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Satavic Farms

or why "high-tech science", white coats, expensive laboratories, genetic engineering and playing God is neither necessary nor will be sufficient to feed the earth

“Feeding the earth” is a nice plank for agribusiness to sell its goods and services. In the name of producing sufficient food to feed the world’s growing population, agribusinesses have only helped their own selves prosper. Agriculture is an interaction between man and nature which agribusinesses or governments don’t understand. The key to increasing productivity cannot lie in laboratories or in a packet of hybrid seeds or a can of pesticides. It lies in using sustainable farming technologies which harm neither farm, farmer, the environment or those who consume the food. Any agriculture system has to take a responsibility towards feeding the earth but it also has to fulfill this responsibility using sustainable and safe technologies.

Large players in agribusiness in India have sold a story that we need to produce more food and increase productivity of our fields. They also seem convinced that they hold the key to feeding the country. Their solutions consist of factory farming, biofortification (protato, golden rice), genetically-modified seeds, cloning, hybrid seeds, pesticides, weedicides, mechanisation and monocultures.

The truth however is that while a vast percentage of India’s population is hungry, underfed and malnourished, India already grows sufficient food to feed its entire population. Consider these figures (all figures and calculations of 2003) :

India today grows about 210 million tons of food grains (rice, wheat, millets and pulses) annually. This translates into over 475 grams of food grains daily for each one of its nearly 1.2 billion citizens (that’s nearly 175 kilos of foodgrains per person in a year)

We produce approximately 45 million tons of fruits and 95 million tons of vegetables annually, which should provide every Indian with over 300 grams of fruits and vegetables every day

That adds up to over 2,400 calories daily from just staple foods, fruits and vegetables. It may be assumed that we grow sufficient food to provide our population with a daily per capita calorie intake of at least 2,500 calories.

Yet between 25-35% of our population is classified as hungry. The reason for this incongruity is simple – our food distribution and handling systems are inefficient and our food management policy is non-existent. Food doesn’t reach everyone for one reason or another. Here’s some “food for thought” :

It is estimated that over a third of fruits and vegetables produced by Indian farmers are destroyed somewhere down the supply chain because of lack of handling and distribution systems. That’s approximately 100 grams of quality food lost per individual every day

Over 33 million tons of cereals (far more than the required buffer stock) are stored in warehouses, godowns, silos (and in the open) across the country at any given point of time. A substantial quantity is dumped and written off because of spoilage

An appalling Rs.15,000 crores (US$ 3.25 billion) is spent annually on storing food grains in these warehouses and godowns

We export food grains at price levels lower than the subsidised rates offered to those considered below the poverty line. In other words, India subsidises the food supply of other (richer) countries

The problem is not only one of logistics and supply chains though. Agriculture has, in the past few decades, degenerated into a largely industrialised activity with the role of nature being ignored totally. If India’s – and the rest of the world’s – growing population has to be fed, it is imperative to adopt sustainable agriculture worldwide and keep agriculture systems as close to nature as possible. It is not just unnecessary but also counterproductive to adopt and promote the latest self-serving “technology” that originates from some multinational overseas or blindly following “alien” knowledge and models.

Food contaminated by chemicals or grown from genetically-modified seeds and planting material is unhealthy. That’s plain and simple and easily understood. Consuming such food is akin to allowing a time bomb tick inside whoever eats it. Organic farming does away with these unhealthy, short-term “production boosters” and brings into picture a diverse, healthy and sustainable crop production system.

To summarise the above, our farms and farmers have to produce not just sufficient quantities of food, but also food that is healthy and nutritious. In addition, food or any other agricultural produce must not be allowed to be wasted. Hence, while there is required to be a total conversion or reversion to organic farming, there also has to be a sea-change in our outlook towards agriculture, agricultural infrastructure and food handling. Some of these changes are :

  • Agriculture has to be considered a way of livelihood, a lifestyle and a communication or interaction with nature. It cannot be treated as an industrial or purely commercial activity. This realisation has to sink into the government, bureaucrats, agricultural scientists, extension workers and even farmers.

    Effect : Streamlined planning, less interference, non-dependence on extraneous factors like subsidies, grants, etc.

  • Farmers have to be trained, educated and motivated to use resources available to them efficiently. Resources include agricultural wastes, water and electricity. Providing free power and allowing unhindered use of groundwater resources and irrigation systems encourages wastage and over-exploitation. Subsidising chemical fertilisers will never allow farmers to realise the true economic cost of using them and reduce the motivation to make their own compost or recycle their farm wastes.

    Effect : Nationwide fiscal and ecological benefits, long-term stability of individual farms.

  • Organic inputs have to be produced on-farm or by local, village-level cooperatives. This includes composts, seeds, natural pesticides, etc. Besides ecological correctness, this keeps a farmer’s costs low.

    Effect : Lower cost of food production, more control and independence in the hands of the farmer.

  • Proper post-harvest facilities must be available to farmers for handling, storing and processing their produce. An area of even ten acres or so can have its own independent small-scale processing and handling unit.

    Effect : Reduced wastage, better price realisation for farmers.

  • Food should not travel large distances, especially staple commodities. Hence, markets should be served by farms within a few hundred kilometres at the most for regular food items. There are huge ecological costs involved in transporting food using fossil fuels which today nobody in the chain, including the final consumer is paying for. Moreover, to serve a distant area and help meet their needs, monoculture systems develop, affecting biodiversity and local agriculture systems.

    Effect : Reduced environmental pollution from use of fossil fuels, lower costs for consumers.