Concerns in Indian agriculture today
Over the years it has become increasingly difficult for the more than 250 million Indians whose livelihood depends on agriculture, to make a sustainable income. Overcome by their extreme economic pressures, many take drastic steps to end their suffering. Reports suggest that, burdened by the debts of unsustainable farming, thousands have committed suicide out of sheer desperation over the years.
We believe that the root of their problems can be traced back to the ‘Green Revolution’ of the mid-70’s which resulted in the introduction of new, exotic seed varieties. Lured by the possibilities of better yields higher and incomes that these seeds promised,
many marginal and small scale farmers chose to cultivate them over indigenous seed varieties. Easily susceptible to pests and diseases, the new varieties needed extensive inputs, such as chemical fertilizers, pesticides etc. in order to produce the promised high yields. The already impoverished farmer then had to invest in these inputs, availing loans in order meet his expenses. Stuck in an unsustainable cycle of agriculture, with a debt that becomes increasingly difficult to pay off, many farmers face the harsh reality of poverty. Ironically, despite cultivating crops in their farms, their families face malnutrition and hunger.
Addressing these concerns
GREEN Foundation’s work is based on the fact that farmers with small land holdings of less than a hectare cannot meet the food requirements of their family by growing a single crop. Nor can they sustain that type of agriculture for long without widespread ecological devastation. Biodiversity is therefore essential to the food and economic security of small and marginal farmers. Conservation of biodiversity, especially of indigenous varieties well adapted to local climatic conditions, holds the key to securing agrarian livelihoods. Along with this, a holistic approach that incorporates water and soil conservation methods, nutrition enrichment, economic security and endogenous development of communities is crucial.
Addressing concerns in the agricultural sector must therefore begin with the cultivation of indigenous crop varieties through sustainable practices. Organic farming methods must be re-introduced, as they provide alternate management systems rooted in sustainability. Sadly however, many of the indigenous varieties had been lost when GREEN first began its work. Without these seeds, the dream of re-introducing sustainable agricultural practices would never be complete.
Finding these seeds, conserving them and re-introducing them in areas where they had all but disappeared, was therefore the very first step that we took on a journey that has been nearly 15 years in the making.
“We visited remote villages and after intensive efforts, found a few farmers who had preserved some indigenous varieties. Each time we discovered a variety of seed, we joyfully brought it back to the farm that GREEN Foundation had acquired in Thalli and multiplied it,” says Dr. Vanaja Ramprasad, one of the founding members of GREEN Foundation.
In that farm at Thalli, over 100 different varieties of minor millets, oil seeds, dry land paddy etc were experimented with in the initial phases. The 5 women who had agreed to work with us also began experimentation with seeds. The positive results we got from these experimentations allowed us to approach farmers in the surrounding areas. We organized them into groups, encouraging them to share their problems in order to understand why they had shifted to chemical farming.
The challenges we encountered
One of the biggest challenges we faced was the belief many farmers held that traditional seeds would result in reduced yields. They had also forgotten much of the collective indigenous knowledge that held the key to sustainability. We had to show them through practical demonstration that organic farming through indigenous seed varieties was more beneficial to them.
Farmers were therefore encouraged to set aside small plots of land to grow and observe the indigenous crop varieties. Organic farming methods were encouraged, along with the use of bio-fertilizers, organic growth promoters, and pesticides. Because they were using both methods of farming on their plots, the farmers had a means of comparison between chemical and organic methods. However, many of the men farmers were still apprehensive about giving up cash crops in favor of indigenous varieties.
The breakthrough came in 1995, when, after a severe drought in the area, farmers observed that the indigenous crops they had planted in small plots on their land survived despite the failure of rains. These local varieties were drought resistant, unlike their exotic counterparts, which needed large quantities of water in order to survive. Once the farmers themselves saw the superior quality of these varieties, they were convinced of the benefits of growing them.
“But there were also other, equally huge challenges which were not related to the farmers directly,” says Dr. Vanaja Ramprasad, Founding Trustee of GREEN. We were challenging accepted practices which were backed by large business houses…we were not a university, we were not scientists and we had no political or other support. Very often, we felt dwarfed and inadequate. It was only the steadfast belief in what we were doing that carried us through.”