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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 1 New Delhi December 21, 2019 | ANNUAL NUMBER

A Blueprint for Protecting Small Farmers

Saturday 21 December 2019, by Bharat Dogra

In most parts of the world farmers are in distress, soil quality is deteriorating rapidly, farm animals/birds are suffering, sustainablity is in crisis and food is less safe. The overall drift is towards high and increasing greenhouse gas emissions from the world food and farming system.

All these disturbing symptoms and trends are avoidable to a large extent. For this we need wider consensus on some broad aspects of a desirable food and farming system, and then to somehow ensure that at the level of national governments and at world level we can get support for this.

Here we examine the most important aspects of a desirable food and farming system:

1. Production of Safe, Nutritious and Adequate Food for All on a Sustainable Basis

Policies should be directed towards cropping systems and rotations which give top priority to production of adequate, nutritious and safe food for all now and in future. More specifically, we need adequate amounts of grains, millets, legumes, vegetables, nuts, fruits and fodder combined with moderate amounts of salt, spices, sugar, milk, milk products, edible oils, tea, coffee, chicken and fish. Red meat and beef should be reduced as much as possible. The consumption and production of high sugar, high fat, high salt processed foods should be much less. Tobacco and intoxicants should be curtailed to an even greater extent. In fact the aim should be to reduce the consumption of tobacco in all forms and all kinds of alcoholic drinks by 90 per cent or more. All this has to be achieved by powerful policy measures and even stronger campaigns within a powerful democratic framework where all voices are heard.

The highest priority should be for ensuring safe drinking and cooking water to all people, while also emphasising water conservation and water saving practices. In addition ensuring safe and easy, health and environment-friendly cooking fuel should be emphasised.

All the food should be safe. This should be ensured by production and processing methods, legal provisions and educational campaign. In particular food should not be affected and con-taminated by dangerous agri-chemicals harmful for health. Food should not come from genetically modified (GM) crops. All GM crops should be banned.

Democratic and humane methods should be used to limit the increase of human population. The population of animals and birds kept for eating their meat should be restricted greatly by adopting suitable policies.

Some of the restrictive policies suggested are in keeping with the needs of health and environment protection at world level as well as requirements of animal welfare. This recommen-dation may differ for certain climate and geographical zones. The recommendation here is for broad worldwide trends.

The first priority in farmland use is for the production of safe and nutritious food. The second priority is for growing essential raw materials like cotton. Any other priority can be considered only after these two needs have been met.

2. Ensuring Sustainable and Satisfactory Livelihood For Small Farmers and Farm Workers:

Small and medium farmers should be highly respected and honoured in their capacity as the providers of safe and nutritious food. The prevailing attitude in many countries that their number should be necessarily reduced in the course of time should be given up. Their livelihood based on production of safe and nutritious food should be strengthened in various ways. All the world’s farmland should belong to small and medium farmers or their cooperatives. Land in excess of what can reasonably be cultivated by small and medium farmer households should be distributed among those landless farm workers and rural people who are willing to practice sustainable farming for producing safe food. Hence present-day farm workers can also become small farmers. Till this happens other steps to improve their livelihood and welfare should be taken by the government and communities. They should have a place of honour. Landless persons who provide support to sustainable farming in artisan and ancillary activities should get the same respect as farmers and their welfare and sustainable livelihoods should be ensured.

All those who produce safe food using sustainable methods should be assured of satis-factory selling price and marketing opportu-nities, including direct sales to consumers, and this should be strongly helped by public policy and community action.

Rural livelihood opportunities in healthy and nutritious food processing should also exist in villages. This can be supported initially by public funds. Suitable small-scale technology for this should be supported. Self-help groups and cooperatives can also take up this work.

Rural livelihood opportunities in diverse areas which do not harm local environment should be promoted widely so that members of farmer households have access to supporting additional livelihoods in or near their villages. In particular livelihoods in decentralised renewable energy, water conservation, affores-tation, cottage-scale industry and information technology can be promoted but such efforts should be additional to and supportive of prioritising production of safe and nutritious food. Also farm livelihoods should be made sustainable for future generations by protecting the basic natural resource base (in the form of soil, soil-organisms, water, greenery, supporting other forms of life and knowledge base (particularly traditional knowledge of farming, seeds and related issues).

3. Protection of Soil, Saving Fertile Land for Producing Safe Food:

Land has been degraded very badly and natural fertility has been eroded over vast areas due to several factors including harmful farming practices and inputs, deforestation, soil erosion, harmful activities in nearby areas, waterlogging, salinisation, spread of desert and other factors. Fertile land has been lost to land erosion by rivers, brick-kilns, mines and quarries as well as to industrial and urban use on a massive scale. Fertile land should be protected as much as possible for producing safe food on sustainable basis.

Farm practices, which are able to protect and/or restore natural fertility and organic matter, should be followed. Steps should be taken to prevent waterlogging and salinity and to reclaim land for farming if possible. Loss of fertile farmland to other uses should be minimised. Use of chemical fertilisers and poisonous, harmful agri-chemicals should be minimised or avoided altogether.

Mixed-farming and crop rotations in keeping with sustaining farm fertility should be encouraged.

