This post is one of the reading assignments in my class, STOCKSCH 391A – Dialogue on Agricultural Issues, taught during the Fall semester 2018.
By Dr. Vandana Shiva
The system that drives farmers into a debt trap creates malnutrition. The solution lies in shifting from a toxic, high-cost system to a nutritious, low-cost, sustainable food production model
There is no reason why India should face hunger and malnutrition, and why our farmers should commit suicide. India is blessed with the most fertile soils in the world. Our climate is so generous we can, in places, grow four crops in a year, compared to only one in most of the industrialised West. We have the richest biodiversity in the world, both because of diverse climates and because of the brilliance of our farmers as breeders. They have given us 200,000 varieties of rice, 1,500 varieties of wheat, 1,500 varieties of mangoes and bananas.
Sir Albert Howard, who was sent to India in 1905 to introduce chemicals in farming, saw how fertile the soils were with no pests in the fields. He decided to make the Indian peasants his professors and wrote An Agricultural Testament, which spread organic farming worldwide on the basis of India’s ecological farming, today recognised as
agroecology-ecology as applied to agriculture.
In spite of our rich agricultural heritage, today India faces a triple emergency related to our food and agricultural system, a manmade emergency.
First, the poor and vulnerable are dying for lack of food. Even as India gets richer, we have emerged as the capital of hunger and malnutrition. According to the National Family Health Survey, 42.5 per cent of children aged under five were underweight. This is more than double the average of 21 per cent for Africa which until recently was the face of hunger.
The second tragedy is that our food producers, the small farmers who have provided food to more than a billion Indians and hold the potential to provide healthy food for all, are themselves dying because of agriculture and trade policies which put corporate profits above the rights and well-being of our small farmers. More than 300,000 farmers have committed suicide in India since 1995, when the rules of globalisation of agriculture by the WTO (World Trade Organization) were implemented, transforming food into a commodity, agriculture into corporate business, and shifting control over seeds and food from farmers to giant multinational corporations.
The third tragedy is that even those who get food are being denied their right to healthy and nourishing food. The explosion of junk food, of pesticides and toxics in our food have created a disease epidemic that is a human tragedy and an economic burden. The recent Maggi noodles scandal highlights the rapid invasion of junk food on the Indian diet.
India has emerged as the epicentre of diabetes. In 2004, 820,000 people were diagnosed with diabetes and 260,000 died from it; in 2012, 1.8 million people were diagnosed and 700,000 died. In 2010, India was spending $32 billion on diabetes care. Cancer has seen a 30 per cent increase in the last five years with 180 million people affected in India. At Rs 10 lakh treatment cost per cancer victim, this multiplies to Rs 18 lakh crore. Studies also show that 51 per cent of all food commodities are contaminated by pesticides.
My research over the past three decades on food and agriculture systems in India and across the world informs me that the three tragedies are not separate, they are related, and are in fact different dimensions of the food and agriculture crisis linked to promotion of an ecologically, economically and socially non-sustainable model of food production and distribution referred to variously as the Green Revolution, industrial agriculture, chemical farming. Solutions to all three dimensions of the crisis lie in shifting the focus from an unhealthy, nutritionally empty, toxic, high-cost food system to a healthy, nutritious, low cost and sustainable system which improves the well-being of the earth, of the farmers, and all citizens.
The industrial model is energy, water, chemical, capital and fossil fuel-intensive with costs of production much higher than the price farmers get. This high-cost system, which neither the farmers nor the nation can afford, is kept afloat artificially with a huge subsidy burden which basically benefits the agrichemical corporations selling toxic chemicals. Financially it is a negative economy, vulnerable to a chaotic climate in times of climate change and a manipulated commodity market. The debt and suicides of farmers are related to this feature of economic non-sustainability.
And the same system that drives farmers into a debt trap also creates malnutrition. Chemical monocultures and commodity production displace biodiversity which is a source of nutrition. Green Revolution monocultures destroyed our pulses and oilseeds which were always grown as a mixture with cereals. Today in the land of urad and moong, tur and chana, gahat and naurangi, we are importing “yellow pea dal” and in the land of til and mustard, alsi and coconut we are importing GMO soya oil and palm oil. There is a push to introduce GMO mustard. If we ignore growing nutritious biodiverse crops, malnutrition is a predictable outcome. If we grow food with toxic chemicals, then disease related to poisons will increase.
Chemical monocultures are pushing our farmers to debt and suicide, they are depriving our children of the nourishment our fertile soils and hard-working farmers can grow, and they are spreading an epidemic of cancer.
Our work over the past three decades has shown that when measured in nutrition per acre, biodiverse, organic farming produces more food. We can grow enough nutrition for two Indias if we cultivate biodiversity without chemicals. Our farming sizes are small, and ecological agriculture is better suited for them. Organic farming also gets rid of toxics and thus reduces the risks of diseases linked to toxics. Since hunger and poverty go hand in hand, we need to promote an agriculture that does not create poverty by haemorrhaging the scarce resources of the agrarian economy for purchase of costly seeds and toxic chemicals. Our research, “Wealth per Acre”, has assessed that farmers who have their own seed, practise chemical-free ecological agriculture, and shape fair trade markets are earning 10 times more than their counterparts.
We must stop treating food as a commodity to be wasted, contaminated, and profited from. We need to promote chemical-free organic farming not as a luxury but as an imperative for the well-being of our land, our farmers, our health. We need to move away from centralised, chemical-intensive monocultures and long-distance transport, including dependence on imports, to direct consumer-producer links, bypassing the exploitative middlemen, including giant corporations. We need to shift the use of public tax money from subsidising toxic agrichemicals and toxic and nutritionally deficient food for the vulnerable who do not have adequate purchasing power to healthy, safe, diverse, nutritious food. We need to grow more food and nutrition everywhere, in villages and in cities-in communities, in schools, in backyards, on rooftops, in terraces.
After all, the Taittiriya Upanishad has said the growing and giving of good food is the highest Dharma-Annam Bahu Kurvitha.
Vandana Shiva is an environmental activist and founder of Navdanya, a movement to promote organic farming and fair trade
by Dr Vandana Shiva, 15 August 2015