we grow, every season, vegetables, herbs, flowers and conserve nearly 80 hardy plant varieties for home gardening. For fruit trees we are following similar techniques for canopy development. A whole line of bamboos was planted in heaps built up in the Prayog Parivar way, above the ground.. This method of soil building has been tried out in other locations in Auroville as well.
In Maharashtra where Prayog Parivar originated, there are productive organic farms obtaining stunning yields, in grapes, sugarcane, vegetables and other crops. Behind the garden is a forest area requiring much less ‘management'. Here the work, besides some protection and some inter-planting, is left mainly to nature. For the earth is not for man alone.
Commercial food crops have been developed with priorities such as short stature for ease of harvest, short duration, convenient transport etc. but rarely for food value, taste, nourishment – qualities that consumers need. Plant varieties suitable for home gardens are disappearing together with the skills and resources needed to grow them.
The home base of farming has suffered badly with the industrialization of agriculture. We desperately need to bring farming back home.
Mother visualized “A small house and a garden for everyone”.
(from “The Aims of Auroville – following Mother's Guidelines”
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