Supplying the Demand: Respectfully

The pressures of intensive agrochemical farming are taking their toll in Asia

The Guardian
June 10, 2013

Two neighbouring mosques mark the first October morning in rural north-east India. The united prayer calls of both Muslim and Hindu faiths capture the hope that surrounds the rice harvest. Single rows of millet separate the 500 varieties of rice growing on the small organic farm of Navdanya outside of Dehrahdun. The harvest is symbolic of the progress that scientist and environmentalist Dr Vandana Shiva has made since 1982, in providing an alternative structure to tackle hunger and poverty in India.

"Non-violent farming which protects biodiversity, the earth and our small farmers," is what Dr Shiva states as the paradigm shift in the practice of agriculture in a report reflecting upon two decades of Navdanya's service to the earth. The global network of small farms in the developing world is estimated to be 500 million, together supporting two billion people, one-third of humanity. Globally, of the 870 million people who go hungry everyday, three-quarters live in rural areas and half are from smallholder communities. This extensive community forms the growing sector opposing agriculture as a commercial entity, having directly suffered from failed policies and structures of the past. The growth of Navdanya from a garden farm to a 45 acre plot of land with 750,000 farming members is indicative of the trust current farming communities have in an alternative local method to tackle hunger.

The 250,000 Indian farmers that committed suicide between 1990 and 2012 by drinking poisonous pesticide represent the increased pressures felt by farmers due to dependency on agrochemical and petrochemical industries. This loss of life was a result of the 'Green Revolution', the name given to the intensive engineering that was applied to traditional farming practices to boost agricultural production, forcing farmers into a system of monoculture. A United Nations (UN) report confirms that excessive amounts of fertiliser and subsequently pesticides to tackle disease raised average global grain yields by 24 percent between 1950-1981. Whilst an achievement was made in increasing calories per acre, a fundamental issue arose that continues to have an impact on global development today: micronutrient deficiencies; notably vitamin A and iron, compromising children's immune systems and lowering national IQs. Micronutrient deficiencies are deemed by Dr Aguayo, a UNICEF nutritional advisor as "an issue that prevents a third of the world's children from reaching their intellectual and physical potential."

Organic solutions to hunger put nutrition central to their system. A report published in 2011 by the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology measured industrial, chemically intensive systems against bio diverse and ecologically intensive systems in terms of contribution to nutrition, health and rural incomes. The findings confirmed industrial systems to have very low productivity in comparison to "polycultures of ecological agriculture, because more output can be harvested from a given area planted with diverse crops…it is output that feeds the soil and people."

Dr Vaibhav Singh whose chosen field is public health produced a report titled 'Health per Acre' in 2011 that explained how India could produce additional protein for 2.5 billion adults per year from 'mixed-cropping' or polyculture techniques. Whilst the Department for International Development (DFID) looks to focus on "rewarding the use of evidence in delivery" to tackle worldwide hunger, Dr Singh's findings show evidence in increasing production of the building blocks of life through alternative methods of farming.

Navdanya is proving that change possible and that small farming communities are taking control of their own future. Dr Shiva's commitment to changing the reality of hunger on the ground in India provides an evidence-based approach of polyculture. A UN report submitted to Olivier de Schutter, the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, highlights: "ecological interventions such as resource conserving and low-input techniques have proven potential to improve yields, on 12.6 million farms globally by 79 percent." In Africa this figure rises to 116 percent. The International Fund for Agriculture Development is in agreement with these findings in saying: "supporting smallholder farmers would enhance world food security, leaving them out of the equation will push many into greater poverty and hunger."

An initiative of Navdanya's that provides welcome opportunity to suffering farmers is the provision of free seeds to those willing to undertake organic farming practices; the incentive being seeds can be returned for interest or passed onto new farmers willing to join this organic movement as well as creating biodiversity production cycles. In stark contrast to the price increase in farming resources of 600 percent throughout the Green Revolution, this initiative is based on supplying without fee to, "smallholders, those who face severe constraints," as reported by the FAO in a 2012 report on agriculture investment. These are the farmers who have grown 54 seed banks across 16 Indian states to restore agricultural biodiversity in the form of 2,000 varieties of rice.

The world's population is estimated to increase by 50 percent by 2050. It is said our food production will have to rise by 50 percent by 2030, Navdanya provides real time evidence in being able to supply this demand nutritionally and ecologically with a substance that can end the condition of hunger.

The lifework of Dr Shiva is a tireless passion for helping towards the cure for a human catastrophe that affects so many individuals in the world we all live in. She is testament that we can learn and grow from global mistakes, and taking a step backwards towards localised responsible farming is positive. It has taken just two decades for Dr Shiva to be able to implement her evidence into the future of another national community, without government policies or legislations.

Just as the prayer calls of two religions unite, so do figureheads of adversity and hope. Dr Shiva and Samdhong Rinpoche, Prime Minister of the Tibetan government in exile now work together in passing a sustainable resolution to convert Tibetan land previously cultivated with conventional farming methods to organic as well as creating seed banks. Dr Vandana Shiva says the initiative will, "Protect the health of future generations"; something past agricultural movements have failed to do.