(GM crops are a serious matter of debate. We cannot ignore the issues, concerns and threats highlighted by many scientists, environmentalist and activists worldwide about the growing trend of genetic modification for food. Here, we are publishing a very important and comprehensively accounted book written by senior journalist and environmentalist, Mr. Bharat Dogra. The book- 14 crucial question about GM crops- will appear on our website in parts for next few days. This is last part of the series. Thanks)
Q9.How is genetic engineering linked to biological warfare?
Ans.Biological warfare is known to be one of the most destructive yet secretive forms of warfare. In fact its strength derives to a large extent from the fact that it can unleash so much damage without the identity of a specific attack, not to mention the attacker, becoming clear at all. Biological warfare (also called germ-warfare) can be used to spread disease among human beings or destroy crops on a large scale. Protection against such an attack is extremely difficult, specially in the case of a surprise attack.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “The insidious effects of many chemical and biological warfare agents make them suited to sabotage, for not only do they cause widespread damage, but their delayed effects may also enable the saboteur to escape detection.”
U.S. expert Katheleen C. Bailey has stated, “Although biological warfare and toxin warfare were historically viewed as less practical weapons because of technical problems in production and effective delivery, tremendous technology advances such as genetic engineering and development of stabilizers have made these weapons relatively easy to manufacture and deliver effectively. Because these weapons are inexpensive and comparatively easy to produce, an increasing number of nations may pursue them.”
Speaking further about the threats posed by biological weapons, she says “a bacteria or virus used as a weapon could spread well beyond its intended victims, causing an epidemic worldwide. The pathogen could mutate, becoming even more deadly and resistant to treatment or prevention.”
The use of biological and toxin weapons was outlawed by the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. Nevertheless biological warfare research continued in several countries, specially the two super powers i.e. the USA and the USSR. Russian President Boris Yelstin admitted in 1992 that an epidemic of anthrax in Ural mountains in 1979 was caused by an accident at a biological warfare production plant.
As for biological warfare research in the USA, the Third World Guide 1991-92 has reported, “Early in the Reagan administration, which entered office in 1981, a systematic campaign was initiated to develop military capacity based on advances in the biomedical and biotechnology, such as genetic engineering. These efforts included attempts to undermine the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, sharply increasing expenditures for biological weapons research and development, active recruitment of University scientists into Department of Defence, and formal testimony before the US Congress in 1986 urging the development of military capacity in biotechnology.”
Senior American journalist William Blum has reported, “In 1956 and 1958, declassified documents have revealed that the US army loosed swarms of specially bred mosquitoes in Georgia and Florida to see whether disease carrying insects could be weapons in a biological war. The mosquitoes bred for the tests were of Aedes Aegypti type, the precise carrier of dengue fever as well as other diseases. In 1967, it was reported by Science magazine that at the US government centre in Fort Detrick, Maryland, dengue fever was amongst those diseases that are at least the object of considerable research and that appear to be among those regarded as potential biological warfare agents.”
Cuba protested time and again against the possible involvement of chemical and biological warfare agents in the destruction of its crops, outbreak of African swine and dengue fever but such is the nature of biological warfare that conclusive evidence is difficult to get.
As biological warfare research was continued by the big powers, one of the main problems they faced was in conducting field tests and other experiments which could prove dangerous for their own people. This problem was solved to some extent by shifting these experiments to developing countries in the garb of development and health research.
Disturbing evidence of several such research projects in India was made available in 1975 in the 167th report of Public Accounts Committee of the Indian Parliament titled ‘Foreign Participation or collaboration in research products in India,’ and in its follow up report in 1976. These reports indicted several such projects such as a genetic control of mosquitoes unit (GCMU) project, a microbial pesticide project and some other projects.
An article published in New Scientist said, “If one were intending a yellow fever attack on India, this information collected by the GCMU would be very useful.”
A widely circulated magazine in India ‘The Week’ alleged in two cover stories (October 9, 1994 and July 23, 1995) that the outbreak of pneumonic plague in Surat was the result of biological warfare experiments conducted by the USA. The Week said that several suspicious circumstances led it to suspect from the outset that the microbe was not a natural plague bacterium but one mutated in some germ-warfare lab. The magazine said in its July 23 issue, the laboratories which examined the microbe strains collected from Surat have reported that they are different from all known natural strains of the plague germ, Yersinia pestis. The Week said that USA Scientists have been developing a germ detector device known as BIDS (Biological Integrated Detection System). This required field tests some of which, the Week said, may have been conducted in Surat.
Summarizing the reason why suspicions persist, a news report released by the Press Trust of India said, “While the final report of the Ramalingaswami Committee on Surat plague is yet to be released, there is increasing suspicion among scientists that the strain of Yersinia Pestis, Which caused the outbreak, was genetically engineered. Basis for this suspicion is a test report from the US Centre for Disease Control at Fort Collins in Colarado that the Surat strain is unique and not related to any known stain of the plague bacillus.”
