Future of agriculture – Back to Sustainable farming

By: Satyan Mishra
www.satyanmishra.org
The pace of change and its impact
We are in an age where everything seems to be moving very fast. From television to Internet and from computers to smartphone, the speed of technology and business is accelerating phenomenally. However, this movement is mostly circular. The actual impact of technology on life is changing but at a pace which is much slower than the pace of technology itself. In many ways, the impact of television on our life is being nullified by the smart phones. There are several a-ha moments in technology but they are short lived only to be replaced by another such moment. More and more youngsters are turning away from mobile phones faster than we turned our back to the idiot box. However, the same is not true for agriculture. Unlike technology, it has seen just the reverse movement. The pace of change and its adoption has been abysmally slow and the reversal, if left to destiny, would take forever.
Innovation is not a choice anymore…
Innovation is not a choice but a necessity in villages, especially agriculture. Farmers do not have the resources to ape the west in terms of modernization. Moreover, since cities may not have enough room or growth to accommodate the teeming millions, labour intensive agriculture seems to be the way forward. Innovation in Farming practices, crop choice, water management, soil productivity, processing of produce, go to market strategies are needed to ensure attractive livelihood option for nearly 150 million families. The average yearly productivity of land in terms of value has to increase from less than Rs. 25,000 presently to more than Rs. 100,000 over the course of next 10 years for it to attract the younger workforce back to their natural habitat. While, to retain them in the village, further innovations are needed in education system, banking, health care and basic infrastructure, a strong push to increase productivity in farming would throw the village hat in the ring to compete with the resource rich cities
Role of women in farming
If there is a sex census in rural India, women would outnumber men by millions. Unfortunately, that’s not a piece of statistics which can be used to boast of growth. In fact, it represents the cracks in a system which is slowly falling apart. With nearly 600 million people living in villages, there is increasing pressure on land to provide for livelihood. With every generation, the division of land makes it harder for farming to remain economically viable. The average age of a farmer in India is nearly 50 years. While the country is boasting of having the youngest population in the developing world, the lure of cities is where all below the age of 25 seem to be headed. Farming as a profession has not just lost sustainability but has also lost the respect which it deserves, before any other profession. Elderly and experienced farmers in Northern plains are reluctant to introduce their sons and daughters to farming. The first step into the school is a step away from the field. The curriculum prescribed and taught in the schools has (or tries to) courses which neither prepare the kid for the city (given the poor quality of teachers ) nor exposes them to their surrounding.
The farm production, however, has steadily increased for cereal crops where the Government has a buy back guarantee. With increased usage of chemicals and mechanised tools, the volume over variety was a natural choice for the farmers looking to make a decent living off the land. On the other hand, the failure of the existing supply chain and and assured local market steadily led to the degeneration of the concept of integrated farming. Single crop fields and volume production for the Mandi (commodity markets) moved farming away from backyard to fields. Milk production took precedence over integrated farming when it came to offering women an opportunity to contribute towards household income or more importantly daily cash flows. But it could not offer wholesome 2 square meals a day which a women of the family aspires towards.
Nutrition of the family being at peril, women were the first to notice the failing health of the mother which in turn led to malnourished newborns. The problem however was misinterpreted as poverty by the western minds. Since the villagers had little earning (read in per capital $ terms) they were considered poor and scores of Government and social schemes were set in motion for earning a higher income for these farming families. Income was linked to agriculture and poor productivity and failure of market was considered were considered as the chief perpetrators for the low income. In came the myriad of fertilizers (and associated subsidy) and the mandi system which was designed to push products up the value chain without having any focus on differentiation. Thus died the art of age old farming and its subtle nuances of multi cropping, soil balance, organic waste usage which all used to lead to a healthier diet and a colorful plate. With a little land, women in Assam are proving the economists wrong. With one of the lowest per capital income, families in Assam are able to manage their health far better than their counterparts in mainland India.
Overall, the failure of a rural agrarian economy has led to the economic marginalization of women in the last 40 years. The picture looks dismal as there does not seem to be a consensus on the problem itself. Some people look at it as a natural decline which is cyclical in nature. Of course, sitting in cities we can afford to have a longer term global view. But the women who are seeing a steady decline in the income, health and overall well being of their family, are fighting it out and have not thrown the towel as yet.
The solution lies in developing prosumer societies
Food is too precious for humanity to be experimented on a business platform. In India, from time immemorial, farming has been associated with self and society. Families grow a variety of crop with primary focus on grains which was the major currency of exchange. The surplus was either used as a tax payout or bartered for buying other essentials. But with the entire cycle of farming within their control, the farming families were happy and contended. Their surplus slowly built a civilization which we are all proud of today. With the advent of cities, farming became a business and the agri produce became a commodity. There was no direct relationship between the producer and the consumer. Slowly, the produce for self consumption by the farming family became distant from what was sold in the market. The concept of sharing was replaced by the marketplace which changed the quality of food in terms of its input such as seed, fertilizer and output in terms of size and uniformity. Increase in chronic illnesses and life threatening diseases is not a coincidence as it has a direct correlation with the kind of food that we eat.
We are approaching near anarchy in terms of health hazards, price variations, sinking water levels and above all in lack of sustainability of farming families. Politics, technology, changing culture are the likely targets for this precarious situation. However, the single most important reason for this instability, is our inability to accept change and follow the most likely new path which emerges from it.
Prosumer societies are not a function of proximity anymore in the age of technology. For e.g., our relationships with friends and relatives do not get remote with distance. In fact, technology has helped us come closer and bond better. The same solution is the need of the hour for re-establishing the lost relationship between the farmer families and the consumers of their surplus. An efficient supply chain and a state of the art technology cannot just carry farm products quickly and efficiently but also bring cities closer to villages.
Grow for your family share and sell the surplus is the mantra that Drishtee* would like to provide for both the urban families and rural farmers for their sustainability and prosperity.

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