Towards Sustainable Farming – M.S. Srinivasan

Agricultural systems are a vital link in our planetary ecology. We cannot hope to achieve sustainability without sustainable farming. This article examines the prospects and possibilities of sustainable farming based on some latest research on the subject.

Key Perspectives: Needed shift, Dark side of Green Revolution, Organic Alternative; Second Green Revolution; Return to Virgin earth and the radiant Sun.

The Needed Shift

The present form of modern and conventional agricultural technology based on fertilise, pesticide and diesel is inherently unsustainable because it is based on non-renewable fossil fuels like oil and damaging to the soil. There must be a shift to a more sustainable organic farming. The science writer, Robert Frenay in his informative and insightful book Pulse: How Nature is Inspiring the Technology of the 21st Century, presents a forceful and convincing case for organic farming. This article is based on two thoughtful and well-researched chapters on sustainable farming in the book by Frenay.

The Dark Side of Green Revolution

At a certain stage in the history of modern nations, when there is acute food shortage in the “developing” world, modern agricultural technology based on fertilizer, pesticides, cross-breeding and diesel-powered irrigation has helped the food starved nations in increasing food-production and attain self-sufficiency in food which is the basis of “Green Revolution.”   But by the end of the 20th century the unsustainable nature of this revolution has become increasingly apparent.

Modern agriculture seems to be eroding the very natural foundations of food production. There are mounting problems like soil erosion, depletion and degradation of ground water, loss of soil fertility, destructive toxicity of pesticides, disruption of the fine ecological balance between the various organism like the plants, trees, insects, birds, microorganism and the animals, increasing immunity of pests to pesticides, spread of unecological monoculture and growing quantity and cost of inputs like fertilizer, pesticides and diesel which are based on an unsustainable, non-renewable and fast-depleting resource, oil. A leading agro scientist and an expert in organic farming, G. Nammalvar states, “percentage of carbon in the soil which was five percent before the green revolution had now gone below one percent.”

All these problems and difficulties of modern agriculture have led some of the critics of modern agro technology, like genetist, Wes Jackson to the conclusion. “Modern agriculture has failed to produce a system that sustains its own capital.”

The Organic Alternative: Second Green Revolution

We need a second Green Revolution through a path of organic farming which uses natural fertilizers, pesticides and seeds and other ecological farming practices. Organic farmers all over the world have demonstrated that they can produce cheaper and healthier food in a more sustainable way, and without using chemical inputs. For example Japanese organic farmer Masanoby Fukuoa writes in his book “If farmers would stop using weak, ‘improved’ seed varieties, stop adding too much nitrogen to the soil and reduce the amount of irrigation water so that strong roots could develop, these diseases (stem root, rice blast and leaf blight) would all disappear and chemical sprays would become unnecessary”. Fukuoko never uses fertilizers, seeds or pesticides. And the yield in his farm is comparable to that of conventional farms which require substantial inputs of chemicals, pesticides, machinery and human labour.

Some of the recent research findings are overwhelmingly in favour of organic farming.   A 2001 report by scientists at Washington State University, also released in the prestigious science magazine Nature, compared test plots of Golden Delicious apples grown by organic methods, by conventional methods, and by an integrated system that combined the two. “We kept track of everything that went in” says John Reganold, who led the search team. By that he means that on each plot they recorded the inputs of all the compost, chemicals and fuel used. The six year study showed that although it took longer to reach its optimum, by the end of the time the organic farm ranked first in energy efficiency and profitability, as well as sustainability. The integrated orchard ranked second and the conventional system placed last. Making victory all the sweeter, untrained testers judged the organic apples to have the most flavour. Another research study done in New Zealand compared sixteen conventional and organic farms. After eight years of research study showed that the soils of organic farms had “significantly greater organic matter content and microbial activity, more earthworms, better soil structure, lower bulk density, easier penetrability and thicker top soil.” In India, the organic farming scientist G.Nammalwar states that a farmer could convert to organic farming “in a matter of six months and this would not only improve his yield but also his net profit as input cost will drastically reduce over a period of time.”