Attention has also been drawn to the biological warfare implications of what has been called the \’terminator technology\’. In widely discussed paper (published in the Ecologist, Sept/Oct 1998) Ricarda A Steinbrecker (Science Director of the Genetics Forum UK) and Pat Roy Mooney (widely acclaimed winner of the Right to Livelihood Award) summarise the implications of this most controversial use of generic engineering,
"On March 3rd 1998 the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and a little-known cotton-seed enterprise called Delta and Pine Land Company, acquired US patent 5,723,765 – or the Technology Protection System (TPS). Within days, the rest of the world knew TPS as Terminator Technology. Its declared goal is to promulgate plants that will produce self terminating offspring – suicide seeds. Terminator Technology epitomises what the genetic engineering of food crops is all about and gives an insight into the driving forces behind the corporate campaign to control and own life.–
"The Terminator also portends a hidden dark side. As a Trojan Horse for other transgenic traits, the technology might also be used to switch any trait off or on. At least in theory, the technology points to the possibility that crop diseases could be triggered by seed exports that would not have to "kick in" immediately – or not until activated by specific chemicals or conditions. This form of biological warfare on people\’s food and economics is becoming a hot topic in military and security circles."
Several eminent scientists comprising the Independent Science Panel have also clearly indicated the biological warfare potential of genetic engineering. The ISP writes, "By far the most insidious dangers of genetic engineering are inherent to the process itself, which greatly enhances the scope and probability of horizontal gene transfer and recombination, the main route to creating viruses and bacteria that cause disease epidemics. This was highlighted, in 2001, by the \’accidental\’ creation of a killer mouse virus in the course of an apparently innocent genetic engineering experiment. Newer techniques, such as DNA shuffling, are allowing geneticists to create in a matter of minutes in the laboratory millions of recombinant viruses that have never existed in billions of years of evolution. Disease-causing viruses and bacteria and their genetic material are the predominant materials and tools for genetic engineering, as much as for the intentional creation of bio-weapons."
Q10.In these difficult times of climate change, can you suggest comprehensive farm policy which’ll produce enough food on a sustainable basis while also protecting environment?
Ans.Much before the adverse impacts of climate change started manifesting themselves, it had become evident in the interests of equality, justice and sustainability that certain significant changes need to be made in agricultural policy. With the increasing manifestation of adverse impacts of climate change and warnings of worse to come, the urgency of these changes has become much more pronounced.
If we look not just at agricultural but the overall change in policy, it is very clear that while earlier also people\’s movements had asked for changes based on justice and sustainability, with the advent of climate change the sense of urgency for making these changes gets multiplied several times. While earlier also people were getting impatient for change and there was a feeling of environmental damage going beyond the limits of tolerance, with the advent of climate change the need for change in favour of justice and sustainability become so emphatic that we have to say – we just can\’t wait any more. We simply have to move towards a system of equality, simplicity and environment protection – all of which are closely inter-related – or else we will not be able to avoid permanent damage to life-sustaining systems.
This is what people\’s movements with a strong commitment to equality and environment protection say. But there are vested interests who try to misrepresent the changes (related to global warming) to push their narrow interests of profit and plunder. Even when the basic life-giving conditions of planet earth are threatened, they cannot think beyond their selfish agenda of profits and plunder which in the first place created such a serious crisis situation. In order to meet the serious challenges of climate change, the narrow selfish agenda of such greed-driven forces has to be overcome.
Coming now specifically to changes in agricultural policy, we face a similar situation. On the one hand we need changes based on equality, sustainability and protection of environment more than ever before. But on the other hand we are confronted with the manipulations of those who want to misuse the changing situation to push their dangerous agenda of increasing corporate control, grabbing land or other natural resources and trying out potentially catastrophic technologies. So we have to combine the path of \’struggle\’ (sangharsh) and creative constructive activity (nirman) so that we can check the narrow vested interests while at the same time creating conducive conditions for sustainable farming based on equality, justice and protection of environment.
With this basic understanding of the difficult challenges ahead, we now list the basic components of an alternative agricultural policy.
1. Much Higher Priority for Agriculture and Rural Areas
Keeping in view climate change related new threats, government\’s policies need a huge and significant shift (including budget allocation, overall thrust of governance and other aspects) in favour of poorest and marginalised sections, small farmers, rural life and farming based livelihoods (with their lower GHG emissions and importance for food security), environment protection and disaster prevention as well as better relief work at the time of disasters and adverse conditions. It can no longer be business as usual for the government as new threats bring new responsibilities. Budget allocations should shift very significantly in favour of agriculture, and related activities and environment protection.
2. Organic Farming
We need a change that strongly favours organic farming. In common discussion, this means agriculture which does not use chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Various methods of composting and making better use of dung, leaves and other organic manure are now well-established. But while using these some farmers still use some chemical fertilisers. Due to the tremendous bias provided to fertiliser-intensive cropping in the course of the so-called green revolution, such trends may persist for some time. Of course there is absolutely no question of forcing anything on farmers. In a process of trial and error that will probably stretch over a number of years, farmers of various categories will pick up their own selection and combination. What I wish to emphasise here is that the government\’s policy-choice has to shift from encouraging farming based on chemical fertilisers and pesticides to a farming which uses environment friendly methods of maintaining soil fertility and keeping away harmful insects or other pests. The financial, administrative, scientific and other resources which the government was earlier using for subsidising the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides need to be diverted entirely for directly helping , encouraging, rewarding farmers who are practising organic farmers or else are in the process of shifting to organic farming.
