Battle with agro-chemical giants - Winnable? Unwinnable? : From green revolution to evergreen revolution | Sunday Observer

Battle with agro-chemical giants - Winnable? Unwinnable? : From green revolution to evergreen revolution

The time has come for us to question, how safe are we, in having uninterrupted access to required quantities of nutritious and healthy food. The country has never faced deadly famines throughout its history of almost 2,500 years, for several reasons. These include, (i) predictable and friendly weather patterns, (ii) typical, equatorial climate, (iii) indigenous sophisticated agriculture technology (e.g. cascade irrigation techniques, rich agro biodiversity) dating back to 2000 years or so, (iv) inherently productive soils in the low country wet zone, and (v) availability of natural minerals containing vital plant nutrients.

It was only with the recent food shortage in 2010, that we came to realize, money cannot always feed us. During this dark period, we saw the rich, the poor, the middle class, desperately queuing up at grocery stores and super markets. Most of these stores remained with their shelves emptied of food items, including our staple food - rice. Incidences such as, people panicking for food, protests, and social unrest, became commonplace across the country, including farming areas.With this experience, we have to ask ourselves whether the establishment of food security alone, in a vulnerable and developing country like Sri Lanka, is enough. However, even today, politicians, scientists, farmers, and the general public use the phrase “establishment of food security” in relation to national agricultural development. As such, let us first investigate the terms “food security and food sovereignty” and then, decide on what actually the country needs.

Food Security: “A situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” (World Food Summit, 1996)

Food Sovereignty: “Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food, produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies, rather than the demands of markets and corporations.” (1st Global Forum on Food Sovereignty, 2007)

It is now clear that to achieve self-sufficiency in food, we have to use food sovereignty as the indicator, and not food security. This is because food security can be established even by importing food, without the development of the national agriculture sector. However, food sovereignty implies the capacity of a nation to produce their own food, in sufficient quantities, while assuring the quality of the environment and the most important natural resources, i.e. soil and water.

Are we a sovereign nation with food?

With the embracement of the “Green Revolution”, the indigenous agriculture technology in existence for thousands of years was over-turned. Buffaloes and cattle were replaced with tractors, natural crop fertilizers, synthetic chemicals, natural farm-pest control mechanisms, synthetic pesticides; and multiple cropping systems were turned into mono-cultures, and so on. These new technologies were invented and developed in a handful of developed countries, mainly in Europe and North America, with capitalistic economies. The products were a direct result of sophisticated science and technologies, supported by massive capital investments. Therefore, the technology is still being confined almost to the same nations, while third-world countries like Sri Lanka have never been able to reach this technology. For as long as we practise the “Green Revolution” type of agriculture in Sri Lanka, we cannot escape from dependency on alien agriculture technology. Unfortunately, this is currently the most popular agriculture technology in the country, and the vast majority of the agricultural scientists do not see any fault in it. Since the technology is based on the input(s)/output(s) concept, i.e. factory type, maximization of profits has anyway been prioritized to result in enormous short-term benefits, whereas, impacts on the environment, natural resources, and human health have been ignored. Consequently, environmentally induced diseases like agro-kidney disease, cancer, infertility, are on the rise. The quality of natural resources, such as soil and water, has deteriorated dramatically, even irreversibly. Today, pests, diseases, weeds, and soil erosion have become a part of farming. The cost of production has sky rocketed, and consequently, farming is no longer profitable. Farmers are moving away from farming at a rapid rate, and the second generation of farmers gradually disappearing. The bottom line is, our capacity of producing food, is deteriorating rapidly, and we have to regrettably admit we are not sovereign at all in food production.

History of Sri Lanka’s food production

Sri Lanka has a rich agricultural history dating back to more than 2,500 years. Historical evidence, such as the massive irrigation structures dating back to 390 BC, suggest that the country has had rice cultivation as early as 800 BC. As mentioned by C. Drieberg in 1974, at one time, 300 – 400 varieties of rice were cultivated in Sri Lanka. We needed different varieties for the two growing seasons – the Maha and the Yala seasons associated with the North-East and the South-West monsoons, respectively. The use of effective natural fertilizer mixtures, pest repellents, and natural microbial cultures for crop production are also evident.

Land suitability to allocate different crops and sustainable use of natural resources was another advanced, ancient practice. During those early days, rice cultivation was not merely an occupation, but a way of life, with not only the economy, but the society, culture, and religion being developed parallel to rice cultivation. The agriculture technology was so strong in the past that during King Parakrabahu’s time, Sri Lanka has produced grains in excess. As a result, we were named “the granary of the Indian Ocean region”.

The entry of Green Revolution agriculture technology occurred in 1967, resulting in a complete twist in farming. The natural and healthy farming techniques were replaced by chemical-based high-input farming, i.e. eco-unfriendly, unsustainable farming.

Current agriculture technology

If we admit frankly, we have become totally dependent on the foreign technology and inputs for national food production. Crops are fed by imported, synthetic fertilizers, e.g. Urea, Muriate of Potash, and Triple Super Phosphate (TSP). Farm pests are controlled by imported chemical pesticides. Glyphosate has become the only solution to fight against weeds, or so we think. The international agro-chemical business has now become a trillion-dollar business, which is only second to the weapons and pharmaceutical industry. The agro-chemical giants are so powerful that they are now in a position to even influence and intimidate global politics. Developing countries, like ours for example, have become one of their worst victims.

As a consequence of the new agriculture technology being confined to a handful of powerful countries, developing countries in the rest of the world, have long been kicked out from the competition.

Sri Lanka started importing problems, as opposed to solutions, for the development of the ‘national’ agriculture sector from 1967 onwards. Bumper crop yields were achieved with the new technology, but, it was too late when we realized that they came with a high price, ill-health. At present the government is struggling to contain agro kidney disease outbreak, cancer, infertility, etc. Degradation of water and soil has reached disastrous proportions, for example, approximately 50% of the central highlands has now been converted into marginal land (arable lands which are on the verge of being converted to deserts).

Under these conditions, agriculture in the country is no longer profitable, resulting in farmers moving away from farming. Another negative aspect of the new technology is that small scale farmers cannot afford the attached cost. In reality, the key determinant of national food production is small scale farmers. Hence, the damage caused by the green revolution agriculture technology is clearly evident.

Way out from food dependency

We have to accept that most of the inherited Sri Lankan agriculture technology, has been dumped. Ancient technology prioritized stabilization of productivity, not maximization. Agricultural production went hand-in-hand with the environmental quality and sustainability of natural resources, such as soil and water.

World-class agricultural scientists, from countries like Cuba, Brazil, United States, Denmark, Australia, Russia, have contributed with eco-friendly agriculture technology, which is more productive than the destructive green revolution technology. We have started collaborating with them, in relation to the development of national agriculture technology. This technology uses locally available agricultural inputs only.

Therefore, foreign dependency is out of the context. Additionally, switching from current technology to eco-friendly strategies will not result in food insecurity. The same techniques will be effective in combating the impact of climate change on agricultural production.

It is now clear, the best option available for the nation to achieve food sovereignty is through modern-day ecological agriculture technology. As a final thought, time has come for us to think about switching from ‘green revolution’ to ‘evergreen revolution’ through ecological agriculture.

(The writer is a Professor in Ecological Agriculture, at the Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka)