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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 8 February 24, 2024

Farmer movements must defeat big business agenda by integrating livelihood and climate concerns | Bharat Dogra

Saturday 24 February 2024, by Bharat Dogra


During several recent movements of farmers, particularly in Europe, sometimes a serious misunderstanding has been created, or is sought to be created, that what is needed for protecting farmers’ livelihoods and what is needed for climate change mitigation and adaptation are in conflict with each other. Therefore it is important to emphasize with renewed vigor that there is no such conflict. If a proper, wider, enlightened view is taken, what will best protect the interests of farmers is the same as what will best protect the interests of checking climate change as well as adapting to it.

Sometimes governments and authorities take a very narrow view. They take the present day distortions caused by domination of big business interests and multinational companies as a given reality that will remain. So they seek solutions only within a very narrow and distorted framework. Problems arise due to this narrow view and due to the reluctance to accept that the conflict has arisen due to the model of corporate led farming promoted by them over the recent decades which inherently favors big farms and is unjust to small farmers.

A very important feature of this model is that it seeks relentlessly to increase corporate and finance control over farming, leaving small and medium farmers in more and more vulnerable situations. Another related feature is to try to relentlessly increase use and sale of costly high profit inputs (chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, machines, gadgets, fuel) sold by big business which are generally harmful for environment, soil, water and climate. The most central point of control and sale of these inputs is to increase domination of the seeds sector and to relentlessly manipulate seeds to increase profits and control.

Most authorities and governments have been supporting this very harmful model instead of stopping this and replacing this. At the most, when under pressure for taking some environment protection steps, they make a few piecemeal changes which cannot succeed on their own unless wider changes are made. If big business is selling seeds which have been manipulated to grow properly only with the use of certain agro-chemicals, then merely reducing agro-chemicals will not help much by itself as an isolated measure; you have to change seeds too and give much more attention to protecting of on-farm diversity of seeds, varieties and crops.

Take a situation in which the government is spending a lot of its farm budget on subsidizing costly, ecologically harmful agro-chemicals. Now the government says that to push for green agenda of climate change it is reducing this subsidy. Now suddenly the entire distorted model which the government earlier imposed on farmers but also sought to sweeten it with subsides becomes very expensive for farmers who rise in opposition. What is immediately visible to them is the reduction of a subsidy and an input becoming more expensive, so their most spontaneous immediate response is to oppose this only. Hence it may appear that the farmer is opposing the so-called green initiative of the government, but the reality is far from this as the very limited effort of the government cannot really be called a green agenda in any meaningful and comprehensive sense.

Now let us take a different situation in which the government is deeply and completely committed to creating a comprehensive ecologically protective farming system and will extend all the necessary help to farmers to make it work for them. In such a situation farmers will appear as big supporters of ecologically protective systems which provide them proper, healthier, creative, sustainable livelihoods as well as helping at the same time greatly in climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Governments and international trade organizations and treaties also entangle farmers needlessly in competition with each other while promoting corporate interests. Farmers of various countries who would love to be brothers and sisters of each other are pushed into hostile and unfair competition ultimately creating problems for all of them at some stage or the other while corporate, trade and finance interests can fatten themselves further.

One hopes sincerely that farmers’ movements will look at these wider understandings and help to create broad worldwide unity on combining protection of livelihoods of small farmers (also helping landless farmers to get some farmland) with protection of ecologically protective farming that protects soil, water, pollinators together with helping greatly in climate change mitigation and adaptation.

In my recent book (written with co-author Kumar Gautam) titled ‘India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food’ I have tried to combine all these issues and show how protection of environment, climate change mitigation and adaptation, welfare of farm animals and protection as well as enhancement of creative sustainable livelihoods of farmers (even landless peasants) are all compatible with each other. There is no inherent conflict involved in pursuing and achieving all these objectives together simultaneously at the same time. Whatever conflicts that appear are due to the shortsightedness of vision, understanding and perspective, in turn caused by allowing the interests of big business to become the dominating factor in policy.

Official policy often creates avoidable conflicts. India’s most respected rice scientist the late Dr. R.H. Richharia told me in detailed conversations that he and his colleagues were ready with the release of selections of improved indigenous varieties in mid-1960s which would have improved yields in ecologically friendly ways when suddenly their path was rejected and instead exotic green revolution varieties requiring lots of polluting agro-chemicals were imposed.

More recently GM crops have been promoted which are likely to have even more serious adverse impacts on environment as well as on sustainable, safe, healthy livelihoods of farmers and availability of healthy, safe food to people.

For several years I have been trying to extend support to a farmer-scientist Mangal Singh from Bundelkhand region of India whose invention of a turbine which lifts water without using diesel and electricity and hence can contribute a lot to reducing costs of farmers as well as to reducing diesel use in farming. Despite all our efforts, despite lot of praise showered on this invention ad its inventor by many experts, our efforts for spreading this far and wide could not succeed so far. Here is another example of something which combines protection of environment, climate change mitigation and adaptation with helping small, farmers but has been ignored nevertheless.
Despite such disappointments the wider and reassuring reality which still gives hope is that the various solutions of the farming crisis do not conflict with each other and hence all the problems can be resolved simultaneously by adopting the right policies.

