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A Disaster Averted?

To add value to foodstuffs, corporates engaged in farming go in for food processing in a large way, which is at the expense of public health, because consumption of calorie-dense processed food, often leads to heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer. Statistics show that spending on health has gone up gone from 5 per cent to 16 per cent of national income in the USA in the last 70 years, the period in which the country switched over to industrial farming

DEVENDRA SAKSENA | New Delhi |

The acrimonious war of words and the implacable stance of both farmers and the Government had obviated any possibility of a rational debate on the long-term ecological and sociological effects of the three Farming Acts (Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020).

The Farming Acts may well be on their way to oblivion, but the way in which environment and society would have been affected by their implementation, is worth investigating, if only for the purpose of future reference. According to the Government, the three Farming Acts could have changed the economics of agriculture forever. Private investment in agriculture would have led to adoption of cuttingedge technology and modern farming methods; combined
with economies of scale, bumper crops could have been reaped at a low cost.

As a consequence, agricultural produce would have been traded nationally and even internationally at remunerative prices. Removal of the cap on storage of agricultural produce would have given producers adequate holding capacity, ensuring sale of crops at the highest price,  leading to huge profits for all concerned. This analysis appears reasonably correct given the fact that a number of leading corporates had evinced a keen interest in the proposed farming regime.

But the Government failed to convince farmers that all resultant profits would not be cornered by corporates and at least a part of the gains would flow to them. This strongly held belief led to huge farmer protests against the Farming Acts, and ultimately to their abrogation. However, no one had bothered to estimate the environmental cost of the new agricultural regime.

Most people are under the impression that agricultural activities do not contribute to pollution; such people naively believe that agriculture is in some way beneficial for the environment. Nothing can be farther from the truth: the US agricultural model that the Government was trying to bring in is based on extravagant use of water and fossil fuels.

Large-scale farming, as practiced in the US, uses chemical fertilisers and pesticides derived from petroleum. Farm machinery, food processing, packaging and transportation also use petroleum-based products, making farming heavily reliant on subsidized fossil fuels. Looking at it in another way: traditional farming produces 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy consumed, modern farming methods need 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce one calorie of packaged food.

According to estimates, farming activities consume 19 per cent of fossil fuels in the US and emit 37 per cent of the greenhouse gases in the US. If industrial farmingis taken up in earnest in India, we may see the seasonal spike in pollution from stubble burning in north India, becoming a permanent feature in the entire country.

The recently concluded COP 26 UN Climate Change Conference highlighted the consequences of further degradation of the environment by increased use of fossil fuels as also by industrial agriculture. Viewed in this context, repeal of the Farming Acts may be a blessing for the environment. While no one can condone the waste of subsidised water, power and fertilizers in the present farming regime such misuse would have gone up manifold once corporates started practicing large-scale farming.

Moreover, the subsidies meant for poor farmers would have ended up in corporate balance sheets, the alternative being sky-high prices of agricultural produce. The correct solution to this problem is diversification of crops and some related measures (Full Circle, The Statesman, 23 November) and not continuing with the same wasteful agricultural practices through large corporates.

Farming conglomerates, which would have replaced traditional farmers, after implementation of the Farming Acts, generally practice mono-culture of crops and animals. Monoculture of crops i.e., repeatedly planting the same crop in the same area depletes the nutrients from the earth leaving the soil weak and unable to support healthy growth, forcing farmers to use chemical fertilizers which, in turn, disrupt the natural composition of the soil and contribute further to nutrient depletion.

Also, there is a danger of plant diseases wiping out the crop of an entire geographical area. Monoculture of animals would create a pollution problem because waste from animals raised on farms is used as manure but waste from animals reared in a factory environment is difficult to dispose of. Also, diseases spread quickly amongst animals kept close together. Monoculture of both plants and animals wastes a lot of water, which is a scarce resource in our country.

Despite these obvious risks, farming conglomerates would have relied on monoculture because performing complex rotations of plants and managing pests without petrochemicals is labour intensive and requires traditional skills, different from merely driving a tractor or harvester and spraying chemical insecticides.

The bottom line is that as tenants, corporate farmers would not have worried unduly about the long-term impact of their wasteful farming methods on the soil. One only has to see the black, degraded soil of traditional farming states in the USA, like Iowa, to realise the lasting illeffects of ‘modern’ farming methods on the soil. To add value to foodstuffs, corporates engaged in farming go in for food processing in a large way, which is at the expense of public health, because consumption of calorie-dense processed food, often leads to heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer.

Statistics show that spending on health has gone up gone from 5 per cent to 16 per cent of national income in the USA in the last 70 years, the period in which the country switched over to industrial farming. Consequently, educated Americans now realise the ill effects of fast food and value healthy local organic food. It seems ironic that our government, that till recently was promoting organic, local, pasture-based, humane farming through initiatives like Zero Budget Natural Farming, had brought in the Farming Acts, which were the very antithesis of the earlier initiatives.

At the time when countries like the US are trying to wean away agriculture from its diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of natural photosynthesis, we are proceeding in a totally opposite direction. Most Indian farmers are engaged in traditional agriculture which could withstand the ravages of the Coronavirus pandemic and provide sustenance to the nation in the difficult times that all but annihilated the much-pampered corporate sector. However, agriculture under the new dispensation would have sounded the death knell for traditional farming.

We would have had large mechanised farms relying solely on technology to the exclusion of humans. The owner of the land would have been relegated to a peripheral role, working at the command of the company that had leased his land. Inevitably, the number of farmers would have declined, like in the US, which after seventy years of industrial farming has less than 2 million farmers for a population of 331 million.

Viewed in this perspective, corporatisation of Indian agriculture would result in a colossal human tragedy for the 45 per cent of our population engaged in farming, most of whom are small farmers, landless labourers and tenant farmers, and who know no skill except farming. In addition to the humongous environmental and sociological cost entailed by industrial farming, we also have the danger of food grains getting costly, beyond the reach of ordinary citizens, at certain times, say, in times of famine, war, epidemics etc.

The Government routinely arm-twists farmers to keep the prices of agricultural produce artificially low; dealing with large corporate bodies may not be so easy. Author Kilroy J. Oldster sounded a dire warning in his book Dead Toad Scrolls: “Less than two per cent of all Americans are now farmers. Corporations with all the warmth of equity investors now control the breadbasket of America.

Anyone care to speculate how corporate control of the world’s food banks will work out for ordinary people who must eat to survive?” Let us hope that this warning does not come true for our country.

(The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax)