Organic Farming, Natural Farming and other approaches to agro-ecology Welcome;
Agro-ecological principles at work are the same in various models;
Diversity of approaches/practices/techniques essential to suit local conditions;
Transgenics and other gene technologies patently antithetical to agro-ecology;
Agro-Ecology is based on nature’s principles and is beyond personalities;
Adivasi agriculture has long pioneered natural farming and there is much to learn from the ethos of such farming and living
In the recent past, the Government of India, through the budget speech of the Finance Minister, expressed its commitment to promote Zero Budget (Natural) Farming (ZBNF). This acceptance of the need to focus on agro-ecology, to revive natural resources and also to cut down on cost of cultivation for farmers is indeed welcome. This will also go a long way in ensuring safe food for consumers. It is another matter that the expenditure budget did not reflect any specific outlays for this, while we hear that a sub-allocation within PKVY is still being worked out.
As the main proponent of ZBNF (now renamed by him as SPNF or Subhash Palekar Natural Farming), we can appreciate Padmashri Subhas Palekarji’s missionary zeal in promoting only this approach. At a practical level however, the need for agro-ecology through numerous approaches is apparent, even as farmers and other citizens are experiencing the terrible consequences of climate change on top of a long-prevailing agrarian crisis. Against such a backdrop, it is perplexing and a matter of concern that Palekarji indulges in repeated tirades against organic farming in totality, rather than confining his comments to those practices which may be considered undesirable. As a strong advocate of agro-ecology and holistic sustainable agriculture, which encompasses a number of systems which are chemical-free and with low or no purchased inputs and a special emphasis on seed diversity and autonomy, the Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) is compelled to openly point out the strengths and flaws of certain SPNF statements that have recently been made.
To begin with, tirades against organic farming in a generalised manner, calling it worse than atom bomb, or that it is most responsible for adding to greenhouse gas emissions, are unscientific. We give below our comments based on our understanding of some of the statements made:
- There is a fear that organic farming has been hijacked by profiteering entities which are more interested in exploiting farmers for their own profits than promoting self-reliant, organic farming for larger benefits to Indian citizens. This is a valid fear as the ‘organic farming movement’ is indeed contending with the ‘organic industry’, which is wanting to make money out of selling “bio-inputs”, out of certification business as well as out of organic markets.
- There is an apprehension that organic farming can be simplistically equated with vermi-composting, especially when government agencies claim to promote organic farming. This was indeed the case about a decade ago. The application of organic farming on the ground may include, but is certainly not just around vermi-composting, not even in government programs. A more holistic understanding is indeed spreading even in government schemes. We agree that encouraging local varieties of earthworms is preferable for Indian field conditions.
- There is an apprehension that organic farming concepts are imported from the West whose organic farming is perceived to be without deeper values and ethos, and is often degenerated to the same prevailing model/paradigm of agriculture without the use of synthetic inputs and transgenics. This fear is unfounded for India’s organic farming movement, whose true practitioners are indeed in a deep-rooted quest for meaningful existence on this planet, in harmony with others and respecting natural diversity and balances as a key principle in life. The organic farming movement in India applies the best of modern scientific understanding to practices and techniques that have been rooted in India’s own traditional agriculture but have also evolved through innovations and in-situ experimentation over a period of time. The organic farming movement understands and appreciates the existence of diversity of practices, knowing that at the core, the agro-ecological principles that help agriculture systems sustain themselves are the same. In fact, in India, organic farming movements at the local level are run by various names like Jaiva Krishi (Kerala), Iyarkkai Vyavasayam (Tamil Nadu), Susthira Vyavasayam (telugu speaking states), Sendriya Sheti (Maharashtra), Savayava Krishi (Karnataka) Sajeev Kheti (Gujarat), Nanak Kheti (Punjab), Kudrati Kheti (Haryana) etc., and there is nothing borrowed from the West in this, which is being made into a reason to run down organic farming.
While the SPNF emphasis that no external inputs need to be purchased even in terms of “bio-inputs” and emphasis that farmers should not get into this paradigm of farming only eyeing premium markets are wise, to assume that organic farming is promoted by all Indian practitioners in a high-external-input and only premium market driven mode, is completely incorrect. This is also evident from the Organic Farming Source Book that was first published in 1996, which laid the foundation stone of the organic farming movement in India. The organic farming movement was not born out of a commercial perspective in India – and shares many of the same tenets as SPNF. However the organic farming movement did not attempt a branding nomenclature for itself called “zero budget organic farming” or something similar, since it understood that some costs and laborious efforts (at least initially) are indeed needed for this kind of farming to sustain itself.
AGRO-ECOLOGY IS ABOUT DIVERSITY, AND NOT ESTABLISHING SUPREMACY OF ONE PRESCRIBED SET OF PRACTICES:
The need and modalities of distinguishing one approach from the other approaches of agro-ecology by any practitioner does not need to lead to denigrating other practitioners of agro-ecology. At the core of agro-ecology lies the understanding that practices and techniques will indeed be widely varying and diverse. This is something that the “modern” agricultural research, education and extension machinery also does not understand, in its quest to standardise techniques and prescribe the same to practitioners in a top-down fashion.
No single agro-ecology model/approach needs to project itself as the only agro-ecology model in the country, by running down other approaches. In fact, no model/approach should project itself as a ready-made, fully evolved perfect package, which in itself is unscientific and stops further innovations and improvements, even as the external world around us becomes more complex and rapidly-changing.
GM/TRANSGENICS AND OTHER GENE TECHNOLOGIES FOR BREEDING ARE ANTITHETICAL TO AGRO-ECOLOGY AND CANNOT BE PART OF ANY NATURAL FARMING OR ORGANIC FARMING MODELS:
For all the right reasons, the legal definition of organic farming world over and in India too prohibits the use of genetically modified seeds and other inputs. The S&T of transgenics is unnatural and leads to numerous adverse environmental and health impacts, which can never be compatible with the avowed intents of SPNF. The scientific evidence on these adverse impacts cannot be brushed away by proposing that ‘GM seeds will also be made into desi seeds by saving seeds from the crop and re-sowing them’. This is contrary to the evidence that already exists on transgenics and other gene technologies. For a movement that has condemned many agro-ecological practices and techniques as things that “do not exist in nature”, it is incomprehensible how GM seeds, “which are not in existence in Nature nor activated by Nature” are acceptable in the SPNF approach.
Both consumers and farmer groups are concerned about any ambiguity on the highly hazardous technology of GM. We remind Shri Palekarji of his original and welcome pronouncements on GM in his various books as highly corporatized, unnatural and chemical responsive seeds. We urge Palekarji to specify that SPNF does explicitly prohibit the use of GM seeds and inputs.
An ambiguous stand on the subject is extremely dangerous since the debate about GMOs is about the large body of evidence related to the hazards of the unnatural genetic engineering process itself, and the adverse impacts of GM crops on health, environment and agricultural sustainability.
While it is recognised by all that Bt cotton has effectively displaced our original desi seeds and even the non-GM hybrids, there is need for a concerted effort to call for a revival of desi seeds and for a campaign by SPNF against GM crops. Any statement that even remotely condones GM seeds is twisted by promoters of the agro-chemical/GM industry to argue against organic/natural farming. Palekarji unfortunately is giving scope for such misinterpretation, by not being as explicit about GM dangers as he has been in his earlier books and speeches. Any dilution in Palekarji’s stand on GM would be of grave concern to all consumers and also to all those interested in agro-ecological and natural farming in India.
THERE IS INDEED A NEED FOR ZERO EXTERNAL INPUT NATURAL FARMING, AND THE SPNF COMMUNITY CAN MAKE NUMEROUS IMPROVEMENTS IN ITS ETHOS, PRECEPTS AND PRACTICE:
ASHA welcomes the zeal and mission-mode work of Subhash Palekar as well as numerous farmers who have embraced natural farming in various ways. The voluntary nature of the movement, wherever replication is not being done by governments, is evident and indeed heartening.
For making this approach of natural farming effective, not just by finding political patrons but by truly establishing sustainable practices and ethos on the ground, the following improvements are suggested:
- That such movements and nomenclatures cannot be personality-centred monopolies, as all such movements have been built on previous practitioners’ experiences and constantly seek to improve on them.
- ASHA is aware that 5 lakh farmers enrolled in the Andhra Pradesh ZBNF program are placed under different categories and all farmers have not become seed-to-seed-fully-ZBNF farmers. The Indian organic farmers’ movement has been facilitating peer-to-peer learning by doing this in numerous ways including publishing directories, holding conventions etc. and it would be welcome if such public information sharing and dialogues are facilitated by SPNF also. Publishing directories of all practising SPNF farmers is important to ensure that farmers can learn from each other by locating their nearest resource persons.
- It is important for the SPNF movement to show how broad-based the expertise is, by designing more shibirs run by practising natural farmers and not just Palekar ji.
- The dangers of exposing SPNF platform to the powerful modern biotech industry and its lobbies is worrisome. These lobbies are constantly at work, to find acceptance with decision-makers through any means possible. If SPNF does not explicitly prohibit GMOs, it is important to make consumers of India aware that “SPNF products” could be transgenic, whereas “organic farming products” do not contain any GM.
- SPNF community has to realise that good results on the ground are being obtained by practitioners of numerous agro-ecological schools including permaculture, bio-dynamic farming etc. The SPNF community, if it realises that multiplicity of approaches are indeed needed by crores of Indian farmers to make their (full or incremental) shift to agro-ecology, will be able to expand some more, or otherwise stagnate where it is.
- While organic farming recognises natural farming and other agro ecological practices, including those promoted by SPNF, it is important not to degenerate agro-ecology and its spread to prescriptions around only some practices or techniques. It is very important to ensure that practitioners focus on principles of nature/ecology at work. Farmers should be encouraged to be innovative, and find solutions of problems of present and future. No approach should make them rely on prescriptions given by someone, but rather rely on “environmental learning”.
ASHA would like to end by asking various schools of agro-ecology to work closely with each other, being respectful towards each other and learning from each other. All of us, including the Government, need to appreciate that for different farmers, different solutions work, within the broad umbrella of agro-ecology. There is no one-size-fits-all in agro-ecology which is the big mistake that the Green Revolution paradigm made/makes to this day. Together, we need to heal mother earth and nature holistically. Here, there is much to learn from the communitarian ethos and environmental learning of Adivasis.
ASHA also reiterates that it is always ready for meaningful dialogues with SPNF practitioners, policy makers, consumers and all others who are moving in the direction of natural, sustainable, approaches.
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