Volume 14 Number 4
Now for the Evergreen Revolution
01 August 2001

Prof MS Swaminathan, a pioneer of India's Green Revolution, calls for a new approach to world farming.

In India, farming is part of our culture. Seventy per cent of our population—700 million people—are engaged in farming. Half the world’s farmers live in India or China: every fourth farmer is Indian.

Famines were recurrent in India before Independence. Between 1870 and 1900, according to British records, 30 million people died of hunger and starvation. Nearly three million people died in the great Bengal famine—in what is now Bangladesh and India—at the time of Independence.

After Independence, both Nehru and Indira Gandhi laid great emphasis on bringing more land under irrigation, in order to insulate our farming from being ‘a gamble on the monsoon’, as Sir Albert Howard wrote in 1916. As every farmer knows, without water you can do nothing.

Since I joined the Agricultural College at Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu in 1944, I have seen India’s agricultural destiny transformed from being purely a ‘gamble on the rain’ to being a gamble on the market. In 1950, our total food grain production was 50 million tons. Last year it was 205 million tons. Our average growth rate, particularly in the last 30 years, has been about three per cent per annum, which is above our population growth rate.

Twenty-five years ago we were number 25 in the world in wheat production, and now we are number two. We are number two in rice production and number one in milk production: all produced by very small farmers. As Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘Our production is production by masses’—in contrast to the mass-production technology of the industrialized nations. What we need in India is job-led economic growth, not jobless growth: a human-centred kind of development. We need more farmers’ farming and less factory farming.

How did this progress take place? The most important factor was the farmers’ receptivity. Our farmers were thought of by Western writers as fatalistic, unlikely to respond to technology. They have proved to be like farmers anywhere else, with three determinants affecting their decisions—cost, risk and return.

The government had three major roles. One was technological: both national and state governments made large investments in agricultural research and education. We have a vast network of agricultural institutes and universities. And we have had the good fortune of close international partnership.

Technology alone is not adequate—telling the farmer, ‘Grow this seed’, has no particular meaning unless the seeds are available. Jalna, in Maharashtra, has become ‘the seed capital of India’. Such services as the production of seed, irrigation, credit supply, fertilizers have been very important.

Government’s third, and most important, contribution was a package of public policy, particularly in terms of agrarian reform and input-output pricing. Thirty years ago, the average Punjab farmer produced one ton of rice per hectare, and kept 800 kg or so for his family. But if he can produce five tons, then he has four tons to sell, and more cash in hand. The smaller the farm, the greater the need for a marketable surplus.

A small farm is ideal for intensive, precision agriculture. On the other hand, small farmers often cannot take risks, have no access to credit and are resource-poor. This is why public policy—such as the small farmers’ programme, marginal farmers’ programme and programmes for drought-prone areas—matters so much.

The milk revolution was partly achieved by technology, but mostly by institutional reform. The cooperatives gave a power of scale to the woman who had only three or four litres to sell per day.

Cooperatives, joint stock companies and other forms of organization give small producers the power of scale both at the production end and at the post-harvest end. Modern ecological agriculture involves integrated pest management, integrated nutrient supply, scientific water management—‘more crop per drop’. None of this can be done by a single small farmer alone. It has to be done on an area basis.

Our population now exceeds one billion. Arable land is going out of agriculture all the time. Water resources are shrinking. Our ground water is getting depleted and in many cases polluted. They are drawing water from lower strata in Bengal and Bangladesh with the result that arsenic is coming up. The greatest internal threat to agriculture is now the problem of conserving our soil fertility, land and water.

This is the phase which I call the Evergreen Revolution. This is where you have continuous advancement in productivity, but without associated ecological harm. It has three major preconditions.

The first is a happy farming family. Scientists like me can give advice and materials, but the farmers are the ones who toil in the sun and rain and produce the food. So we should not only work for the consumer, but also think of the producer.

The second ingredient is a sustainable farming system, not based on one crop alone. Almost every farm in India has one or two cows or buffaloes, or small ruminants like goat or sheep. These are part of our life—crops, animals, fish, agro-forestry. If you go to Kerala every farm, every house, is a genetic garden: you will find jack fruit, pepper, coconut—up to 20 economic species in each garden.