Several questions relating to organic farming need to be carefully examined as the context in which organic farming is propagated can differ significantly depending on who is propagating and with what aims.
In the conditions of India\’s villages, along with organic we need to strongly say, "as low-cost as possible" and "as self-reliant as possible", these two aims being strongly inter-related. Our context is basically that of small farmers with a low resource-base. Dependence on chemical fertilisers and pesticides made them indebted. It is certainly not desirable that one dependance should be replaced with another dependance, for example dependence on expensive market-purchased bio-fertilisers. So the entire emphasis should be based on making the best possible use of local resources (dung, crop-residues, leaves, cow-urine etc.) and farming practices like maintaining diversity, suitable rotations etc. to become as self-reliant as possible in maintaining the fertility of land and in keeping away harmful insects and pests.
Secondly, a question that needs to be asked is whether the promotion of organic farming can be compatible with the green revolution\’s seeds which were specifically aimed at being more fertiliser-responsive. Clearly there is a contradiction here and so we have to go back to the rich diversity of our traditional seeds as our basic treasure of genetic material on the basis of which farming can progress on a sustainable basis. So the existing system of production and distribution of seeds has to be changed as well.
Thirdly, it is very clear that we can\’t look at organic farming in isolation, we also need to look systems of water-and-moisture concentration, good green cover in the form of trees and pastures and overall conducive conditions for animal husbandry to flourish well. These are very important in themselves but these are also important to create conducive conditions in which organic, low-cost. self-reliant farming can be successful. Similarly crop and variety diversity, crop rotations which maintain fertility of land are integral to our understanding of organic farming.
Also, we need to assert that while exports are welcome as an additional source of income, our main emphasis on organic farming is to first fulfill the nutrition needs of local people and provide healthy food to them.
In making such recommendations we are conscious of the problems encountered initially when the land which has got \’addicted\’ to chemical fertilisers is diverted to organic farming. One way out is for a farmer to make this shift in stages. The government policy should encourage this shift with suitable help and reward, instead of squandering resources on subsidising chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
3. Policy-changes regarding mechanisation, energy and GHG emission
Earlier there were objections to the spread of combine harvestors on grounds of loss of livelihoods and wastage of fodder. There were objections to purchase of tractors by small farmers on grounds of the indebtedness this caused. There were objections to excessive extraction of groundwater using electricity and diesel as this lowered the water table and hence damaged sustainable aspects.
Now in the age of climate change all these objections to excessive, rapid and ill-suited mechanisation get further emphasised by the need to reduce GHG emissions and curb the use of fossil fuels as much as possible.
On the other hand renewable energy sources need to be encouraged. Innovations by rural innovators relating to improved tools and smaller machines relating to agriculture and crop processing should be encouraged. Innovations such as Mangal turbine (the work of a village-based innovator of Lalitpur district, U.P. which helps to lift water without use of diesel or electricity) should have a better spread. Improved bio-gas plants and stoves also need to spread more widely.
4. Equality, Justice and Land-Reforms
So far the land-reforms effort has emphasised mainly three aspects – land consolidation, tenancy reform and land distribution among the rural poor. In our opinion the land reforms should concentrate mainly on the third aspect mainly distribution of land among the rural poor.
Land consolidation effort has been marred by large-scale corruption. This corruption has also led to injustice in the form of transfer of good quality land of the poor to rich and influential households. In addition essential agro-ecological needs relating to traditional water sources and pastures could not be understood, appreciated or cared for by officials out to make a fast buck. Therefore as things stand today it is better to stop land consolidation work till some truly beneficial alternatives can emerge and a better understanding of this work can be formed.
In the case of tenancy reforms, there can be a huge difference in what the law states and what actually exists. At places law may have banned tenancy but all sorts of land leasing arrangements exist on a significant scale as per the practical requirements of villages and the working of the existing power-structure. There are other complications arising from the phenomenon of reverse tenancy, or the tendency of the bigger landowners to lease-in the land of smaller, marginal farmers (who may go out to work as migrants), particularly as bigger farmers have increasing access to labour-displacing machinery. So the best option at present is to avoid too much interference in tenancy and land-leasing and instead concentrate on land distribution among the rural poor – the landless and those who have very marginal land holdings.
Land distribution among the poor should get very high priority, and optimum use of all the existing laws (including ceiling laws) and favourable administration orders should be made. In addition new laws and administrative guidelines may be needed. However middle-level farmers should be assured that their land will not be touched. Recent laws and orders which have an adverse impact on the rights of poor (for example taking back asami patta) should be immediately withdrawn. SEZ act should be withdrawn. Fertile farmland should be protected from diversion to other use. Corporate takeover of farmland – direct or indirect – should be firmly resisted. Displacement should be reduced as much as possible. Agriculture should be mainly based on small farmers. Landless farm workers, including particularly dalit-adivasi farm-workers, should be helped to become small farmers making available at least 2 acres land to each landless family. Marginal farmers having just about one acre of land can also be given some additional land.
