The acrimonious war of words on the three newly legislated agricultural Acts viz. Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 (FPTC Act), Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 (FAPAFS Act) and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020, has drowned out rational debate on the long-term effects of the legislation.
Seemingly, no one, including the Government has factored in the environmental cost of the new agricultural regime. Most people harbour the misconception that agricultural activities do not contribute to pollution, and that agriculture is in some way beneficial for the environment.
That may have been true for traditional agriculture, but modern agricultural activities make extravagant use of fossil fuels in chemical fertilisers, pesticides, running farm machinery, as also food processing and packaging, and transportation. It is estimated that while traditional farming produces 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy consumed, modern farming needs 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 that country. After large-scale farming is taken up in earnest in our country, we may see the seasonal spike in pollution, when farmers clear the land after harvesting, becoming a permanent feature in the entire country. Farming conglomerates, which would replace traditional farmers in India after operationalization of the three farming Acts, generally practice monoculture 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.
Monocultures of animals would create a pollution problem because waste from animals raised in 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 kinds wastes a lot of water, which is a scarce resource in our country. Despite these obvious risks, farming conglomerates would rely 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 corporate farmers would only be tenants on the land they farm, so they would not worry unduly about the long-term impact of their wasteful farming methods on the soil.
One only has to see the black, degraded soil of farming states in the USA, like Iowa, to realise the lasting illeffects that ‘modern’ farming methods have on the soil.
To add value to foodstuffs, corporates engaged in farming would go in for food processing in a large way, which would be at the expense of public health, because consumption of caloriedense 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.
As averred by the Government, the cumulative effect of the three farming Acts would be to change the agricultural eco-system forever, but not necessarily in the way the Government has predicted.
On the positive side, the FPTC Act would end the monopoly of the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees (APMCs) and allow free purchase and sale of agricultural produce across the length and breadth of the country, which would enable farmers to get better prices for their produce and reduce selling costs by avoiding APMC and other charges of around 8.5 per cent.
The FAPAFS Act would legalise contract farming leading to economies of scale, private sector investment in agricultural infrastructure and ultimately to modernisation and monetisation of agriculture. Business entities would take on farming lease large tracts of farmland belonging to different farmers and employ modern farming methods and with economies of scale, ensure bumper production at low cost. Briefly put, agriculture under the new dispensation would be practiced on large mechanised farms relying heavily on technology with little human involvement.
On the flip side, the owner of the land is likely to be relegated to a peripheral role, working at the command of the company that leases his land. Inevitably, the number of farmers would decline, like in the US, which after seventy years of industrialised 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, who know no skill except farming.
Needless to say, the eco-system emerging after the current ‘reforms’ would be the antithesis of organic, local, pasture-based, humane farming that the Government was promoting till recently, through initiatives like Zero Budget Natural Farming.
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.
We should also appreciate that Indian farmers engaged in traditional agriculture could withstand the ravages of the Coronavirus pandemic and provide sustenance to the nation in these difficult times that annihilated the much-pampered corporate sector.
But corporatised agriculture may not prove as resilient at a time of crisis. In addition to the humongous environmental and sociological cost entailed by industrialised farming we 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; browbeating 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.