Boost to small farming can strengthen food and water security

Boost to small farming can strengthen food and water security

In its first assessment of the state of the world’s land and water resource, the United Nation Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), confirmed that quarter of all farmland across the planet is ‘highly degraded”‘with another 43 per cent ‘moderately,’ and ‘slightly degraded.’

The report, “ State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture,” released recently, highlights management and unsustainable agriculture practices that has resulted in water and wind erosion, loss of organic matter, topsoil compaction, salinisation, soil pollution, and nutrient loss, as a cause of concern for future global food security.

Looking at the picture in India, land and water scarcity, loss of bio-diversity and soil erosion are categorised as key concerns. Coupled with highest numbers of malnourished children, rising food prices, loss of farm based livelihood, and farmer suicides, the pressure on India to reverse farm land degradation and invest in rural economy and farmers has never been greater. The question is how and who should take the lead on this.

Several reports including from the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD), the World Bank, the  European Forum on Rural Development as well as philanthropist Bill Gates, have all emphasised the need to support ecologically efficient  and sustainable agricultural systems adapted to local circumstances for smallholder farmers, women and youth to help address global food security concerns.

The circumstance in India is unique. India which occupies only 2.4 per cent of the planet’s geographical area supports nearly 17 per cent of the world’s human population; with only 0.5 per cent of the world’s grazing land, it supports 18 per cent of the world’s cattle population and 69 per cent of the country’s geographic area is dry land (arid, semiarid and dry sub-humid). Thus there is already tremendous pressure on its land-based natural resources, but its survival to date has been mainly thanks to the agriculture system of its small farm lands, albeit now under a huge threat.

India is a land of small farmers. About 80 per cent farmers own less than 2 hectares of land, cultivated by family members, and increasingly by women and local labour. Many, today however, face a daily challenge and constraints with lack of investment and support from government, inequity in access to the rapidly depleting water source, climate changes and vagaries of markets. Many are under pressure to sell their land or leave it fallow, as India pushes forward with it industrialisation plans, creating special economic zones which allow for land to be grabbed for energy plants, for mining and for industry, for towns, highways, and bio-fuel plantations.

Present crisis

In a discussion paper on the key concerns for the 12th Five Year Plan, the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability points  to “the several years of neglect in public investment towards the sector  as “one of the core issues that have led to the present crisis in agriculture”. The paper illustrates this with data which shows the share of public sector plan outlay in agriculture dropped from 14.7 per cent during 4th five year plan, to just 3.7 per cent in the 11th five year plan. The Union Budget allocation towards the ministry of agriculture during 11th plan constitutes less than 2 per cent of the Union budget.

Where agriculture is promoted, it is as agro-industry, built on the model of large, corporate commercial agricultural based on monoculture, with heavy use of pesticides and major irrigation and for export to far away cities and countries. The agriculture processed food products export development authority (APEDA), of the ministry of commerce and industry, boasts on its websites of over 90 per cent of India’s exports in fresh products including the products like fresh onion, walnut, fresh mangos, grapes, mushrooms  and other fresh fruits and vegetables go to West Asia and East European markets, the  United Kingdom, Middle East, Singapore and Hong Kong.  The Government of India has sanctioned proposals for joint ventures, foreign collaborations, industrial licenses and 100 per cent export oriented units conceiving of an investment of Rs19,100 crore.

Much of the investments, technological inputs and subsidies which has largely benefited large farms and commercial agriculture in the irrigated region, has been at the cost of small marginalised farm land and farmers in dry land regions. Given that millets can be grown on low fertility, acidic and saline soils, its nutritional value, it can be intercropped with other crops such as red gram, ground nut, sunflower and soyabean etc. There is an urgent need to start a massive awareness campaign on the nutritional value of millets and revise our educational curriculum to include learning on traditional millet agricultural practices.

The planning commission of India has already warned of the very little attention being paid to achieve integrated farming systems that will ensure sustainable evergreen revolution essential for appropriate dietary diversification to achieve nutrition security.

It is time for the government of India, the private sector interested in sustainable agriculture, and international communities to join forces with small farm holders and lead in promoting policies and practices that ensures adequate access to the crucial production resources—land, water, energy, and credit; appropriate technologies, information and opportunities to build local capacity and basic services for effective rural economies including education and health services, water and sanitation. This farmer centric rural development plan will help rebuild the confidence of rural communities and their role in the nations food and nutrition security and revival of degraded lands.

(The writer is a development professional, currently in the UK)

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