Those who have already received land but could not cultivate it should be helped to occupy and cultivate this land. All new allottees should gets help for minor irrigation, soil and water conservation.
5. Water and soil-conservation
Water and soil-conservation work is very useful and important but at present it is marred by large-scale corruption. There is huge scope for improving this work and its benefits. Watershed projects should be integrated with egalitarian objectives, land reforms and need to help the poor on a priority basis. Cropping-patterns should be compatible with water availability. Construction of new projects and expensive structures should be avoided for some years and concentration should be on better use of existing irrigation sources. Water needs of agriculture and animal husbandry should get priority over water needs of industry. Farmers should be protected from ill-effects of air and water pollution, emission of harmful gases etc.
6. Low-cost farming
At all levels efforts should be made to reduce the costs of farmers and thereby reduce the chances of indebtedness. Loans at significantly reduced interest rates should reach farmers wherever these are actually needed, and relief from loan or interest should be provided at the right time in case of adverse weather. Loans should be on simple interest basis and not compound interest basis. Self help groups for self-reliance in meeting small credit needs should be encouraged and helped. Keeping in view the inadequacy of the previous loan-waiver, a second loan-waiver should be considered.
7. Price and Incentives
Farmers should get a much higher price for their crops which should be based on treating farming as highly skilled work. Farmers\’ needs should be evaluated keeping in view the realistic size of a farm family. Organic produce should get further encouragement and financial incentives. Direct links of farmers and consumers should be encouraged. Even while paying higher returns to consumers, price of healthy, organic food can be kept within reasonable limits by reducing expensive inputs and reducing the share of exploitative middlemen. Dues of farmers should be paid promptly.
In terms of crop-choices, the first priority should be for a diversity of local staple foods including cereals, millets, pulses, oilseeds, vegetables, spices. Second priority can be given to crop for other local economic activities such as fodder for dairying, cotton for hand-spinning and handloom work.
When forest department wants to plant trees on its degraded or vacant land, this should be done with the help of landless or nearly landless poor rural households, with special emphasis on tribals. Till the trees have not grown sufficiently, these families must be paid for their work for planting trees and care for them under the various poverty alleviation and afforestation schemes. Once trees have grown adequately these families will have full hereditary right over minor forest produce. These rights will not be disturbed till these families fulfil the responsibility for protecting trees. They can get additional remuneration for protecting wild life. Indigenous species of trees which have good minor forest produce and good soil and water conservation properties should be planted. Efforts should be to approach conditions of natural forests as much as possible.
10. Farm animals
A system of farming which integrates agriculture and animal husbandry should be adopted, with encouragement for care and concern for welfare of farm-animals. Protection of cows and bullocks should be encouraged in big-way in a secular sense – so that everyone can be a part of this effort. Promotion of animal husbandry and welfare of farm animals should get high priority.
11. Women farmers
The greatest possible encouragement should be given to women farmers. Their initiatives and independent identity should be recognised and encouraged. All land titles should be together in the name of husband and wife. However there should not be any insistence on division of land among all sons and daughters. Even sons should as far as possible work jointly instead of dividing land in every generation. However in case of single women, they should get rightful share of land whenever they need it. When a marriage takes place, the bride\’s name should be entered into the land records along with the husband\’s name.
12. Genetic Engineering
Due to the high risks, hazards and uncertainities associated with genetically engineered crops, there should be a complete ban on the introduction of any genetically engineered crops.
13. Cottage Industry
Cottage and small-scale industrial activity should be encouraged in villages and small towns. The spirit of swadeshi and maximum possible self-reliance of village communities emphasised by Mahatma Gandhi during the freedom movement must be revived to meet contemporary needs. Growth of desi (indigenous varieties) cotton can become the base of revival of hand-spinning and hand-weaving (khadi cloth). Cottage industry like khadi/handloom should get increasing strength from the emphasis on reducing GHG emissions and environment-friendly textiles. A wide range of cottage industries related to agriculture, animal husbandry and minor forest produce, as well as other cottage scale labour-intensive industries can be started. The kind of small-scale industrial activity that doesn\’t displace or threaten farmers but instead provides additional livelihoods to them should be encouraged.
14. Farm Research
Farm scientists should be completely free from corporate influence and should be guided by interests of ordinary farmers, sustainability and environment protection. There should be a willingness to learn from traditional wisdom in agriculture, animal husbandry, irrigation, water conservation and related issues.
Q11.Is it possible for organic farming to feed the world?
In India although the government’s agricultural development programmes have been always emphasised increasing use of chemical fertilizers and crop varieties which can respond well to high doses of chemical fertilizers (High Response Varieties, or HRVs, officially called HYVs, which generally also require high doses of chemical pesticides) recently there has been a reluctant acceptance of the damage done by agri-chemicals and the need to explore alternatives. The Ninth Plan document said, “There are several possible technologies and alternatives to reduce the use of chemicals in agriculture.
However the available statistics clearly show that tt was clearly possible to increase yields at a significant rate before the green revolution years (before 1965) without HRVs and agri-chemicals. (see tables 1 and 2)
In Ludhiana district, the very heart of the green revolution, the average fertilizer use increase from 1970-73 to a decade later was 60% but the rise in wheat yield was only 5 %.
