Can Agriculture Eradicate Economic Inequality and Sustain Ecological Balance?

With correct agricultural policies, the twin goals of alleviating hunger and practising sustainable agriculture will not be mutually exclusive.

If we go by our food production systems, we are all agriculturalists. Irrespective of our professions, political leanings, beliefs and biases, we all depend on a handful of domesticated plants and animals grown under controlled conditions for our food. This has made food production the single largest source of land use on the planet today, with more than a third of earth’s ice-free land surface utilised under agriculture (12%) or as pasture land (26%).

What is ironic, however, is that while our agricultural systems are degrading land, water, biodiversity and climate on a global scale, there are still, approximately a billion, people (that’s one out of every seven people) who are chronically malnourished.

Realising the interwoven complexity of our global problems, the 193 countries of the UN General Assembly adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015. These goals evolved out of the Earth Summit held in 1992 and aim, very broadly, at social and economic welfare while trying to improve our environment.

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That is not an easy feat because our problems sure are interwoven. The inability to feed everyone on earth is not because of an absolute calorie deficit: we do grow enough food – we just don’t grow it where it’s most needed, we don’t always use it as food, and we waste a lot of it.

Yet, we are constantly told that the way towards zero hunger is through more intense and more extensive agriculture. This is worrying because, in the name of alleviating hunger and poverty, we’re expanding into the last remaining old growth forests in the world which lie in the tropics – since most arable land in the temperate zone is already under agriculture.

Shrinking tropical forests

Between 1985 and 2005 the world’s croplands and pastures expanded by 154 million hectares (about 3%), and almost all of this expansion was in the tropics. Added to that, approximately 51% of the tropical deforestation that occurred between 2000 and 2012 occurred in Brazil (34%) and Indonesia (17%) and was linked mainly to timber, cattle, and soy production in Brazil, and oil palm and wood plantations in Indonesia.

Clearing tropical forests is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and leads to an irreversible loss of biodiversity and key ecosystem services – for crops that are not even going to feed people directly.

For instance, take the example of palm oil. Apart from being utilised as a common cooking medium, palm oil is also used to make a vast array of food and consumer products. From chocolates, ice-creams and noodles, to soap, toothpaste and shaving creams, nearly half of all the products that urban dwellers use on a daily basis contain palm oil.

India is currently the largest importer of palm oil in the world, importing nearly 95% of its requirement. But that’s only because we haven’t been able to grow lots of it yet. Given the right conditions, oil palm yields the most oil per hectare of all known oil crops. It is healthy, safe, versatile and is being hailed as the panacea for all our troubles.

Except that the right conditions to grow oil palm require massive amounts of water, seriously jeopardising ground-water security. It supports less biodiversity than traditional land-uses and is not a viable solution for poverty alleviation either because it clearly favours the rich.

The waiting period of four-five years before the crop can be harvested had kept it out of the reach of small and marginal farmers, until the government intervened with subsidies and incentives, and private players came onto the scene.

Encouraged by the National Mission on Oilseeds and Oil Palm (NMOOP), Mizoram, for instance – the state where oil palm has made massive inroads in the last decade – went from having no oil palm plantations to now having 25,741 hectares of it along with a recently commissioned oil mill, which is one of the largest private sector investments in the state.

This, while the total area under oilseed production in the country has remained about the same since 1992 and traditional oil crops like groundnut, mustard, sesame and coconut, have been neglected. It is also not affordable any longer to buy locally sourced, cold-pressed oils and as a result, the village-level extraction units, or ghanis, have all but disappeared.

The per capita consumption of edible oil in India has increased over the last decade from 8 kg to 16 kg annually, surpassing dairy to become India’s largest packaged food item; but we’re consuming more of the same kind of oil, marketed by a very few, large companies. Not only does reduced diversity increase a product’s susceptibility to climate change, but this production model is also typical of economies with increasing wealth disparity. And while wealth has steadily grown in India, not everyone has shared equally in this growth: more than 50% of the wealth is owned by 1% of the population, while the accumulated wealth of the poorest 60% adds up to a meagre 4.7 %.

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Sustainable Agriculture

Agriculture does have the potential to alleviate poverty, but the current policies are clearly barking up the wrong tree. India is currently facing a desperate agrarian crisis. The push towards commercial crops is supposed to benefit farmers, but it doesn’t. It only makes the farmer dependent on a fluctuating market while depleting water resources, degrading the soil and compromising their cultural heritage. Access to quality education and healthcare facilities that aren’t commercialised will do more to alleviate poverty than loan waivers and subsidies.

The strength of the farmer lay in his connection to the soil; in the fact that his soil – given adequate water, sunlight and manure – can coax a seed to grow into a plant which will bear grain or fruit, tuber or root. That is the earth’s primordial enchantment. But having become dependent on expensive inputs to grow crops, farmers are forced to aim for higher and higher yields to then pay for these inputs. It’s like the red queen’s race and they’re running to keep in the same place. There’s no breathing space for them and no rest for the soil.

What we need are national agricultural policies that will restore our dying fields and farmlands instead of trying to expand into forests or into the commons. It is foolhardy to incentivise water-intensive crops like sugarcane and palm oil in places with rapidly falling water-tables just to meet the demand. If we’re honestly committed to the Sustainable Development Goals, then we must transform the way we think about agriculture and about soil.

The SDGs are a collective, global vision for an ideal future and are so inextricably interlinked that trying to achieve one, two, or even 15 of them at the cost of the others is utterly meaningless. For instance, if a country manages to attain zero hunger at the cost of its biodiversity, economic equality and human health, then it hasn’t made any real progress in terms of attaining the SDGs at all; it hasn’t moved towards the ideal future. This ensures that we take a broader view of things before choosing the best course of action.

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Agriculture relates directly to almost all the other SDGs and it’s important to not lose sight of them when drafting policies if we are to secure the farmers’ future in the long-term. We should, under the National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture, incentivise systems like diversified permaculture that choose crops wisely, enrich the soil, use water judiciously and help create sustainable communities.

Of course, it will take time to shift from chemical-dependent farming to natural farming and the small and marginal farmers will need subsidies to do so. But the economic incentives given to shift to oil palm might prove to be a good model, and in the time it would have taken the oil palm to mature, one could have a permaculture farm up and running.

Sartaj Ghuman is a wildlife biologist and freelance writer

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