4. Conserve Water and Ensure Clean Drinking Water:

High priority should be given to protect this most essential resource base of farmers. Rain harvesting and water conservation with community effort should get high priority to maintain proper water table. Highly water-intensive cropping systems or diversion for industrial or other uses beyond the carrying capacity of a region should be checked by public policy and community action before it is too late. Highest priority should be for ensuring clean drinking and cooking water to all people. Next priority should be to provide for hygienic needs and drinking water needs of all animals. Third priority should be for meeting the needs of sustainable farming for producing safe food. All wasteful and non-essential excessive uses of water should be discouraged by public policy and community effort.

5. Protecting Traditional Seeds and Biodiversity, including Forest Food:

A great diversity of seeds of food crops and trees, as well as other useful crops and trees, has flourished on earth, nurtured by over a hundred generations of farmers. Much of this has been lost in more recent times due to the emphasis on monocultures. The rich diversity of traditional seeds should be saved and grown on ordinary farms. These should be widely encouraged among farmers. Over a few years most farmers will not have to buy any seeds from the commercial market. Such efforts should be strongly supported and rewarded by public policy. Free food received from nature, parti-cularly from natural forests, should be highly valued and protected. The knowledge of local communities of this food should be valued, respected and saved.

6. Low-Cost and Low External Input Use Technology:

Farm technology should avoid or minimise external inputs such as chemical fertilisers, pesticides, weedicides. There should be efforts based on local innovations to reduce use of expensive machinery and diesel to the extent possible. For example a farmer’s innovation Mangal Turbine (in India) can help greatly to reduce diesel use. Farm animals can contribute greatly even now to reduce costs and external inputs. Dependence on commercial market for seeds can be minimised. The effort should be directed towards reducing costs and increasing self-reliance and protecting the environment.

7. Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions:

Increasing the organic content of soil helps in absorption of carbon dioxide. Reducing chemical fertilisers and pesticides helps greatly in reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide (including emissions in manu-facture and farm use). Diesel and machinery use should be reduced whenever and wherever possible. Long-distance marketing and wasteful packaging should be discouraged.

8. Adapt to Climate Change:

Self-reliant farming systems which are also low-cost and low external use systems will find it much easier to adapt to climate change. Learning from traditional knowledge, protecting traditional seeds and bio-diversity will further improve this ability.

8. Ban GM Crops:

Genetically modified crops should be banned as these are harmful for human and animal health and can be very disruptive ecologically.

9. Protecting Animal, Bird, Insect and Micro-organism Friends of Farmers:

A special effort should be made to protect pollinators, also all birds and insects which help farmers in various ways. Farm animals should be protected with concern for their welfare. Bullocks can still play an important role in ploughing and other farm activities. Mechani-sation is not inevitable and should be adopted only when it appears essential and that too in a restrictive and careful way. Dairy and poultry activities should be taken up in an integrated way with farming whenever possible and should give adequate care to welfare of animals and birds as well. Earthworms should be valued greatly and protected, along with other soil-organisms which enrich soil.

10. Observe Nature and Try to Live with Nature’s Ways Instead of Disrupting Them:

Perhaps the best way of promoting sustain-able growth of safe food is to observe carefully the ways of nature and carrying out farming practices in tune with nature’s way, without trying to disrupt them. Exactly the opposite of this happened while promoting industrial-style agriculture and this is how most of the damage to health and environment (as well as to sustainabilty of farms) was inflicted. We now need to get the basics right.

11. There is No Single Formula or Single Person to Follow:

Millions of farmers of the world have contributed and are contributing to sustainable production of safe and nutritious food. A few scientists have also contributed to this. There is no single formula, or single leader. The entire effort should be to learn from and build on the contribution made by millions of farmers and a few scientists. Region-specific solutions are necessary, so a highly decentralized approach will be needed.

12. Decentralised Approach to Research and Expansion:

A highly decentralised and participative approach involving close cooperation of rural communities is needed. Farm scientists can certainly help but they should also be willing to learn from farmers, including the work of previous generations of farmers. Above all, they should accept the basic perspective of sustain-able and self-reliant farming for safe food in which external inputs are extremely low. Farmers’ visits to areas of promising work, their grassroots seminars, workshops, fairs and get-togethers should be encouraged by public policy and community efforts.

13. Marketing and Trade:

Efforts should be to link local markets with farmers while avoiding very long-
distance marketing except in case of specialneeds.

Public policy should encourage and help in promoting close links of farmers with urban consumers of safe and nutritious food. The government should pay a fair price to purchase safe and nutritious food from farmers to supply to public distribution system and nutrition programmes.

Food should not travel a long distance except in case of special needs. The emphasis should be on linking local needs and production.

Trade and other agreements which are detrimental to sustainable production of safe foods, and livelihoods based on this, should not be pursued, or where these already exist, these should be cancelled.

Various agreements of land grab which have captured or try to capture the land and water sources necessary for sustaining rural communities should be cancelled. There should be a big public campaign for this.

Bharat Dogra is a journalist who has been involved with several social movements. He is the Convener of the Campaign to Save the Earth Now and its SED Demand. His most recent books are Protecting Earth for Children and Earth without Borders. More details are on the website

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