A sustainable farming system is the very foundation of organic agriculture—some degree of animal husbandry, composting, organic manure and also crop rotation. In the bio-villages started by the JRD Tata Ecotechnology Centre in Chennai, one crop is a very powerful nitrogen fixer called Sesbania prostrata. It fixes large quantities of nitrogen both in the stem and in the root. You may need to combine this with mineral fertilizers and chemical pesticides, in a way that maintains both environmental and social sustainability and economic viability.

The third precondition is sustainable food security. Although the Indian Government has 45 million tons of wheat and rice in its warehouses, over 250 million women, children and men still go to bed hungry. Therefore jobs should be the bottom line of our agricultural policy. Where there is work, there is money, and where there is money there is food.

The JRD Tata Ecotechnology Centre tries to marry traditional wisdom, knowledge and technologies with the best in modern life.

Knowledge is a continuum, everyone of us leaves behind something new—and so will our children. You cannot freeze knowledge. So we have taken five different technologies: biotechnology, space technology (particularly in weather satellites), nuclear technology (particularly probes for underground mapping), information and digital technology (we have set up a series of information villages), and management technology. This last, in our definition, puts everything together into a management system for a farm which can be applied day by day.

Ecotechnology helps to bridge the divides in our country. We have found, for example, that bridging the digital divide in villages is a powerful method of bridging the gender divide. The people who are operating the knowledge centres in our information villages are women. Everybody comes to them for knowledge and this builds their self-esteem.

Everybody today talks about the globalization of the economy. Everyone knows about anything which happens—the earthquake in Gujarat for example—at the same time all over the earth. The global village in terms of information is a reality. But in economic terms it is a highly divided village.

We also know that our fates are intertwined ecologically. We can argue endlessly about who is responsible for mucking up the climate. But the fact remains that ecologically our fates are intertwined, and that is why we talk of our common future.

But you cannot have a common future without a common present. In 1994 agriculture was introduced into the World Trade Agreement for the first time. It had five major components of importance to farmers: access to markets, domestic support from governments, export subsidies, sanitary measures—using products which are completely free of salmonella and toxins—and trade-related intellectual property rights (TRIPS)—patenting and protection of systems and plant varieties.

The Indian experience of this has been negative. We have no additional market access—in fact the market has even reduced in the OECD countries in the last six years. The domestic support we are given is a fraction of what is being given in the OECD countries. We don’t give export subsidies.

Our sanitary measures are still poor, and this is bad for our own consumers. I tell my colleagues, ‘Don’t only think that the foreign consumer doesn’t want salmonella, our people don’t want it either.’ Quality is quality, and we should not only think of export-quality. I have been calling for all our agricultural universities to set up short non-degree courses for farmers in the Codex Alimentarius, put together by FAO for food safety.

TRIPS has also worked against us so far. There are accusations of bio-piracy from ‘gene-rich’ countries like ours towards the ‘technology-rich’ countries. These are divisive forces. We hope that there will be a renegotiation of the World Trade Agreement on Agriculture.

Sarvodhya was a term coined by Gandhiji, meaning a win-win situation for all. I would like to see a Sarvodhya world of farming emerge, where there is unity of purpose in spite of the diversity of methodologies, farming systems, climates, soil and needs.

Mahatma Gandhi said the pathway to achieve Sarvodhya is Anthyodhya, attention to the poorest person. So if you want to have a Sarvodhya farming world, then I think the more affluent members will have to pay attention to those who are economically, socially and ecologically handicapped. As Gandhiji said, ‘Before you do anything, ask yourself whether what you are about to do will help the poorest person you have seen in your life.’

We have to marry ethics with economics and technology. The technological push must be matched by an ethical pull. If you don’t have these two matching each other, then you can’t make sustainable progress.

This article is taken from Prof Swaminathan’s opening address at the International Farmers’ Dialogue at Asia Plateau, the MRA centre in Panchgani, India, last February. Dr Swaminathan’s work in crop genetics and sustainable agricultural development earned him the World Food Prize in 1987. He has served as Secretary of India’s Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperation, Director General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and Director General of the International Rice Research Institute.
Prof MS Swaminathan

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