It is frequently said by supporters of the HRV-agrichemicals technology that in the food shortages of the mid sixties there were no alternatives to this. However in reality the food shortages were not so severe and the alternatives available were not considered, they were even rudely pushed aside. In the case of the most important food crop of rice, very important work was being done in the early sixties for increasing rise production using indigenous germplasm. This work was being done at India’s most important centre of Rice research — The Central Rice Research Institute — under the very able guidance of its then director, Dr. R.H. Richharia, a scientist of outstanding abilities. As Dr. Richharia recalled over three decades later, this rice breeding programme was based on the rich indigenous rice germplasm and “about 445 improved varieties, bred for specific stress situations, showing environmental resistance to diseases and pests were available and would be still available in the country.” However when Dr. Richharia tried to spread the programme based on the indigenous varieties and opposed the exotic varieties which he believed could be highly susceptible to pests and diseases, he was simply removed from his job in humiliating circumstances. If this was the fate of a senior-most scientist who proposed alternatives to the HRV-agrochemicals package, it is not surprising that other less highly placed scientists and officials were reluctant to oppose this package.
The view that in the mid-sixties there were no alternatives to the HRV-agrochemicals package imported from abroad can only be held by those who have not studied, understood and appreciated the richness of traditional wisdom in agriculture and related activities which has accumulated over 4 to 5 thousand years. This includes a wide diversity of crop varieties suited to local agro-climatic conditions. This also includes very scientific crop rotations which use soil nutrients very wisely (for example one crop provides the same nutrient that has been used by the other crop) and provide the various essential components of a balanced diet. For example cereal and legume mixed crops and rotations. In addition these crop rotations and varieties were in harmony with the availability of water in the region. This is how these could continue for hundreds of years without any decline in the water table.
Research on tribal communities and other farmers following traditional methods of cultivation has revealed several interesting facts about the assets of traditional agriculture.
Some of the most interesting rice research work in India was done under the guidance of Dr. R.H. Richharia in the Chattisgarh region of Madhya Pradesh (M.P.). The institute where most of this work was based was the Madhya Pradesh Rice Research Institute (MPRRI) and Dr. Richharia was its director. Over 17000 cultivars of rice were collected from the Chattisgarh region, several improved selections were made, several indigenous high yielding varieties – tall as well as dwarfs were discovered and an exciting programme for increasing rice production based on this indigenous germ plasm was evolved. However it was scuttled by vested interests.
An increasing number of experimental efforts in India and abroad are coming out with encouraging results regarding the potential of ecological farming which avoids the use of agri-chemicals.
In September 1989 the United States National Academy of Sciences published a report which examined 14 farms in the USA that had successfully developed natural production methods. This report on ‘alternative agriculture’ said, “Well-managed alternative farms use less synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides and antibiotics without necessarily decreasing, and, in some cases, increasing per acre crop yields and the productivity of livestock systems….
Wider adoptions of proven alternative systems would result in ever greater economic benefits to farmers and environmental gains for the nation.”
At the 290 hectare crop-livestock farm of Glen and Rex Spray in Ohio, USA, no herbicides were applied for over 15 years nor fertilizer was purchased since 1971. Yet in the 1981-85 period, compared to the county average this farm had 32 per cent higher yields of maize, 40 per cent higher yields of soybeans and 22 per cent higher yields of oats.
Cuba provides an outstanding example of a national level which has recently succeeded in moving from a highly chemical intensive agriculture to an ecology friendly approach. Hugh Warwick informs in his widely quoted paper, “Cuba’s Organic Revolution” (The Ecologist Asia, 2000) :
“Almost uniquely, Cuba has begun to develop a biological pest-control programme based largely on parasitoids. While this in itself is innovative, the effort has been reinforced by the establishment of ‘Centres for the Reproduction of Entomophages and Entomopathogens’ (CREEs). Over 200 of these have been set up to provide decentralized small-scale, co-operative production of biocontrol agents which farmers can use instead of pesticides to protect their crops.
“As a result of such innovations, the Cuban landscape, once dominated by chemical inputs, has been changing rapidly. And many of the new control methods are proving more efficient than pesticides. For example, the use of cut banana stems baited with honey to attract ants, which are then placed in sweet-potato fields, has led to the complete control of the sweet-potato borer — a major pest— by the predatory ants. There are 173 established ‘vermicompost’ centres across Cuba, which produce 93,000 tons of natural composts a year. Crop rotations green manuring, intercropping and soil conservation, are all common today.’
Peter Rosset writes that in many cases, peasant farmers had remembered old methods and reapplied them. “In almost every case,” Rosset says, “they said they had done two things: remembered the old techniques — like intercropping and manuring — that their parents and grandparents had used before the advent of modern chemicals, simultaneously incorporating biopesticides and biofertilisers into their production practices. Incidentally, many of them commented on the noticeable drop in acute pesticide poisoning incidents on their crops since 1989.”
