About 80 percent of the world’s food is produced by small farmers or family farmers, for whom farming is a way of life. Traditionally, farming was localized, meeting several needs of the household providing food, fodder, fuel, besides employment and small incomes. In its effort to meet the food security of the growing population through increased food production, the government through subsidies and incentives, pushed farmers to shift to high input intensive, monocropping agricultural systems. The severe negative consequences are already being felt across many facets of life on this planet – social, cultural, economic and ecological.
Solutions to environmentally and socially damaging human practices today require re-establishing connection with agriculture and other earth caring practices. Agriculture is not a technical activity of application of science for food production but rather a socio-cultural practice, rich with deep rooted meaning for the people involved (C F John, p.11). We have travelled away from this philosophy too far. It is therefore necessary that we pause, reflect and revive our natural ways of farming which is sustainable and protects our ecology.
Inspite of the ever increasing challenges that farming faces, we still find several motivated and passionate individuals who are striving to make our lives on the planet, better. These are the individuals who have the courage to practice something unconventional, building islands or models of sustainable farming. The various agro-ecological practices follow the principles of agroecology, take different names, for example Low External Input sustainable Agriculture (LEISA), Integrated Farming, Permaculture, Agroforestry etc., and are directed primarily at enhancing soil organic matter, enhancing biodiversity and better water conservation. Following are some of the inspiring models, whose experiences are included in this issue.
Nothing goes out of the farm of Sri. Malleshappa Hakkalada, a small farmer residing at Kamplikoppa village, Dharwad district. He has adopted tree based farming and is cultivating fodder on bunds. All the crop residues are converted into compost and applied back to farm. Leaf litters of fruit trees are mulched back into the basins.(M N Kulkarni, p.23)
Anand Dhwaj Negi, popularly known as the ‘desert healer’, by his tireless efforts turned 90 hectares of desert land into lush green vegetation. Negi has resisted pressure from agricultural experts to use chemical fertilizers in his farm and thinks that the compost produced at the farm from animal waste is enough to add nutrients to the soil. Negi achieved what was once thought to be impossible (Dipankar Dasgupta, p.33).
Disillusioned with corporate life, a couple from Mumbai, with great passion and lots of hard work, developed a food forest on 10 acres of land called Aanandaa Permaculture Farm, near Chandigarh. It includes a combination of trees, shrubs, bushes and beds, with a great diversity of plants and animals. The food forest not only produces food devoid of chemicals, but is also a source of beauty and serenity for the soul. (Manisha Lath Gupta and Radha Lath Gupta, p.6). Similarly, a young IIT-IIM alumini, Sandeep Saxena working in the United States, started experimenting with his own 100 acres land at Sohagpur in Madhya Pradesh. Within four years, the trees created a vibrant food forest, pleasant even in the summers. (Dipankar Dasgupta, p.33).
Savita Uday with her passion on farming made a shift to natural cultivation on 4 acres of land, using lots of organic manure incorporated into the soil. Working on the farm all through the year, she has generated a lot of employment for the local communities. A number of festivals are organized on the farm during
different seasons, revolving around the diversity of food, emphasising the importance of slow cooked food, the forgotten foods, the uncultivated greens and much more. (Lakshmi Unnithan, p.15)
Challenges in Upscaling
There is growing evidence that agroecological farming systems are superior to high external input chemical agriculture. However, pockets of agroecological excellence are not sufficient to revert the damage that we have done to our planet. These sustainable farming systems have to be adopted by majority farmers to make a difference to our farming, to our lives and to our planet. While the agroecological farmers experiences are so inspiring, what are the factors that constrain wide spread upscaling? Some points to ponder.
Experience shows that in many areas, farmers while growing food for the household do so using organic methods and indiscriminately use chemicals while growing for the market. This clearly indicates that farmers do see clear links between the way the food is grown and the health of those who consume it. At the same time, lack of awareness on the links between way the food is grown and the ecology in which they live, probably encourages them to use chemicals which is easy to access. This ecological illiteracy is not just limited to farmers but is widespread among the various stakeholders like government department staff, researchers, policy makers etc, which limits their ability to look at agriculture holistically. A study conducted across the tribal communities in Odisha found that wider adoption of agroecological practices are limited by certain constraints which are highly region and community specific (Siva Muthuprakash and Shashank Deora, p.19).
Despite increasing evidences on agroecology, the curriculum and research in the Universities do not change and lean towards chemical agriculture only. Their focus continues to be on increasing single commodity yields with extensive chemical application. Concepts like biodiversity, inter connectedness etc., are still alien to the conventional systems of education and research.
While support from the government is negligible for pursuing agroecological practices, its support to conventional farming system in terms of subsidies to fertilisers and pesticides acts as a deterrant to follow organic farming practices. Also, agroecology is knowledge intensive. Farmers knowledge and innovative spirit is key to its success. Farmers knowledge has hardly been recognized by the conventional agriculture proponents, to such an extent that farmers are no more confident that they can contribute to the development of farming. There is a need to bring back the focus onto the farmer, recognize his efforts as central to farming and build the required capacities to adopt agroecological practices.
Opportunities and way forward
Agroecological practices already exist. They have been proved too through various models. An enabling environment and necessary support are necessary for farmers to be able to transition towards agroecological systems.
There is a need for greater integration among sectors, disciplines and actors to achieve multiple objectives. Sector-specific policy-making will not help in encouraging agroecological transitions, as a holistic approach is necessary. The piece-meal approach by various agencies which are generally period specific and project tied do no good in promoting sustainable food systems.
Growing demand for healthy diets especially from the urban areas is a great opportunity to move towards healthy food production systems. Agroecological systems can address this demand, while simultaneously promoting soil health and reducing environmental degradation.
The increasing recognition at the global level for nutritious food and family farming serve as a great opportunity to push sustainable farming systems. United Nations Decade of Family Farming (2019-2028) and United Nations Decade of Action on Nutrition (2016-2025) offers an important opportunity to raise awareness of, and support for, the inter-linkages between agroecology and family farming and contribution of agroecology for improved nutrition.
Policy support and political will are crucial to promote large scale upscaling of agroecological systems. Sikkim in India, began reducing the subsidy on chemical pesticides and fertilisers by 10 per cent every year in 2003 and banned them completely in 2014, exhibiting commendable political will. If more States follow suit, transitioning to agroecology can become a reality.