This brings us to the question, if organic farming is superior in all respects to conventional farming then why this conventional system is still dominating the world’s agro-scape? There are three main reasons. First, organic farming, especially when it is a switch-over from the conventional, takes some time to yield optimum and equivalent results and the traditional farmer may be reluctant to wait because he is uncertain of the results of organic farming. Second, there is lack of government support to organic farming. Most of the government agricultural department support only conventional farming technology. An exhaustive study published in 1989 by the National Research Council of US noted that “alternative farmers often produce high per-acre yield with significant reductions in cost per unit of crop harvested” even though “many federal policies discourage adoption of alternative practices and system” and those farmers get “relatively little help from commodity income and price support programs”. The report urged that federal programs be restructured to help farmers benefit from alternative methods. Third, the power and clout of multinational agro-business companies like for example Monsanto, which promote conventional farming with a massive adspend and marketing thrust and exerting a strong influence over decision-makers in governments. Robert Frenay states that US Department of Agriculture was called by some reporters as “Department of Monsanto”!

However, one of the promising signs for the future of organic farming is that increasing number of consumers in the west is opting for organic food. For example, according to some latest statistics in the twelve years from 1990 to 2002 organic food sales in the US boomed from $1billion to over $10 billions and the sale of organic food have been growing by more than 20% a year. The sale of organic food in Britain is increasing by 40% a year. At the current rate of growth more than 10% of Europe’s farmland will be organic by the end of the decade. So as more and more consumers prefer organic food, then farmers will be compelled to shift to organic farming to meet the consumer demand. And when the farmers and consumers turn to organic farming, then agri-business will also be compelled to change its policies and strategies. As an, American organic farmer Salatin, states:

“Farmers all the time are complaining about Monsanto and Pioneer, the big multinational corporations—. They don’t exist as far as I am concerned. The stranglehold that the big bad corporations have, it’s a joke. The only stranglehold they have—- in individual farmers mind. It doesn’t have to be that way. We don’t have to destroy agribusiness people and regulate. All we have to do is do what we know how to do and we’ve go it”.

And when the multinational agribusiness, in response to the growing market demands of the farmer and consumer, begins to support and promote sustainable farming with the same resources, efficiency, enterprise and the managerial and technological expertise with which it now supports the conventional farming, then that will be good for the ecological wellbeing and future of humanity. As Frenay points out:

“Corporations can help as well. Says Peter Ravan¾director of the famed Missouri Botanical Garden and co-discoverer of Co-evolution¾ ‘Multinational corporations are one of the best vehicles to achieve global sustainability’—-they have the reach and influence to carry new solutions across the globe.”

In developing countries like India this switch towards more sustainable organic farming may require massive government support and funding interms of loans, incentives and subsidies in production as well as in marketing. However, corporate world can also help in this task by supporting organic farming as a part of their Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives.

Return to Virgin Earth and The Radiant Sun

Organic farming and solar energy are complementary to sustainability. What are solar-based technologies to energy, organic farming is to food. If we can draw our energies more directly from the Sun and food from virgin Earth uncontaminated by chemicals, then we are linking our physical life more intimately with Mother Nature and for this gesture Nature may also respond generously. Some of the latest developments in scientific thought like chaos theory talk about “butterfly effect” which means, a small change like a minute insignificant raise in temperature may lead to a massive event like a cyclone. This principle applies possibly to human actions and gesture as well. For as the modern as well as ancient ecological thinking has found Man is a part of Nature and there are similarities and correspondences among the laws of Nature in the various levels and domains of life. And turning for energy and food directly to Sun and Earth is not a small and insignificant gesture but a major and fundamental ecological shift. So I think it is not unscientific and irrational to hope that such a major ecological gesture, when we are able to make it collectively and decisively will lead to an equally and overwhelmingly generous response from Nature, which will heal and mitigate the adverse effects of climate change or global warming. In a more religious language, a great wave of blessings or Grace from Nature which forgives all the trespasses we have committed against her and lead us back to ecological health.

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