Jules Pretty has analysed 45 non-chemical agricultural initiatives spread across 17 African countries. From these, some 730,000 farming households have substantially improved their food production and food security. In 95 per cent of the projects where yield increases were the aim, cereal yields have improved by 50-100 percent. Total farm food production has increased overall. (Paper published in ‘Environment, Development and Sustainability’ 1999)
In India documentation is already available for over 100 such experimental efforts relating to the rich experiences and potential of organic farming. The first directory of such efforts is by the Centre For Science And Environment and it is titled “Green Farming”. The second is by ETC Consultants and is titled “ILEIA/LEISA Network for India : A Register of Indian Organisations in Low-External-Input and Sustainable Agriculture”. The third directory is part of a larger book on organic farming titled : “The Organic Farming Sourcebook” and this has been published by ‘The Other India Book Store’, Goa, in collaboration with the Third World Network, Malaysia. Kalpavriksha (Pune and Delhi), Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems (Chennai) and Prakruti (Bombay) have also published information on Organic Farming in India.
This directory contains several examples of individual success stories of farmers who have been practicing low-cost, farming practices without any chemicals and yet they have managed to maintain reasonable yields. In fact in some cases the yields are quite high. In other cases yield decline for some time but pick up again after some time. In most of these experiments farmers emphasize trees and try to promote harmonious relationship between crops, trees, farm animals, friendly insects, earthworms, microorganisms and birds. A precept emphasizes by most of them — Understand the way nature works and carry out your work in accordance with the ways of nature.
However many of these appear to be just individual success stories and do not appear to be spreading to other farmers, particularly small farmers. However there are some exceptions. In the case of Society for Equitable Voluntary Action (West Bengal), for example, experiment to grow crops with chemical fertilisers were taken up on the fields of 100 farmers in 10 villages. There was a positive response in as many as 85% cases. In EVA’s project area, paddy with chemical fertilisers spread to 2000 hectares.
From the green revolution district of Bijnore (U.P.) Shor Vir Singh says (after several years of experimenting with organic agriculture with a group of farmers), “Now I am quite confident so that if you can give me any piece of land, in a year’s time I can change over to organic farming without decreasing any production.”
Save the Seeds movement in Garhwal hills and Traditional Seed Bank in Tamil Nadu and Deccan Development Society in Andhra Pradesh have achieved good success in collecting and spreading the use of traditional seeds by more farmers. In Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and elsewhere networks of Organic farms have been informed. This is enabling more organic farmers to learn from the experiences of each other. Several farmers say clearly that after shifting to organic/ natural farming they are very satisfied with the choice they made.
While all this is good news, there is more need to document the wisdom of ordinary peasants, who have been working with organic methods and traditional seeds successfully without coming into any limelight. Such documentation was done by Dr. Richharia for Chattisgarh peasants and by Dr. Winin Pereira for Maharashtra tribal peasants. A shift of emphasis from individual success to more broad-based efforts and experiences will be useful.
For an increasing number of people the agro-ecology approach offers a way out of the problems created by the agrichemicals package. In a paper written for ‘Food First – Institute for Food and Development Policy titled, “The Potential of Agro-ecology to Combat Hunger in the Developing World.” Miguel Altieri, Peter Rosset and Lori Ann Thrupp sum up the essence of the agro-ecology approach :
“The agro-ecological approach favored by increasing numbers of farmers, NGOs, and analysts around the world, offers several advantages. First, it is a alternate path to agricultural productivity or intensification that relies on local farming knowledge and techniques adjusted to different local conditions, management of diverse on-farm resources and inputs, and incorporation of contemporary scientific understanding of biological principles and resources in farming systems. Second, it offers the only practical way to actually restore agricultural lands that have been degraded by conventional agronomic practices. Third, it offers an environmentally sound and affordable way for smallholders to sustainable intensify production in marginal areas. Finally, it has the potential to reverse the anti-peasant biases inherent in strategies that emphasize purchased inputs and machinery, valuing instead the assets that small farmers already possess, including local knowledge and the low opportunity costs for labor that prevail in the regions where they live. Thus it is an approach that is likely to decrease, rather than exacerbate, inequality, and also enhance sustainability.
“Agro-ecology is a scientific discipline that defines, classifies, and studies agricultural systems from an ecological and socioeconomic perspective. It is considered the scientific foundation of sustainable agriculture as it provides ecological concepts and principles for the analysis, design, and management of productive, resource-conserving agricultural systems. Agro-ecology integrates indigenous knowledge with modem technical knowledge to arrive at environmentally and socially sensitive approaches to agriculture, encompassing not only production goals, but also social equity and ecological sustainability of the system. In contrast to the conventional agronomic approach that focuses on the spread of packaged, uniform technologies, agro-ecology emphasizes viral principles such as biodiversity, recycling of nutrients, synergy and interaction among crops, animals, soil, etc., and regeneration and conservation of resources. The particular methods or technologies promoted by agro-ecologists build upon local skills and are adapted to local agro-ecological and socioeconomic conditions. The implementation of such agro-ecological principles within the context of a proper, farmer-centered rural development strategy can generate healthy, equitable, sustainable, and productive systems.”