This becomes clearer by looking at the most desirable priorities and accompanying policies for the food and farm sector. *production of healthy, nutritious and safe food on farms,

*its processing only in those ways which maintain health, safety and wholesome nutrition in natural ways without too many harmful additives,
*protection of soil, maintaining and improving its organic content and porosity to conserve water,

*conserving water, providing protective irrigation but at the same time avoiding excessive, wasteful irrigation and also avoiding those commercial crops which are too water-intensive for any region,

*protecting earthworms and micro-organisms which improve soil and water conservation, protecting all friendly insects, bees, birds and pollinators and maintaining balance of nature in the local environment in which even spiders, owls and vultures play their useful roles,

*ensuring sustainable, healthy, creative and satisfactory livelihoods to all those who select food production and processing as their part-time or full time livelihood,

*maximizing the potential of local, village-based cottage and small-scale food processing,

*regulation of food trade in such a way that firstly farmers and secondly cottage and small food processors (the two activities can also be combined in the same farm family or farm unit) get the bulk of the retail price that is realized while traders get a smaller but fair share,

*farming technology should be made as self-reliant as possible in terms of using maximum of local resources while at the same time input costs for farmers should be minimized,

*the use of fossil fuels, whether in the form of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, diesel etc. should be minimized and no subsidy should be given specifically for this,

*all subsidies should be given directly to all small and medium farmers, and these should be the highest for those adopting the most ecologically protective policies and producing the most healthy, safe and wholesome nutritious food,

*all small and medium farmers who produce safe, healthy and nutritious food should be ensured a fair price for this, with a lot of this being purchased right within the village by government procurement agencies for supplying to local nutrition schemes and public distribution system of the village as well as of nearby towns as well as buffer stock storages,

*the concept of minimizing food miles should be carefully followed,
*as far as possible at least some farmland should be found for all landless rural families keen to cultivate it, and kitchen gardens for all should be promoted,

*those landless households who still cannot get some farmland in the village should be involved in community efforts, supported by the government, of using vacant land in or near the village for growing a mix of indigenous tree species providing fruits, dry fruits, fodder, medicines, oilseeds or edible oil etc. and they should get rights over this land,

*Farm animals should be well provided for and enough healthy fodder and oilcakes should be produced at the village level for them, more attention should also be given to having better pastures,

*growing a wide diversity of crops and crop varieties in harmonious mixed farming systems ( including trees) and crop rotations, giving topmost priority to local food and nutrition needs while also protecting and conserving a wide diversity of indigenous seeds and varieties.

Such a listing can certainly be expanded but this gives a good idea of desirable priorities. Being more familiar with conditions of India this writer has expressed a vision more in the context of India, but surely a lot of this would be relevant in several other countries too.

These priorities and policies taken together have two very remarkable features. Firstly, as pointed out earlier, all these policies and priorities are mutually consistent towards each other and can happily co-exist. Generally these are also supportive towards each other, and there is certainly no conflict or contradiction among them.

This is because these are integral parts of a comprehensive thinking which seeks to bring together concerns of justice, peace, health and nutrition of all people, sustainability, protection of environment and of all forms of life, when applied to the food and farming sector.

Secondly, a no less remarkable aspect is that while all these priorities and policies were very desirable before climate change became a big issue, exactly the same policies and priorities have become even more relevant in the context of the very pressing need for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Whether in terms of reducing greatly the use of fossil fuels, or of absorbing of carbon dioxide, the comprehensive mix of policies and priorities (which can also be called heritage practices as a result of having evolved from the wisdom of several generations of farmers) which have been good for health and nutrition, for soil and water conservation, for justice and equality, are also found to be equally good for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Hence what climate change mitigation and adaptation in the context of farming and food involves is what several generations of farmers had already known well but had been discarding in recent times under the increasing impact of big business interests. Hence climate change mitigation and adaptation is very significantly also a process of getting rid of undesirable, imposed impacts and influences of big business interests whose main aim has been to advance their profits, control and domination of this sector while increasing fossil fuel use, pollution, monocultures, overexploitation of water and soils, loss of diversity of traditional seeds, uprooting of time honored mixed farming systems and crop rotations, indebtedness and land loss among small farmers.

Despite such a widely documented record, big business interests are now demanding that they should be given the leadership role in climate change mitigation and adaptation in the context of this sector, so that they can heavily distort the entire agenda to make it even more suitable for even higher levels of their profits and control. This is the main threat that exists today in the food and farming sector— of the entire agenda of desirable changes getting distorted by big business interests armed with highly disruptive technologies like that of GM crops. This threat should be widely opposed.

(Author: Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food, Protecting Earth for Children, Man over Machine, When the Two Streams Met and A Day in 2071)

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