‘Changing Agricultural Scenario’
Debal Deb
Stephen Mikesell
Bharat Mansata

[Frontier in its May 20-26 issue carried an editorial comment on ‘Changing Agricultural Scenario’. Manthan, a Bengali periodical invited comments on its pages on the views and analysis expressed in the said comment. We publish below reflections from three distinguished persons who are concerned about Indian agriculture and sustainable development.]

from Debal Deb
It's difficult to comment on figures without references. While I fully agree with many points of the editorial, I find quite a few comments at odds with reality.

First, I don't see the point in comparing Indian agricultural inputs with global average figures. Why should one assume that increasing energy and material inputs at per with Japan, USA or China would be ipso facto beneficial to Indian agricultural production?

Second, "Boost to agricultural productivity is helping farmers to sustain more expensive life styles"—really? Then why are the recorded suicides of more than 80,000 farmers over the past decade? Why are there streams of migration of farmers' gen-X to cities for job? The author seems to be unaware of the link between the rising consumerism in rural areas and the "more expensive lifestyles" in farmer households. More astonishingly, he assumes farmers can sustain this lifestyle! That's typical of the left ideologues estranged from the rural mass culture.

Third, the author's demand for increasing subsidy on agrochemical inputs (like fertilizers) implies that he does not care for agricultural sustainability, and wants to perpetuate the dependence of food producers on external (transnational corporate) supply of inputs! The underlying assumption is that without these chemical and energy inputs, agriculture is impossible—a symptom of the TINA ("There Is No Alternative") syndrome.

Finally, there is a conspicuous and ominous silence about the grand performance of Cuban agriculture (with zero external input), which seems to be "not on the agenda of the left–traditional or non-traditional."

from Stephen Mikesell

To start with, I don't like the word 'poor' because it means nothing. It is an abstraction. Poverty is a relationship that involves exploitation and inequality. People who own their own land and grow their own food are described as 'poor' because they don't have television sets and they have to make up and sing their own songs in order to hear music, whereas a farmer that has to take loans to buy machines and import inputs is described as rich, or at least 'modern' or 'progressive', even though such farmers in the United States are going bankrupt and losing their land in the hundreds of thousands every year. In the United States farms are being taken over by banks and are being operated by 'contract' farmers who have no relationship or long-term commitment to the land, community or environment.

It is true that the Left in general has not done a good analysis of agriculture. Most have a shallow reading of Marx and little of the substantial agricultural work that has appeared by people who knew agriculture and ecology. They definitely don't know Marx's late work on the peasantry, which was suppressed within the Soviet Union in the manner that uncomfortable books of the bible have been suppressed and excluded by Christians. They seem as enamored of large-scale production as capitalists are. HG Wells in fact wrote that the Commissars of the Soviet Union were not farmers and knew nothing about farming, and they devastated agriculture in the Soviet Union. Probably something analogous is happening with the finance-capital-driven agriculture of today. The piece that you sent me, though it raises many important questions, it does not really do a good analysis. It uses a lot of correlation and it makes assertions based on commonly accepted assumptions which themselves have not been analyzed or properly reflected upon.

More than wanting "high-quality food," the middle class wants food that advertising has made them want. And they want it without paying for the cost of maintaining the land, the environment and the communities (human, plant and animal) on the land, to say nothing of the sea, all of which is required for high-quality food. Middle class people are raised insulated from agriculture and nature, and all they know is the insides of shopping malls and supermarkets. If they go into nature it is as a tourist, to play or look at it, much in the manner that they go into museums or cultural shows to familiarize themselves with other cultures. They have little real understanding of food or the consequences of their life styles and artificially created demands. What passes for high quality with them is fancy packaging and good appearance and the immediate availability at any time of whatever they desire, irregardless or season or locality.

Anthropologists know that per unit of land, small-hold peasant agriculture is far more productive than industrial agriculture. However, productivity is not defined in terms of a single crop and it has to be understood in terms of a whole complex of different crops and animals grown side by side plus in terms of the growth set aside to reinvest into the land to maintain its fertility, plus the costs of maintaining communities to maintain the land. What it does not do is make lots of profit for the agricultural industry or facilitate the accumulation of capital by finance capital.

