The bleeding, blistered feet of farmers marching along the streets of Mumbai earlier this week are a grim reminder of the state the community is in. Identified with lush green fields, sprouting food for the entire nation, farmers today are synonymous more with suicides, protests and helpless faces in the event of droughts or rotting grain.
In a country that boasts of being an agrarian economy, farmers and their fields have paid the price of prosperity. In a rush to boost productivity, fields were inundated with chemicals, pesticides and genetically-modified crops in the garb of the Green Revolution, writes Lathika George in her book, Mother Earth, Sister Seed: Travels through India’s Farmlands. Travelling the breadth of the country to farms and villages in search of the “endearing images of bullock cart races in fallow fields or farmers flying kites after a harvest”, George questions why what was, and should be, the cycle of life has now become the cycle of death.
She rues how the farmers of Punjab especially are paying the price of the Green Revolution with soil and water systems that are irreversibly degraded with chemicals; how in Kerala, even today, birth defects can be seen as a result of the endosulfan sprayed on cashew crop. Farmers in these places were unwilling and ignorant partners in the destruction of nature. However, many farmers in remote areas were spared the ravages of the so-called revolution. George travels to some of these areas to seek out stories of farmers and their lands where sustainable, organic farming is still a way of life. This might have been the result of higher costs of pesticides or just a mistrust of new ways, but they have maintained harmony with nature.
From the organic fields of Sikkim to the dense forests of the Sunderbans where honey is collected in the face of tiger attacks, the self-sustaining mountains of Chamba or the seashore in Rameshwaram where fishermen face the furies of the sea—George recounts the heart-warming tales of farmers and food producers who still go by the traditional agrarian values of farming and food production.
There are also many farmers who are choosing to revert to the traditional ways of farming using new-age techniques. George tells Sunday FE that just as consumers are reverting to ancient grains, millets, organic, fresh and local food, many farmers are also following suit. “Many farmers have returned to growing ancient grains and indigenous crops that are suited to their region. And, they are using innovative and new agritech; solutions compliant with local practices,” she says.
“India has the largest number of organic food producers in the world, which are mostly small holdings. Many isolated farming communities, particularly the north-eastern states, have merely continued with their traditional ways of farming, and this has been a blessing. Sikkim, which was recently declared 100% organic, had a fairly easy transition period as its farmers were familiar with natural agricultural practices. Farmers around the country are increasingly looking to the ways of their ancestors and reclaiming their agrarian traditions. This is what my book focuses on—traditional food producers who have continued to grow food using age-old methods and also people who have started farming or returned to farming with these goals: producing healthy, chemical-free food,” adds George.
She feels that these initiatives have to not only be lauded, but promoted as well. “From paddy transplanters, low-cost threshers and phone apps for marketing and procuring goods to precision maps and cloud-based technology, these exciting new developments must be actively promoted. This will ease back-breaking field work, increase production and also help with better marketing systems, and the ultimate goal—fair prices in the market. Organic farmers must be supported through the transition stages with financial aid and efficient advisory services,” she says.
The result could well be the farms of the future. For instance, in her book, she writes about Talakad (Karnataka), where a group of highly qualified men are at the helm of growing exotic produce in a farm that is India’s first large-scale and zero-pesticide venture. Planning is done with charts with military precision and the farm itself is a brilliant example of corporate professionalism guided by a combination of scientific and technological innovations and traditional farming practices. Rows of Amarillo chillies and edamame beans compete with the likes of Swiss chard, San Marzano tomatoes and Peruvian hot peppers.
But when reminded that traditional ways of farming surely cannot ensure productivity to match the growing population of the country, making farmers dependent on GM varieties, chemical crop boosters, and focus on cash crops, she says: “Short-sighted government schemes in the past have promoted genetically-modified seeds, mono cropping and chemically-supported farming, which was once viewed as the only way to feed the nation. Research has shown that small holdings using sustainable farming practices are more productive than large industrial farms. Many states like Mizoram, Uttarakhand and Kerala have initiated the process of turning entirely organic and Sikkim already is a 100% organic state. Farming can’t be viewed as a ‘doomed enterprise’. Not everyone can be a farmer, but the Indian agricultural sector is vast and varied with many career options, from academics (research and education) to agri-business management, agricultural journalism and engineering. It should be actively promoted as a career choice.”
As for use of science, George advocates more regulation, and more research and development that focuses on improving natural food production systems. “Scientists are now looking towards evolutionary biology for solutions. Farmers have been doing this over the years, improving on seeds, grains and farming methods naturally. So many of the answers lie in traditional agricultural knowledge. In the future, research and development could produce perennial food grains, nitrogen-fixing crops that require no fertilisers, and drought- and pest-resistant plants. As for harming nature, it’s judicious to remember that the earth eventually regenerates and cleanses itself of its poisons, but humans, who have shorter lives, rarely do,” she says.