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March 06 2010

06:36

Agriculture and us

I attended an Ashoka conference in New Delhi yesterday on rural innovation and farming. There were so many new things I realized about agriculture's deep rooted connections with our culture and society and economy that I decided to immediately write about it before the memories weaken. Plus I watched Avatar later in the evening, which gave a perfect icing on the cake!

Agriculture and women

Agriculture can be looked upon from many perspectives. Food as a commodity, where farmers are considered merely as factory workers and we talk about increasing their productivity though machines, technology, etc. Agriculture as an economic activity with linkages into the global market, so that it becomes important to streamline supply chains, improve irrigation, and prevent price fluctuations. From an ecological perspective, in terms of organic farming, local supply chains, and keeping a small footprint. Or it can be looked upon from a cultural and humanist perspective by putting a face to the farmer, and this face is often that of a woman. As you read on, try to keep this context in mind by linking back the people in agriculture with the bigger landscape of the economic and ecological settings in which all of us are living.

It is well known that women in India and elsewhere have always played a huge role in post-harvest processing of food grains. What is probably less well known about India is that because of poorer economic rates of return in agriculture, men are moving into the cities for various unskilled jobs leaving their wives to manage the farms. At times many villages are only left with women, kids, and old people, while the men have gone off to work in factories in the cities or to pull a rickshaw. This is even more common during the off-season of farming because the lack of proper irrigation prevents any farming from happening at all during those few months. So you can see how policies for proper irrigation, increasing incomes in agriculture, market linkages, and other economic and political factors can influence the culture of farming communities.

A second arena where women again come into prominence in agriculture is because of development activities. Microfinance institutions and various not-for-profit organizations often like to work more closely with the women than with men. And in Satara near Pune, over 3500 loans have been taken by women to buy mobile phone based remote starters for tube wells and water pumps in their farms! Similarly, when a community radio station was set up in the area, one of the first advertisements go out on air was from a woman calling others to aggregate their little amounts of farm produce, and now they have rented a truck which goes back and forth each week to the city markets!

A third example came from Karnataka, where a not-for-profit organization helped set up a network of retail and produce collection points, again run by women. And here the women requested their local self-help-group organization to train them on selling mobile SIM cards through the same retail points! Cellphones, as many would know, are gaining tremendous outreach in rural areas. Companies therefore need a distribution network in rural areas to sell value added services, prepaid recharges, and such. And women are again the preferred ones to do it, what could be better than to leverage the existing agriculture distribution networks which are already in place.

Agriculture and productivity

If we think about argiculture as a food producing activity, many issues arise related to operational scale and efficiency. There is a question of proper education and training in disease control for example. Over 98% of a potato crop under contract with PepsiCo was once completely wiped out because of blight. And here we are talking about small farmers for whom one crop can make a difference between sustainance and falling into deep poverty. PepsiCo has since engaged a large army of extension workers who make sure that farmers know about the correct methods to control pests and crop diseases, and also provide weather insurance to their contract farmers. Similarly, the correctness of methods is very important. Paddy seeds can either be sown in a flooded field, or first sown and then flooded with water. It turns out that in the former approach over half the water is lost in puddling. There is no new technology here, no new seeds, only a different method of cultivation. And if we add that over 80% of water in India is consumed for agriculture, you can imagine the impact that good methods can have here! There are many similar examples where using the right methods can alone improve productivity, and these have even been tested in small pilots here and there, but very few practices have managed to make their way to farmers in a big way.

GM seeds are seen as another method to increase agricultural productivity. I will not go into the details of this hotly contested topic, and assuming that biotechnology is the way to go to grow more food for more people, the one probematic issue is the tradeoff between price and innovation. Companies such as Monsanto are innovating and developing new seed lines -- pest resistant, drought resistant -- and want to earn back the investments they have made. Exercising IP rights by putting in a stopper gene for re-planting seeds is one way, higher prices is another way, but effectively these methods do increase costs for the farmers at least in the short term. Can new methods be developed for companies to capitalize on their investments made for innovation, instead of simply a higher price? Governments can provide subsidies, for one. Alternately, the government of India chose to instead invent their own seed lines which could be sold at lower prices. To add a footnote here, the Central Drug Research Institute in Lucknow actually successfully did this for cotton seeds. But these genes have not seen the light of day as yet because government run institutes are completely lost in getting regulatory approval and passing food safety tests!

Society and agriculture

But productivity should not be the only goal. It is inextricably linked with society and ecology. Here is an example. Contract farming normally comes with strict regulations about crop rotation patterns, seed varieties, etc. But this has often resulted in farmers losing touch with their lands and passing the age-old wisdom to their next generation. In Uttaranchal, there is a concept of 12 anaja (seeds) which are supposed to be sown in rotation to preserve the soil health and the water table. The water table by the way is in most rapid decline in the Gangetic plains of north India than anywhere else in the world. Highly optimized contract farming however often neglects these principles because even if the soil deteriorates in one part, companies can always relocate their operations to other areas. The losers are actually the communities in these areas because they are losing the wealth of their lands, and likely at a price which does not take the soil and water table decline into account, and to make matters worse, they are losing agricultural wisdom over the generations.

Another interesting example, again from the hills of Uttaranchal, was the destruction of local supply chains because of increasing capitalization of agriculture. A village on one side of a hill could be producing rice while the other side could be barren. However, rather than sustain local supply chains, pricing and infrastructure are rigged in such a way that food first travels all the way to Delhi and then back. Not only is this ecologically nonsensical, but it also damages the cultural fabric that may have united the two villages together in the past.

Us

Those were quite some eye-opening issues for me, and underscored the importance of seeing agriculture in a more holistic setting. Economics, policies, technology, ecology, and culture all come together. To drive the point deeper, I coincidentally happened to watch Avatar the same evening, and realized the important link we have with nature. We cannot think in terms of us and nature, it is all one, we are a part of nature, and so are the technologies we develop and the policies we follow to live.

Can Gram Vaani help here? I definitely think so, because we are building a vehicle to spread this message and help everybody realize how rural areas are fundamentally interconnected to our lives, something that the mainstream media completely neglects. Stay tuned in for a formal announcement about the release of our GRINS box for community radio stations. We are almost there, I personally cannot wait for this having waited for it since almost three years now! We are also in conversation with Video Volunteers, a fellow Knight awardee, of how we can extend our radio based setup to video as well, and together build what we call a YouTube for the Next Billions.

Credits: All these examples and insights come from the panelists and attendees of the Ashoka conference. In particular, Kalyani Menon-Sen, Anita Paul (Community Initiatives), Chetna Gala Sinha (Mann Deshi), Uma Swaminathan (RUDI-SEWA), Prema Gopalan (Swayam Shiksha Prayog), Bharat Ramaswamy (ISI), and Vivek Bharati (PepsiCo).

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