Sustainability and innovation in staple crop production in the US Midwest

Abstract

An agroecosystem is constrained by environmental possibility and social choices, mainly in the form of government policies. To be sustainable, an agroecosystem requires production systems that are resilient to natural stressors such as disease, pests, drought, wind and salinity, and to human constructed stressors such as economic cycles and trade barriers. The world is becoming increasingly reliant on concentrated exporting agroecosystems for staple crops, and vulnerable to national and local decisions that affect resilience of these production systems. We chronicle the history of the United States staple crop agroecosystem of the Midwest region to determine whether sustainability is part of its design, or could be a likely outcome of existing policies particularly on innovation and intellectual property. Relative to other food secure and exporting countries (e.g. Western Europe), the US agroecosystem is not exceptional in yields or conservative on environmental impact. This has not been a trade-off for sustainability, as annual fluctuations in maize yield alone dwarf the loss of caloric energy from extreme historic blights. We suggest strategies for innovation that are responsive to more stakeholders and build resilience into industrialized staple crop production.

Sustainable Agriculture with Low Cost Technologies (SALoCT)

A full report on the outcomes of the three year project on “Sustainable Agriculture with Low Cost Technologies (SALoCT)” run by Ramakrishna Mission, West Bengal.

– Multi-purpose and multi-functional liquid organic products
– Higher yield and higher income than chemical farming
– Less labour, less water, less weeds and less investment
– Better quality produces
– Ideal for resource poor farmers


The right to food: Joan Mencher

VIKHAR AHMED SAYEED

Interview with Joan Mencher, an anthropologist who has worked in India for long on issues such as agriculture, ecology and caste.

 K. MURALI KUMAR 


Joan P. Mencher: “Indian scientists should focus on sustainable agriculture with an emphasis on reform from below.”
 

JOAN P. MENCHER is a Professor emerita of Anthropology from the City University of New York’s Graduate Centre and Lehman College of the City University of New York. She is the chair of an embryonic not-for-profit organisation, The Second Chance Foundation, which works to support rural grass-roots organisations that work with poor and small farmers in India and the United States on issues of sustainable agriculture. She has worked primarily in South India, but also in West Bengal briefly, on issues relating to ecology, caste, land reform, agriculture, women, and so on over the past half a century. She has published widely both in the U.S. and in India on all of these subjects, primarily in academic journals. She has also, for several years, been a consultant with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the World Bank for their India operations. Excerpts from an interview:

Can you start off by discussing briefly your work in India? You are an anthropologist. So how did your engagement begin and what have been the academic areas that your work has extended to in this period?

After finishing my PhD research in anthropology, for which I researched on a slum in New York City, I got a Fulbright scholarship to come to Kerala to do research on child rearing and family life. That was the first time I came to India, in 1958, and even had a chance to meet Jawaharlal Nehru, who encouraged American students to visit India so that they would get a chance to observe India directly. I came from America when McCarthyism was at its peak, and as an American researching in Kerala, I also had to constantly prove my research credentials to the Marxists in Kerala.

I was in India for almost two years, until 1960, and then I went and came back in two years. This time I was looking at ecological issues and the differences between Tamil Nadu and Kerala and looked at how changes in ecology affected agriculture and social life. From then on I began to do other kinds of things. My most intensive work has been in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, but in 1963 I first spent about four to five months in West Bengal, and then I have kept coming back and forth for 50 years and have researched on various aspects, including women and agriculture, in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. I also began to publish about caste this time. Caste was always there while I was working in Kerala, but I began to be acutely aware of the issues in Tamil Nadu. I have also written extensively on the problems with the Green Revolution and the efficacy of land reforms in India.

In your view, what were the main problems with the Green Revolution?

I think the main thing was the damage done to the soil because of the use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers. The crop patterns also changed significantly from diverse cropping to mono-cropping during the time of the Green Revolution. The agricultural methods led to a much more excessive use of water. It was really quite striking how this could happen. It also ended up favouring large farmers. I remember farmers telling me that they did not want to use artificial fertilizer, that they did not believe in it, but they did not have a choice because everybody around them was using it and they were using pesticide too and so all the bugs were coming to their lands. It took away choice from many of the farmers. In rain-fed areas, many of the farmers continued to grow [crops] in the old pattern, but in irrigated areas they could not.

Even the cropping pattern changed significantly. In one of my early studies in India, in a village in Tamil Nadu they were rotating ragi with rice and they were also growing other coarse grains. It certainly led to a switch to rice and away from coarse grains, which were so much more nutritious. It’s beginning to come back with its health values beginning to be recognised.

Certain changes in agricultural methods took place in the U.S. before the Second World War when the government adopted a corporate model of food governance. Why has this model been emulated in India?

AJIT SOLANKI/AP 

A farmer sprays fertilizer in a paddyfield on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. Indian agriculture should go back to an ecologically sound approach based on local food production, says Joan Mencher.
 