In terms of energetics, small-hold agriculture produces a surplus of 7:1 kilocalories harvested as opposed to energy put in, whereas industrial agriculture is something like the inverse, 1:7, and after the food has been shipped to distant markets and cooked, the ratio is something like 1:21. This is only possible with import of vast amounts of energy (petroleum, natural gas). Effectively industrial agriculture is growing fossil fuels, mining the soil and water, and producing food as a byproduct. Flourishing peasant agriculture on the other hand grows and sustains communities.

Agriculture generally consists of very complex and highly tuned biological, social and cultural relationships of humans to the environment and to communities. It has been the product of tens of thousands of years of experimentation, observation and experience. Slight perturbations of which disturb the flows and balances of energy, resources, water and labor can easily cause collapse. Peasants have been disdained and looked down upon for their simplicity and conservatism, but peasant conservatism generally stems from a respect for the laws of thermodynamics, which is to say they know that you can't get something for nothing. If you look at the complexity of the relationships involved in peasant agriculture, both to the land and socially within there communities, it is anything but simple. Industrial agriculture actually dismantles all these natural energy pathways and natural and social relationships and replaces them with fossil energy, usually using immense violence to do so (eg, colonialism, wars of Southeast Asian wars, bureaucratic infiltration, etc.). Peasants know that you cannot get something for nothing, and that pouring in lots of resources and ignoring natural relationships ultimately cannot be sustained and leads to disaster. Many civilizations have destroyed themselves by over-exploiting their land, agriculture and other resources bases, and as the fossil fuels decrease in the coming decades people will realize just how much skills, knowledge, and relationships we have lost: truly what we have been doing is dismantling our hold on the world.

The word should not be "fertilizer" for the inputs that are put into the soil; rather it should be "artificial growth intensifier" or "nature replacer." It is true that fertilizers grow plants, but at what costs? Actually they destroy the fertility of the soil, so they can't be called 'fertilizer'. Nitrogen, which is produced using large amounts of energy in the form of natural (or fossil) gas, in fact destroys the fertility of the soil because it speeds up the bacterial action and breaks down the organic content in the soil. By itself organic matter naturally dissolves slowly into organic acids which percolate down into the soil and break down minerals, making the minerals accessible as mineral salts to the plants. If you burn up the organic matter using nitrogen, then you start having to add minerals to the soil because they are no longer being converted naturally.

That and other chemicals also destroy life in the soil which is constantly working it and making it friable and fertile—the billions of microbes that are in every cubic cm of soil, the predator and borrowing insects which give structure to the soil and protect the plants, which evolved with them and live in symbiotic relationships with them. Consequently, the more nitrogen used, the more lifeless and compacted the soil becomes, and the more nitrogen and other imported additives have to put into the soil to replace the natural cycles which you have destroyed. Without the minerals and micronutrients released by organic matter and organisms in the soil, the plants become weaker and you have to provide more additives to the soil and spray the plants with more herbicides. In the United States 30 or 40 times as much insecticide (I prefer to use the word biocide, or killer of life) is currently used in farming compared to when the insecticides or biocides were originally introduced in the 1940s. Generally they tend to make the 'pests' stronger while killing off the carnivorous insects and other animals which in nature control the herbivores and which actually protect the plants. Human consumers of food meanwhile become deficient in micronutrients and begin to suffer hormonal, autoimmune and cancerous diseases from the chemicals in the agriculture. Evidence the explosion of diabetes and overweight epidemics among Asian middle classes and the growth of popularity of cancer hospitals among them.

The ecologist Eugene Odum refers to studies that show that untreated, a pest infestation is followed by growth in population of predators, which then reduce the herbivores making pest infestations only temporary and periodic. Usually damage is limited to weaker plants. With the application of pesticide and other chemicals, predators and competing insects are killed off, plants grow weaker, and you experience a constant, growing infestation of "pest" insects that are more and more resistant to the pesticides, requiring greater and greater application.

If you understand nature's natural cycles, you can make the soil extremely fertile using natural processes. Peasants had a vast store of such knowledge. The organization "Ecology Action" has been working at intensifying natural processes to grow food for the last 40 years and has gotten to the point that they can feed one person from just 1,000 square feet of soil (ten 5x20 foot 'beds'), temperate climates, while increasing the fertility of the soil, even recovering productivity in totally waste soils. Their approach basically is to 'grow the soil' and nourish communities with food as by-product. Industrial agriculture in contrast "grows petroleum", mines the soil, and destroys communities with cancer-causing, malnourishing food as the by-product and accumulated wealth as the actual product and motive.

Small farms sustain communities which keep the land and farmers healthy. Ecologically, middle classes are conditioned to be parasites who don't want to share the food with communities. They basically want all the food grown for themselves and they want to buy whatever they desire immediately and in one centralized store that they can drive to and shop at without having to build a personal relationship or any kind of understanding with the seller.

Here is the Small Farms library in which one can begin reading. Especially check "The Restoration of the Peasantries, With especial reference to that of India" by G T Wrench, 1939. And there is a lot of other good stuff there :

Also there is "Farmers of Forty Centuries—or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan" by F H King, 1911, 452 pages, 248 photographs, pdf (71 Mb). Be sure to read the Introduction.

from Bharat Mansata
The article, 'Changing Agricultural Scenario', rightly concludes on the need for rethinking the peasant issue in the context of massive industrialisation of agriculture and the growing control of MNCs. Yet, the author seems to lack insight into the broad direction of rethinking that is required. Considering that the over 80% of Indian farms are on small holdings, any policy reorientation must prioritise their needs. It is meaningless to lament that Indian agriculture uses half the power compared to China and one-tenth compared to Japan. This only indicates the greater energy efficiency of Indian agriculture, which the author fails to appreciate. With the growing scarcity and rising cost of fossil fuels, the need is to reduce dependence on external (non-renewable) energy, not increase it! As Stephen Mikesell points out, small-holder agriculture harvests 7 kilo-calories of output for each kilo-calorie of input, whereas large-scale industrial agriculture has a reverse ratio of just one kilo-calorie output for 7 kilo-calories of input! With small-holder, bio-diverse organic farming, the energy efficiency can even exceed 10:1. This makes such agriculture 70 times more energy efficient than large-scale industrial agriculture!

Besides energy, other ecological, equity and health considerations must be paramount in judging the future sensible course of Indian agriculture. Chemical-intensive, industrial agriculture mines the fertility of the soil and groundwater resources to yield toxic food, whereas small-scale, bio-diverse organic farming with full recycling of crop residues can actually regenerate soil fertility and groundwater, while yielding wholesome food. The unsustain-ability of modern, industrial agriculture has also been clearly pointed out by the 'World Agriculture Report' of the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), released after 4 years of detailed study by over 400 agricultural experts and 1,000 multi-disciplinary reviewers from 60 countries. While India is a signatory to that Report, hardly anyone in our country even mentions it! The author notes that almost 20 million tons of chemical fertilisers are imported annually, entailing high subsidy. With rising costs, the subsidy will further mount, and obviously this cannot be economically sustainable. Again, the author notes that India's urban population rose to 31.8 % in the past decade. Such continued urbanisation too cannot be sustainable if one considers that an average urban dweller consumes three times the resources compared to an average rural dweller. The National Commission on Farmers reported that 40% of India's farmers would like to give up farming. So high is their present level of distress, resulting from the faulty policies and neglect of the government. This forebodes a potential 250 million ecological and economic refugees streaming into city slums in search of any available work to fill their bellies. The future lies in paying greater importance to our countryside and pursuing a path of holistic, ecological agriculture and decentralised cottage industries for total self-reliance in all basic needs! The 'Left', unfortunately, seems largely co-opted, except in name. Barring a tiny minority, it is presently clueless, and urgently needs to wake up from its deep slumber or stupor!

Vol. 45, No. 5, Aug 12-18, 2012