An increasing number of people are seeking a way out of the problems created by the chemical intensive agriculture by following the agro-ecological approach. Dr. Miguel Altieri, agro-ecology expert at the University of California recently estimated that there are already about 5 million hectares of farms being recuperated through ecological methods by two and a half million families around the world.
Several people’s movements are emerging which follow the agro-ecology approach and try to take its message to more and more people. (see Appendix on The Safe Alliance and The Nayakrishi Movement).
These two examples – one from a developed country and one from a developing country – indicate how people’s initiatives can take forward the agro-ecology approach. Such efforts are certainly needed in India.
Q12Can you give recent, specific examples of organic, eco-friendly, local resource-based, cheap, self-reliant farming which produces enough food?
Ans.Two recent examples based on my visits to villages of Vidarbha and eastern Uttar Pradesh regions of India are given below.
Some Good News From Vidarbha
For a long time, good news has been scarce from Vidarbha as this region of Maharashtra became the central focus for the raging debate on farmers\’ suicides. Bt cotton also brought a lot of problems here. The data from the National Crime Records Bureau for the year 2006 has confirmed that the highest number of farmers\’ suicides in India are reported from Maharashtra. Within Maharashtra by far the largest number of farmers take place in the killing fields of Vidarbha, a region known for the emphasis on cotton in its cropping pattern.
However now this tragic situation appears to be changing in at least a few hundred villages due largely to the expanding impact of a project called the Integrated Sustainable Agricultural Programme (INSAP). This project is being implemented by YUVA-RURAL (Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action) with the help of Swiss-Aid India. Nitin Maate, co-ordinator of INSAP says that in over 200 villages a majority of farmers are practising the mix of low-cost, sustainable, environment friendly technologies which have provided a new hope to the farmers of this area by reducing costs, debts and economic tensions.
The technologies followed by INSAP are essentially local variants of known environment-friendly technologies like composting, plant based pesticides and watershed management. Keeping in view the economic crisis of indebtedness of the farmers of this region, from the outset a lot of emphasis was placed on making the best possible use of local resources available right there in the village. Cattle-dung, cow urine, tree-leaves etc. which were being wasted earlier suddenly become very important resources for a farming system which could be economically viable for the region\’s distressed farmers.
In the villages of Washim and Akola districts that I visited, farmers happily talked in detail about the improving viability of their farms and that too in sustainable environment friendly ways. They also said giving up indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides and replacing these with compost and tree-leaf based pest-control has proved helpful for those insects and birds who are known to be friends of farmers. Thoughts of depression and suicide seemed to be far, far away from minds of these farmers as they talked cheerfully about the various innovations they are trying, the cheap implements for water-conservation evolved by them, their bio-gas plants, kitchen gardens and their manure mixtures found most nourishing for crops and soil.
Sunjay Bhagat, a farmer of Washim district and a co-ordinator of INSAP as well as the local farmers\’ organisation says that before he came in contact with this project he had given up all hope in his life. He had been contemplating suicide for quite some time, he said. The reason was that his family had become highly indebted.
It was at this stage that Sanjay came to know about INSAP and decided to give it a try. As his first experiments with the INSAP technology proved successful, he adopted it wholeheartedly and became an enthusiastic messenger for spreading this idea. Now his wife complains smilingly that he comes home only for eating, such is his enthusiasm for spreading the message of INSAP to more areas.
That this is not an isolated story is confirmed in a recent study by Raghav Narsalay. This study using a sample of 90 farmers found that irrespective of farm size, INSAP technology has proved highly cost-effective compared to earlier technologies being used here. As many as 88% of the respondent farmers who have adopted sustainable farming (INSAP) techniques said that they want to continue farming because they have regained their confidence to farm. On the other hand 67% of the farmers practising earlier techniques said that farming in increasing debts and they\’ll like to get out of this if an alternative is provided.
The respondents who have taken up sustainable (INSAP) farming said that they now feel at peace as they are eating healthier food, there is growing cooperation among villagers to implement the new ideas and there is more self-reliance.
Of course INSAP promoters are aware that they have to face several larger adverse factors such as the low prices of cotton imports, adverse WTO rules and increasing adverse weather conditions in times of climate change. Therefore they emphasise growing cooperation of farmers, strengthening their organisation and self-help groups, diversification of rural livelihoods to face the coming bigger challenges. Within the limits of their abilities, in adverse conditions they have already provided a new ray of hope to the farmers of Vidarbha.
Women Organic Farmers Show The Way in Gorakhpur
Gorakhpur district falls in Eastern Uttar Pradesh, a part of India which is generally regarded as quite backward. But thanks to the dedicated work done by a voluntary organisation Gorakhpur Environment Action Group (GEAG), some path breaking work has been done by women organic farmers.
A special aspect of the work done by the GEAG to promote organic farming practices has been the emphasis on women farmers. As migration from villages has increased, the role of women in agricultural work has become even more important than before, but this generally did not get adequate recognition. However GEAG accorded a lot of Importance to encouraging women farmers, and this brought very good results.