Well, to answer that complicated question, let me briefly start off by discussing how research in agricultural universities in America has been compromised, and its connection with India.

When agricultural universities were first established in the United States, the land was given to the universities and all the research at that time was financed by the State governments and not the federal government. When food corporations became more and more powerful, they began to pay for most of the research. Slowly, over time, most of the research done in America was supported by corporations rather than by the state, which means that any independent research was totally compromised. All the research began to serve an agenda of profit. The research was not supposed to benefit farmers but was supposed to help investors make more money.

The change in American agriculture started even before the Second World War. It was during that time that Dow Chemical, Dupont, and so on were making poison gases for the American government. When the War ended they shifted into making chemicals for agriculture. They started making fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides for agriculture. There were more companies in the beginning but slowly they consolidated and consolidated to form fewer companies. So this is something that didn’t happen overnight. It’s a process that took place over 50 years. And these ideas came to India through the Green Revolution.

In the 1960s, there was a bad time in India when the country went through a drought, and America offered aid, but India had to concede several things in order to get the aid. Several young scholars from India, the brightest in Indian agricultural studies, were sent to America to get educated and brainwashed at the same time. Even Indian agricultural universities were influenced by this model and began to teach a similar corporate syllabus. Two generations of agricultural scientists began to think in certain ways because of the brainwashing they got in America. There is a continuing alliance between agricultural universities in India and these American universities.

All these people began to be influenced by a certain ‘modern’ pedagogy. Well, modern means you don’t get dirty and you use machinery. Modern means you have many more machines and fewer people involved in agriculture. There is a certain belief in ‘growth’, ‘modernity’, or ‘progress’ in shaping policy, while the world faces economic collapse, unemployment, and [there is] a worldwide food deficit. The food deficit is being used as a rationale to deprive farmers of their autonomy and traditional assets and knowledge. People both in the West and in rural India are being manipulated to accept corporate approaches by myths like ‘individualism works best’, that all forms of ‘socialism’ in farming do not work, and the belief that private industry is the only mechanism that can solve today’s major food security problems.

What were the main processes that changed the face of Indian agriculture?

There were three processes that destroyed the traditional face of Indian agriculture. First, the Green Revolution; second, the 1991 liberalisation of the Indian economy; and third, the George Bush-Manmohan Singh summit in July 2005 [U.S.-India Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture], which really gave free entry to large American food corporations into India.

But there are people trying to revive ways of traditional forms of agriculture. One of the important things to be aware of is that large corporations are spreading the idea that anyone who tries to oppose all these scientific innovations is anti-science, anti-technology, [and] anti-modern, whereas I would argue that what they are calling modernity is not modernity and, furthermore, they ignore the much more complicated discipline of eco-science completely. Colleges have a big deal of knowledge about what works, but they do not support ecological sciences. Even eco-sciences are often pressured to do absolutely simple research. Eco-scientists are testing only one part of a thing when they do research on it without understanding the larger implications of such work. It’s the synergy between various parts that matters. Research in the ecological sciences needs to be improved.

What are your current concerns?

My current concerns are with issues of sustainable agriculture and alternative agriculture. Two things I have been concerned about are: one, the destruction of our environment, the total pollution of our environment through pesticides, herbicides, GMOs [genetically modified organisms]; and the other, corporate control, with companies getting more and more powerful.

I remember reading in a publication that one of the public relations men for Monsanto had the gall to say, “When we can control land, water and the sea, we can feed the world.” I was so shocked by this. The implications that one or a few companies could control the entire humanity’s food are just terrifying. I see it as really, really frightening.

It’s not that many large corporations control the food system in the world, I think it is four or five. What’s interesting about them is that they have interlocking directors so that people who sit on the board of one sit on the board of another. Even in India, after this treaty was signed by Bush and Manmohan Singh, between India and the United States, the way these companies have been allowed freedom in India is scary. One of the things I was impressed with earlier [before the liberalisation of the Indian economy since 1991] was that India had import substitution; India had kept out unbridled corporate power. I think that once liberalisation started, it broke the back of Indian industry in many ways. It broke the autonomy; once you are part of a large corporation you don’t have autonomy – maybe you make more money but you don’t have autonomy. India’s economy started growing at a much faster rate but who benefited from this? It still has not reached people who are poor; the agricultural labourers did not receive any of this benefit.

I want Indian agriculture to go back to an ecologically sound approach based on local food production, imitating nature instead of fighting natural processes, while increasing healthy food production by focussing on small family farms as well as medium-sized and cooperative farms. A recent study by IFAD [International Fund for Agricultural Development] noted the greater efficiency of production and the higher growth potential of small-holder farms, but there is an unstated belief among agricultural planners that getting rid of all family farms is good.

What should Indian agricultural scientists and economists focus on right now?

