We cannot eat money

Only when the last tree is cut down and the last river poisoned, and the last fish has been caught, then we will realize that we cannot eat money.


We are well on our way to becoming a global economic force. Is it coming at the cost of agriculture that brings food to the table?

At a recent award ceremony Prime Minister Manmohan Singh patted himself and his government on the back for India’s impressive economic growth this year saying “India’s economic performance in the last few years has been truly impressive. Our country is poised to move to the trajectory of sustained high economic growth, which is so essential for fighting mass poverty, hunger and disease.”

Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, was modest and chose not to revise the economic survey’s earlier forecast of 8.5% growth this fiscal year despite the 8.8% growth in the first quarter ending June. Both Dr. Singh and Mr. Mukherjee were confident of a 9% growth in the coming fiscal. And all this in spite of the recent recession and the impact of inflation. At the same ceremony Dr. Singh also noted that our ambitions “will not happen automatically. There are deficiencies we will have to remove and strengths that we will have to acquire.”

The financial geniuses at the helm of our unbridled growth believe that we must increase investment in fast growing sectors. The PM thinks that industrialization is the only option India has to be able to develop. The Hindu on, 6 Sept 2010, reported him saying, “the only way we can raise our heads above poverty is for more people to be taken out of agriculture.”

As the agriculture sector struggles with growth, it is being forced to relinquish its capital to faster growing sectors. Farm income is at a low – excessive use of chemical fertilisers has increased costs while soil quality is declining. The farmer is being forced to sell his depleted lands to production and the manufacturing industry. These fast growing sectors can bring in more money and spur economic growth better than slow-moving farmers.

The maths might make sense on paper, but the current administration seems to have blinders on, their sights firmly set on ever-increasing growth. What they have failed to ask is – what does this growth entail?

Rice Farmer Near Hampi Village

The Indian farmer struggles with a failing agricultural system and the lack of goverment support. Pic: Wikimedia Commons

Rapid growth in industrial and service sectors deludes us into thinking we are developing at a fast pace while the sector that produces the most basic human need – food, is being ignored. It is not just ignored, but we are actively paving the way for starvation by investing in the industrialization of agriculture. Tax money is being used to destroy our arable soils. Last fiscal we gave Rs 64 crores to the chemical fertiliser industry to ensure that farm yields were boosted.

Multiple studies have shown increasing levels of toxicity in soil and groundwater due to chemical fertiliser and pesticide usage – poisoning farmers, consumers, and the environment. The micro-organisms that replenish the soil, as nature intended, are being wiped out with toxic chemical cocktails. Our soils are dying and we are paying to kill them.

What,then, is the alternative?

Ecological farming methods are better for soil health, involve lower input costs for the farmers, provide long term food security for the country, do not pollute the environment, and are safe for the consumer’s health. Ecological farming is not just what is commonly called “organic farming”, but includes a variety of techniques, both traditional and modern, that work in harmony with local ecosystems thus managing soil fertility and pest control effectively.

The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), an intergovernmental body, released a report in 2008 detailing how we have not been attentive to the “unintended social and environmental consequences” of the Green Revolution of the 60s. The 400 odd scientific experts who comprise the body acknowledge that “business as usual is no longer an option.”

The IAASTD’s report, aptly titled “Agriculture at the Crossroads”, systematically looks into the problems of climate change, declining yields, and the effects of industrial agriculture on health and environment. They also consider the options available to us and conclude that effective management of our natural resources; working with local ecosystems and biodiversity conservation are necessary for us to ensure we can feed ourselves healthy food in the future.

Our most precious resources are our topsoil, our clean water, and the natural balance of organisms in the eco-system. Maintaining these will ensure food security in perpetuity. We have to invest more in understanding how these complex systems work and how we can work with them for our benefit. Nature has been growing food for years without technological help, we should learn from her before trying to create our own systems.

There are signs of hope – Sikkim is the first state in India to commit to going all organic by 2015. Other farmer unions are demanding central subsidies on organic and ecological inputs.

Our government, along with governments across the planet, stands at the crossroads. Right now it seems to be choosing the path the experts advice against – increased industialisation of agriculture, chemical intensive farming, genetic engineering and such technological solutions.

I hope we can put long term sustainability, our farmers, our environment and our health before short-term economic considerations. We need to put our focus on living with nature rather than separate from it.

If our wise policymakers continue to look at economic growth as plain numbers and do not look at the long term picture, we will soon face the reality of the Cree Indian prophecy – Only when the last tree is cut down and the last river poisoned, and the last fish has been caught, then we will realize that we cannot eat money.


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Avijit Michael Currently working with online advocacy at Greenpeace India, Avijit Michael attempts to get more people involved in an ecological movement that brings about changes in people's understanding of humanity's role on this planet. Living in a civilization on the brink of disaster, he believes simpler lifestyles with technological understanding, working efficiently with the earth's eco-sy... more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Avijit Michael Currently working with online advocacy at Greenpeace India, Avijit Michael attempts to get more people involved in an ecological movement that brings about changes in people's understanding of humanity's role on this planet. Living in a civilization on the brink of disaster, he believes simpler lifestyles with technological understanding, working efficiently with the earth's eco-sy... more
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