Tilling the Soil with Pesticides

The ministry of agriculture had organised a conference on Doubling Food Production from February 1-3. The "eminent speakers" invited were not members of International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) or top Indian scientists. Rather they were spin masters of biotechnology industry who claimed to have founded the anti-GMO movement and openly promoted it.

The ministry of agriculture had organised a conference on Doubling Food Production from February 1-3. The "eminent speakers" invited were not members of International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) or top Indian scientists. Rather they were spin masters of biotechnology industry who claimed to have founded the anti-GMO movement and openly promoted it. The old paradigm of food and agriculture is clearly broken.

On April 15, 2008, the IAASTD report findings, carried out by 400 scientists over six years, were released. The report has noted that business as usual is no longer an option. Neither the Green Revolution nor the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can guarantee food security. We need a new paradigm of working with the laws of nature and ecological sustainability. Why is our agriculture minister Sharad Pawar defending a dead paradigm and promoting PR men of biotech giants? When the fact is that the emerging scientific paradigm of ecological agriculture has shown that we can double food production while protecting the planet, human health and farmers' livelihoods.

The old paradigm of agriculture has its roots in war. An industry that had grown by making explosives and chemicals for the war remodelled itself as the agro-chemical industry when these wars ended. Factories that manufactured explosives started making synthetic fertilisers and gradually the use of war chemicals as pesticides and herbicides began. The 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy is a stark reminder that pesticides kill. Pesticides in agriculture continue to kill farmers. One of Navdanya's reports, "Poisons in our Food" released in 2012, shows that a link between epidemics like cancer and the use of pesticides in agriculture exist. A daily "cancer train" leaves Punjab, the land of the Green Revolution in India, with cancer victims. In the last five years, 33,000 people have died of cancer in Punjab.

The chemical push changed the paradigm of agriculture. Instead of working with ecological processes and taking the wellbeing and health of the entire agro-ecosystem with its diverse species into account, agriculture was reduced to an external input system adapted to chemicals. Instead of small farms producing diversity, agriculture became focused on large chemical monoculture farms producing monocultures for a handful of commodities. Correspondingly, the human diet shifted from 8,500 plant species to about eight globally traded commodities, which were nutritionally empty but loaded with toxics.

The scientific paradigm was also transformed. Instead of adopting a holistic approach, agriculture became compartmentalised into fragmented disciplines based on a reductionist and mechanistic paradigm.

Just as the gross domestic product fails to measure the real economy, the health of nature and society, similarly the category of "yield" fails to measure real costs and real output of farming systems.

On October 25, 2010, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations released its second report on The State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. It observed that the so called high-yielding varieties (HYVs) of the Green Revolution should, in fact, be called high response varieties as they are bred for responding to chemicals and are not "high yielding". The narrow measure of "yield" propelled agriculture into deepening monocultures thereby displacing diversity and eroding natural and social capital.

According to the FAO report, industrial monoculture agriculture has pushed more than 75 per cent agro-biodiversity to extinction. Seventy-five per cent bees have been killed because of toxic pesticides. Scientist Einstein had once cautioned, "when the last bee disappears, humans will disappear". Seventy-five per cent of the water on the planet is polluted owing to intensive irrigation of chemical-intensive industrial agriculture. The nitrates in water from industrial farms are creating "dead zones" in the oceans. Chemical industrial farming has led to 75 per cent land and soil degradation.

Forty per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, which are responsible for climate change, come from the use of fossil fuels and chemical-intensive industrial globalised system of agriculture. While this ecological destruction of the natural capital is justified in terms of "feeding the people", the problem of hunger has grown. One billion people are permanently hungry. Another two billion suffer from food-related ailments like malnutrition. And this hunger and malnutrition is designed into a food system driven by profits rather than health and sustainability.

When the focus is on the production of commodities for trade instead of food for nourishment, it leads to hunger and malnutrition. Only 10 per cent of corn and soya grown is used as food. The rest is used as animal feed and biofuel. Commodities do not feed people, food does. A high cost external input system is artificially kept afloat with $400 billion as subsidies. That is more than a $1 billion a day. The "cheap" commodities have a very high cost financially, ecologically and socially. Industrial, chemical agriculture displaces productive rural families. It is like creating a debt. Debt and mortgages are the main reason for the disappearance of the family farm. In extreme cases, as in the cotton belt of India, debt created by purchase of high cost seed and chemical inputs, has pushed more than 127,000 farmers to suicide in a little over a decade. Getting out of this suicide economy has become crucial for the wellbeing of farmers and all life on earth.

A scientifically and ecologically robust paradigm of agriculture is emerging in the form of agro-ecology and organic farming that rejuvenates the natural capital (soil, biodiversity and water) on which sustainable food security depends. Chemical agriculture treats soil as inert and an empty container for chemical fertilisers. The new paradigm recognises the soil as living where billions of soil organisms create soil fertility. Chemical agriculture destroys biodiversity.

Ecological agriculture conserves and rejuvenates biodiversity. Chemical agriculture depletes and pollutes water. Organic farming conserves water by increasing the water-holding capacity of soils through recycling organic matter.

Biodiversity and soils rich in organic matter are the best strategy for climate resilience and climate adaptation. While lowering the ecological footprint, organic agriculture increases output when measured through diversity and multifunctional benefits instead of the reductionist category of "yield".

Another research by Navdanya released in 2011, "Health per Acre", on biodiverse organic systems has shown that ecological systems produce higher biodiverse outputs and higher incomes for rural families. Our report shows that when measured in terms of nutrition per acre, ecological systems produce more food. We can double food production ecologically. Ecological systems of agriculture are based on care, compassion and cooperation. They enhance ecological resilience, diversity, sustainable livelihoods and health.

The new paradigm of agriculture creates living economies and living cultures that increase the well-being of all.

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