Indian agricultural scientists and economists need to pay more attention to poor farmers. They should not decide that a one-hectare farm is small. They should focus on small farms. I hope that agriculture departments will encourage small farms and give them money for alternative agriculture. Agriculture needs to be seen as tied to the human right to food, land, seeds and water. There must be support for NPM [Non-Pesticidal Management], water harvesting, SRI [System of Rice Intensification] rice, WSHGs [Women Self-Help Groups] and farmers with a range of holdings. There should be diversification of crops.

They should totally focus on sustainable agriculture with emphasis on reform from below. And they should combine it with poverty alleviation. Do not let traditional knowledge of agriculture disappear. Use it, don’t sell it to companies. Use it for the welfare of the community. Another is helping people to help themselves.

 

Sustainable smallholder agriculture: Feeding the world, protecting the planet

What promise will Rio herald for agriculture?” A conversation with Dr Lindiwe Majele Sibanda

As the international community prepares for Rio+20 in June 2012, Dr Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, Chief Executive Officer of the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANPRAN),  will speak with Naga Munchetty, international journalist and television presenter, on the prospects for elevating the role of agriculture in the climate talks.  Dr Sibanda will present her views on what global policy and investment changes are needed to ensure that smallholder farmers in developing countries can play a central role in meeting the multiple challenges of increasing their production to ensure food security while preserving the natural environment and coping with the effects of climate change.

At the centre-stage event, Dr. Sibanda will discuss the ways in which smallholder agriculture is impacted by resource scarcity and climate change – and how farming can and must become environmentally friendly.

A leading supporter of the Farming First campaign, Dr Sibanda advocates a holistic approach to sustainable agricultural development. At FANRPAN, she coordinates policy programmes aimed at making Africa food-secure. Since 2009, she has led “No-Agriculture, No-Deal” global  campaign that has mobilized African civil society organizations to push for  the inclusion of agriculture in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations. Recently, Dr Sibanda joined some of one of the world’s most influential thinkers and provocative voices as a member of the Guardian Global Development advisory panel as one of the world’s most influential thinkers and provocative new voices on the future of agriculture.

‘Virtuous circles’ can help secure food supplies and address climate change

Submitted by Mike on Tue, 22/11/2011 – 00:01

A book published today by IIED paints a vivid picture of an alternative future in which food, energy and water supplies are sustainable and in the control of local communities.

The book show how the linear systems that shape our world are flawed as they assume a limitless supply of resources and a limitless capacity for the environment to absorb waste and pollution.

The global food system’s dependence on fossil fuels that contribute to local pollution and global warming is just one example of an unsustainable system.

The authors call instead for circular systems that mimic natural cycles to produce food, energy, materials and clean water.

“Circular economy models that reintegrate food and energy production with water and waste management can also generate jobs and income in rural and urban areas,” says co-author Dr Michel Pimbert, a principal researcher at IIED. “This ensures that wealth created stays within the local and regional economy.”

One example is a system that recycles food waste and chicken manure to feed a worm farm. The worms in turn feed the chickens and farmed fish whose bones are used as fertiliser in a market garden. Human waste via a compost toilet also enriches the garden, whose crops — together with the farmed fish and meat and eggs from the chickens — feed the people.

The system is a closed circle with loops within it. All the nutrients stay in the system and just move about through the circle, rather than being pumped as sewage into the sea and leaving the soil forever poorer.

“A transformation towards re-localised food systems will significantly help to address climate change and other challenges,” says Pimbert. “Circular systems also provide the basis for economic and political sovereignty – the ability of citizens to democratically manage their own affairs and engage with other communities on their own terms.”

Dr Caroline Lucas, a member of parliament from the Green Party of England & Wales, has written the book’s foreword.

“I warmly welcome this book’s contribution to the debate on how food systems can be redesigned and re-localised to sustain diverse local ecologies, economies and human well being,” she writes.

“The authors rightly emphasise the need for a systemic and fundamental transformation of industrial food and farming in the face of peak oil, climate change, biodiversity loss, the water crisis, food poisonings, and the impoverishment of farmers and rural communities.”

“The challenge is to design resilient food systems with, by and for citizens – to reduce ecological footprints and foster local democratic control over the means of life. But rather than look at food and agriculture in isolation, we need to consider ways of re-integrating food and energy production with water and waste management in a diversity of local contexts in rural and urban areas, – and at different scales. “

To mark the launch of the book – Virtuous Circles: Values, systems and sustainability — IIED invites bloggers to join a virtual circle to share their blog posts about the book. Once you have posted a blog on your own site please send us the link (toSuzanne.Fisher@iied.org). IIED will then profile the best posts on its own blog and via Twitter with the hashtag #vcircles.

Download the book: Virtuous Circles: Values, systems and sustainability

Sustainable agriculture reduces distress migration in Orissa

By Pradeep Baisakh
Infochange News & Features, November 2011

Thanks to intervention from MASS, migration from Orissa’s Bargarh district has reduced considerably as villagers have been encouraged to start their own kitchen gardens, keep goats and chickens, and set up seed and grain banks, thereby adding to their income from agriculture and reducing their dependence on unscrupulous moneylenders