The work which the GEAG has done for promoting sustainable farming practices is of great importance particularly in the context of the widely debated crisis of farmers and farming in India. The work done by the GEAG has given a new hope to the farming community, particularly small and marginal farmers, that it is possible to find a way put of economic crisis and never-ending debts. This work has emphasised improved scientific use of local resources, reduced dependency on costly market-purchased inputs like chemical fertilizers and pesticides, protection of environment particularly soil health and encouraged the innovative creativity of farming communities to evolve farming (and related) technologies most suitable to them.
This approach was first implemented in several villages of Sardarnagar and Compereganj blocks of Gorakhpur district, where GEAG works more intensively, and later with the help of sister organisations taken to other parts of East U.P. As I discovered recently in the course of a recent survey of several such villages, the results on the whole have been very encouraging in terms of reduced costs, maintenance or increase of production, improvement in the quality of produce, improvement in income, reduced burden of debt etc.
In all this work, special efforts have been made to accord adequate importance to women farmers. Although self-help groups in some of these villages have included a few groups of men too, but the overwhelming majority of these groups have comprised women members. With the help of these self-help groups, women have reduced or in many cases altogether removed their dependence on private moneylenders. They have been able to improve their farming, leased in extra land, purchased more dairy animals or taken up other activities to improve their income. Apart from contributing to improvement of economic conditions, this also increased the confidence of women farmers and provided them a bigger say in farming work.
Several women have become trainers and motivators. Some of them have travelled far and wide to provide training on organic farming practices or related issues to other farmers, while some have gone to other places for receiving training, or as part of a gathering for wider mobilisation. This travel and training has also increased their confidence, as well as contributed to their comprehension of wider issues.
In areas of GEAG\’s work women farmers are very confidant about the technology choices they have made (mainly in favour of organic farming practices). They are able to articulate this very well, and appear to be very confident of what they are saying as this is backed by what they learnt from GEAG\’s work and their own experience in implementing it in their fields. The confidence they get from on the field learning is particularly strong in villages where GEAG\’s work goes back to more than 5 years.
It was truly a pleasure to visit the garden and farm cultivated by Prabhavati and her husband Suryabhan in Dudhai village (Sardarnagar Block). They own only 1.5 acre of land, but use this small piece of land very intensively (while practising organic farming) and wisely to grow a wide diversity of crops. When I started writing the names of various crops and trees grow in her garden and farm, Prabhavati laughed and said – "your notebook will fill up and yet you will not be able to write about all that we grow."
This gentle confidence, this smiling pride is well-deserved, for this couple indeed succeed in growing a lot of diversity in their small plot of land. From what I could see under cultivation (at the time of my visit) there was paddy, bajra (cereals), Maruwa (millet), groundnut, til (oilseeds), lobhiya, tori or nenuwa, lemon, bottle-gourd or lauki, kathal (vegetables), guava, papaya, mango, chakotra, blackberries, mulberry, mahua (fruits), trees and shrubs with pest repellent properties like neem, madaar, kaner, trees of timber value particularly saagwaan, several medicinal herbs, spices like ginger, haldi and even laung, also bamboo. Satyendra Tripathi, a co-ordinator of GEAG said that counting all seasons Prabhavati is able to grow 52 crops on her small patch of land in a year.
Prabhavati said that her family, her farming and village have benefited hugely from the inter-action with GEAG ever since this organisation came to her village about 15 years back. Earlier also she used dung as manure but this was done arbitrarily so that a lot of its nutritive value for farmland was lost. "GEAG taught how dung should be put in a trench and composted, how green manuring can be done in a better way, how cow-urine is very useful and how we can do vermicomposting, how NADEP can be prepared. If we could not afford wood and cement for NADEP, we used home-grown bamboo and tree-branches. Similarly we learnt to use produce from various local trees and shrubs to prepare pest-repellents." She also has a vernicomposting unit, one of the earliest in this region.
When we visited their farm, Prabhadevi and her husband Suryabhan were busy in packing just-harvested guavas for the nearby market. Of course we reached in good them to get a taste of the freshly plucked guavas! I couldn\’t help observing how gender equality had been established in this family and to some extent gender roles had even before reversed without causing any tensions. Prabhavati played a leading role in answering our questions and taking us around the garden. She was better dressed and more articulate. Suryabhan certainly did not resent this and worked with a very cooperative spirit. While Prabhadevi was busy answering our questions he quietly slipped away and served guavas and salt to us.
Prabhavati is now a member of the core group of GEAG, she is also a master-trainer and has travelled far and wide including Delhi, Lucknow and Wardha. Her small farm has been visited by senior officials.
Moving to the main settlement of the village we met several other women farmers who confirmed the many-sided benefits that have accrued to them and their village following intervention of GEAG. Shanti Devi is the secretory of a self-help group. The loan she took from here enabled her to improve vegetable cultivation in her fields and also to own a shop where she can sell her vegetables. When I asked her what she has grown she said with a smile that all that grows on this earth she has tried to grow – cauliflower, cabbage, onion, peas, tomatoes, potato, lobhiya, nenuwa (turai), bottle-gourd, pumpkin, haldi… the list goes on.
The extent to which the agricultural practices promoted by GEAG can benefit small and marginal farmers is evident from the results achieved on the farm of Ramrati. This 50 plus women (along with her husband Rambahal) is reputed to grow a diversity of about 32 crops in a year