Creating an evergreen India

Posted: 15 September 2000

Author: Bishakha Datta

Author Info: Bishakha Datta is People & the Planet correspondent in India.

Few people exemplify the paradigm shift from yesterday's high-technology solutions to the problem of producing enough food for growing populations better than Professor M.S. Swaminathan. One of the leading forces behind the Green Revolution, he is now convinced that the sustainable solution to staving off hunger lies in the new, more gentle formula of 'eco-development'.

Since 1991, the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation based in Chennai (Madras), India, has been working with villagers in the southern state of Tamil Nadu to increase awareness about farming techniques that increase yield - and preserve soil fertility. Villagers, particularly women, are also taught simple home-based production processes such as mushroom cultivation and floriculture that lead to eco-jobs and supplement farm incomes.

The entire programme is rooted in the concept of the 'biovillage', a holistic, socially-sustainable village where development benefits all living organisms. About 19 biovillages have been established so far; the Foundation hopes these will be replicated throughout India. In this interview with Bishakha Datta, Professor Swaminathan discusses the philosophy behind the biovillage, and elaborates on his vision of sustainable agriculture.

What do you see as the key challenge for agriculture today?

Dr Swaminathan: First of all, since we have just celebrated 50 years of India's independence, let me say that political freedom is an illusion without basic economic freedom - and that means freedom from hunger. SwaminathanDr M.S. Swaminathan© Hughes DemeudeToday in India, we have reached food self-sufficiency in terms of the available purchasing power. It is not self-sufficiency in terms of need, but self-sufficiency in terms of the available purchasing power of people. This is all they can buy, because today our problem of food is not one of production. It is one of access. People have no money. Where there is money, there is food. And where there is work, there is money. So it has now come down to the issue of livelihood security. If people have got sustainable livelihoods, then they are able to earn money and have food.

Of course, we cannot feed the people of this country without producing more. So the challenge is also this: we have 16 per cent of the world's population, we have nearly 16 per cent of the world's cattle population, 2 per cent of the world's arable land, 1 per cent of the world's rainwater, 0.5 per cent of the world's forest, and 0.5 per cent of the world's pasture land. Now we need to produce more and more food and other agricultural commodities from less per capita arable land and less water. How do we do it?

In other words, the problem has intensified. What do you see as the solution?

I feel the solution is what we call Integrated Intensive Farming Systems. In other words, we have to have multiple enterprises for farmers. Crops alone cannot generate enough marketing surpluses or incomes, no matter how high the price of crops is.

What is now needed is for farmers to have multiple sources of income. For instance, some animal husbandry, some medicinal agro-forestry, some fuelwood. And value addition to their products, to every product. Sometimes in our biovillages, we take very poor people and make them seed producers, because seeds fetch more money, so this is value addition to their time, value addition to their labour.

Also, over 60 per cent of our cultivated areas is rainfed. No irrigation. So what do we do with rainfed farmers? We feel they must harvest water and use the water for value addition. They must have high value crops: pulses, oilseeds and others.

What we are now saying is: take a whole systems approach - don't just look at producing a little more wheat, a little more rice, but look at the farming system as a whole. And do not either worship the old or abhor the new. Try to get the best blend.

Today, what we need is knowledge-intensive agriculture. Fifty years ago, it was more a capital and chemical-intensive agriculture. Today, we need knowledge and biological inputs or farm-grown inputs. We have to have a whole new approach: modern technology, precision farming. We must measure yield per drop of water like the Israelis do. And above all, we must declare groundwater as public property, not private property. People cannot go on over-exploiting the aquifer.

You mentioned the biovillage. What is a biovillage?

The word biovillage comes from the Greek word bios, which means living. A biovillage is one where the living person becomes the centre of both planning and implementation. In a biovillage, the whole planning is done by the people for their own benefit.

When we use the term bios, we mean not only human beings, but also animals, plants, community property resources, the environment. So you have something where planning is for the total betterment of all living organisms, not one at the cost of the other. It's a holistic symbiotic plan.

We coined the term biovillage to indicate a village in which there are convergences among various aspects of development, which is socially sustainable. We call it a pro-nature, pro-poor and pro-women orientation leading to a job-led economic growth strategy, not a jobless economic growth strategy.

How is food grown in a biovillage?

Through what is known as sustainable agriculture - what I call the evergreen revolution.

Let us say I have to produce eight tons of wheat. Each ton requires about 25 kilos of nitrogen, so 200 kilos of nitrogen will be needed. If I use 200 kg of mineral fertiliser, like urea, we will have groundwater pollution, nitrate pollution and so on. So now our philosophy is - give part of this through green manure, because ours can be a multiple-cropping society. We have a green manure crop which can fix about 60-80 kg of nitrogen. That is a very powerful step we are taking. Sustainable farmingIncreased yields through sustainable farming© Hughes DemeudeWe also use crop rotation effectively, by growing other crops (such as berseem every two years). Berseem fixes nitrogen and it's a good fodder. So crop rotation. Green manure. Biofertilisers. And whatever organic manure you can get. If you don't have anything at all, at least take some part of the stem to plough it back.

So what you would advocate is a combination of chemical and organic techniques?

Yes, very much so. Integrated pest management does not mean avoiding pesticides completely. Integrated nutrient management doesn't mean no fertilisers.

Does the integrated system have the same potential to increase yields as a more technology-intensive system?

The integrated system is itself highly technology-intensive. It brings the best in modern technology. For example, we use geographical information system mapping to make decisions. We use information technology - the whole irrigation system, fertiliser application, pesticide application are computer-determined, and require a lot of location-specific information.

The new technology is more knowledge-intensive, therefore we need the best information technology. We use technology that can convert generic meteorological information into micro-meteorological information. Similarly, marketing and management information has to be converted to the micro-level. We apply the best in bio-technology in terms of value addition to products, propagation by tissue culture and so on. So the new technology is really harnessing the frontiers of science and technology in such a way that the ecological problems associated with the earlier technologies are not there.

Yields compare very well in the integrated intensive farming system once you learn it. Yields may drop in the first year, but once you start mastering it, you get not only higher yield, but more sustained yields. Secondly, the cost of production drops because you're substituting knowledge and farm-grown inputs for market purchases. For instance, in our green cotton movement, complex NPV viruses, which are crucial inputs, are all being produced by village women in their own homes, in their own huts.

How would you define sustainable agriculture?

We define it in terms of social sustainability. My conviction is that today's technology and development path has in-built seeds of discrimination against the poor. Look at the latest UNDP report - 85 per cent of the world's income goes to 1 billion people, while another 1 billion people live on less than $1 per day. And it's getting worse. At the time of the Earth Summit in Rio, 1992, the proportion was 80:20. During the first UN conference on environment and development at Stockholm, 25 years ago, the proportion was 70:30. organic compostOrganic compost© Hughes DemeudeThe concept of sustainable agriculture in affluent nations is different from the concept in a poor nation. In industrialised countries the problem is to preserve the high standard of living they have already achieved. In the poor countries the problem is to get some standard of living for most of the people.

Therefore it's an opposite paradigm. They look at sustainability from a more environmental perspective, while for us sustainability is environmental, social and related to gender equality. We have to think of these issues concurrently. That's what we do on our research programme. We put a matrix of questions: is it socially sustainable? Is it pro-women? Is it ecologically sustainable? And of course, is it economically viable?