Why it is important to view the environment and agriculture together

Why it is important to view the environment and agriculture together
When Greta Thunberg expressed her support for Indian farmers who have been protesting, seeking repeal of three farm laws passed by the government of India, many onlookers were outraged. Apart from the ageist culture of painting her as a teenager who ‘doesn’t understand’ complex issues that are ‘internal affairs’ of India, what perhaps enraged some people is the fact that she is a world-renowned environmental activist. Similar was the reaction to the arrest of the 22-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi, who was arrested for her involvement in editing a toolkit shared with Greta Thunberg. The involvement of environmental and climate justice activists in farmers’ protests has sparked a debate on the relationship between environment and agriculture and why it is important to tweak current policies to promote sustainable farming practices over passing three new laws.   A result of bad policies It is a known fact that farming practises in India are not really environment-friendly. Indian agriculture suffers from a bad pattern of mono-cropping, water-intensive cropping choices, and chemical-laden cultivation to name a few. These harmful practices, in fact, find their roots in the Green Revolution when the government widely supported cropping practices that gave massive output on minimum input. The need back then was to make India self-sufficient in food crops, thus wheat and paddy were the crops that were most preferred by the government. Now, years later, India has excessive stock of paddy and wheat due to the farmers largely sticking to cultivating paddy and wheat due to assured procurement by the government.  However, experts and ground-level resource persons have pointed out that behind the unsustainable farming practices, there are a slew of bad policy decisions taken by the governments. Kavita Kuruganti, the Convener of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) told TNM, that it is imperative to understand the connection between unprofitable farming or unviable farming and the consequent necessity for farmers to adopt unsustainable practices in their farming. She added that a large number of farmers run on debt economy and get low returns on their investments and hence are pushed into desperate measures, season after season, to get something for their investment.  “Farmers have been pushed into such a situation of lack of economic viability by a variety of policies and therefore they couldn't care less about whether they use up a lot more water than they recharge. They are just keen on saving that season's crop and are desperate to get water through borewells because climate change has made weather unpredictable and rain-fed farming is very risky. They are desperate to apply more chemicals and hope that higher productivity will probably give better returns even if soil degrades and so on,” she explained.  Pointing out that it is important for environmentalists and people to understand that farmers are not culprits but the victims of certain policies, Kavita said that these policies that are anti-farmer, pro-urban India and pro-consumer have left the farmers high and dry. “In such a situation, it is completely understandable that they are forced to adopt unsustainable practises as victims of these policies and not as culprits who are creating this situation. They are having to do this for their own survival,” she reasoned.  The great MSP debate While Minimum Support Price (MSP) is available for around 23 crops according to the Union Government, in reality only paddy and wheat have the assurance of being procured by the government. The pattern of cultivating paddy and wheat in an alternate manner is widely considered unsustainable to the environment, according to studies.   This has led to the farmers sticking to growing these two crops instead of diversifying their cropping pattern, which is more environment-friendly. The resulting over-supply of paddy and wheat due to over-procurement by the governments has led to oil seeds and other crops being imported for the country’s consumption. “The demand for MSP comes from the fact that MSP is guaranteed in its operational sense for paddy and wheat. This is one of the reasons why farmers prefer paddy and wheat monocropping in a state like Punjab, which has resulted in straw-burning. Straw burning is a more immediate problem for communities themselves,” Kavita said. The pattern of cultivating paddy and wheat in an alternate manner is widely considered unsustainable to the environment, according to studies.   Adding that guaranteeing MSP procurement for more crops and making sure that it is implemented at the ground will help farmers in gradually switching to sustainable farming in the country, Kavita said, “Environmentalists understand these connections. Win-win solutions for farming and environment are actually in sustainable and viable farming practices. These need not be separate.”  Expressing her support to the environmentalists who have supported the farmers' cause, Kavita said that Disha Ravi or anyone who supported these farmers’ protests have understood the dots that connect these two -- lack of viability that leads to lack of sustainability. “It is therefore important that you don't further push farmers into a corporate-controlled agriculture model. You don't leave farmers to the mercies of cruel markets. That's where the demand to repeal the laws comes from,” she said.   Learn lessons from working models T Vijay Kumar, retired bureaucrat, and advisor at and cofounder of Zero Budget Natural Farming of the Government of Andhra Pradesh, told TNM that the best way for the government going forward is to learn lessons from places where the natural farming model has been successful.  “Once you do nature-friendly agriculture, it contributes to improvement in all aspects. It is a win-win situation for farmers and consumers because the produce is more nutritious. That's the paradigm shift we need in agriculture. Otherwise, every year, the cost of cultivation will keep on increasing, soil organic matter will be lost in an unsustainable manner etc. We need technology and we need to take it to the farmers to ensure that the farming practises are useful to them, profitable for them and for the society,” he said.  Pointing out that over the years, farmers have started believing that if chemicals are not used, then the crops won’t yield a harvest, Vijay Kumar said that switching to natural and sustainable farming will start yielding results in the first season itself. He further advocated that the governments must do their part in supporting and educating the farmers to embrace sustainable farming practices that are in harmony with nature.  “The best thing that the government can do is to see where the model is working in the country and learn from that. There are states like Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh where farmers are putting in efforts to make this change happen. Lots of NGOs across the country are doing it. So, the government can learn the lessons and scale it up. There is no one solution for the entire country of course, but states have models that have worked well. So, the government can customise it based on the models that are working in every state,” he explained.  

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