Busting the myths of organic agriculture | Sunday Observer

Busting the myths of organic agriculture

1 August, 2021

Continued from last week...

Then, technically and environmentally sound, economically as well as socially acceptable technologies, innovation /new practices should be investigated and recommended to transform present unhealthy, unsustainable agricultural systems to sustainable production systems. This is absolutely a scientific procedure.

The misuse and overuse of agrochemicals including synthetic fertiliser, weedicides, other pesticides, and also chemicals used in fruit ripening and preservation are considered as major reasons for unhealthy and unsustainable food production in the country at present.

It is challenging to the extension system to change this behaviour of the farmers and the supply chain actors. However, we need to understand as to why they have adopted these practices.

Obviously, the main reasons are the quick financial gains (profits) and also with easy-to-practice features. Therefore, whatever the recommendations for farmers should include these features, at least to some extent, together with sustainability prospects. Otherwise, the recommendations will not be feasible.

Seeing is believing

Over the many past decades starting from the green revolution in 1960, the agricultural extension messages were focused basically to improve the agricultural production in terms of quantity through new technologies.

These technologies included the use of chemical fertiliser, pesticides including weedicides and new improved crop varieties. The local farmers had been continuously educated on the use of new chemical fertiliser recommendations.

A chemical fertiliser subsidy was given by governments in Sri Lanka and the agro-chemical importing companies had their own promotion strategies to expand their markets. They advertised their products especially through mass media including the radio, television and the print media, though this practise is not allowed as at present.

Extension messages in farmer training and education were also basically focused on the increased production and profits at the early stages of the green revolution and only in recent decades, the extension messages developed gave some attention on sustainability aspects.

Now the farmers are raising an interesting question from the government extension system. Farmers are querying that they had been instructed to use synthetic fertiliser recommendations, new improved crop varieties and other agrochemicals for many years and now the same extension organisations/officers are asking to apply only organic methods that they have practised initially.

However, it doesn’t mean that we need to continue the same practices after realising the negative consequences of misuse and overuse of agrochemicals. Instead, a technically sound, environmentally sustainable, economically profitable thus socially acceptable technologies/approaches should be introduced to solve the problems of unhealthy and unsustainable issues of the present agricultural production systems.

Easy to use attributes of the products (agrochemicals) and increased production and profits were highlighted especially in the market promotions and agricultural extension. As a result, the farmers have been used to an agrochemical input-based production system.

In the meantime, they experienced the success of agrochemicals in terms of weed, insect pests and disease management and increasing the production especially through the use of inorganic fertiliser although the misuse and overuse have been claimed to create the problems in human health and the ecosystem sustainability.

We should look at the changing of farmer practices while keeping this in mind. Changing the behavior and specially the required attitude for that transformation is not an easy task. It is the responsibility of the agricultural extension system, which should be strengthened by research findings and policy interventions. Agriculture is with full of risks and uncertainty. It depends on natural environment certainly more than any other business. Therefore, farmers are not willing to adopt new practices without confidence on the success.

Therefore, our sustainable solutions for farmers should be proven through method and results demonstrations. Such models should be established first for farmers to see the success. Do we have such models/demonstrations on fully organic and commercially successful farms to demonstrate for farmers? If not, we should not recommend such practices for farmers which are not sustainable with an economic and social acceptance.

Communication for development, having development objectives while applying the development communication principles, is generally known as the development communication.

Simply, it is not for entertainment and also not based on personal opinions but based on scientific information relevant for reaching the development goals.

Development communication and agricultural extension alone cannot expel the problems faced by farmers at present due to unsustainable production systems and also due to the agrochemical ban.

However, that is important in busting the myths on organic agriculture through communicating the “Science” and it is vital in the transition of conventional or supposedly high agrochemical input-based unsustainable agricultural production systems into healthy and sustainable agricultural production systems. Moreover, it is timely needed for policy directives.

As interpreted by the communication department of the World Bank, the development communication is an interdisciplinary field based on empirical research that helps building consensus while facilitating the sharing of knowledge to achieve a positive change in development initiative.

More importantly from the development perspective, it is not only communication of information effectively but also, using two–way communication among stakeholders. It engages the stakeholders until the desired development objective is achieved. Accordingly, the present scenario on organic agriculture, which is related to the sustainable agricultural development, and the communication efforts should be continued until that development goal is achieved.

According to the above definition, development communication is not exclusively about communicating information and messages, but it also engages stakeholders.

It is the responsibility of the development communicators to engage with all types of relevant stakeholders when it comes to the present issue in organic agriculture.

The stakeholders especially include the agricultural scientists, policy makers and the farmers. The engagement with these stakeholders should not be based on the political power or the political interest and opinions of the individuals who are running the media firms and engage in journalism.

The media should act as a platform for democratic discourse. The information and communication messages provided on the organic agriculture should be scientifically valid as well as socio economically and culturally accepted.

Informing the public and entertainment are the traditional tasks of mass media which are generally profit-oriented. However, the mass media should also support to promote development ideologies. When considering the present issue of organic agriculture, the media should act as a “mediator” between agricultural scientists/experts and the public without any biases.

Complex sciences as subjects or disciplines are not always understood by the general public, and it is not also essential. However, when the science and technology is important for solving the national issues and/or the problems of the general public, the science should always be translated to an understandable language to the general public.

This can be done only by the trained or experienced science communicators who also can become development journalists. Most of the time, the scientists are not directly engaged with public communication.

This can only be done by the scientists who have either training and/or passion for it. However, we need scientists’/experts’ contribution to make correct decisions and have scientific solutions.

Therefore, it is the responsibility of the science communicators/development journalists to get scientifically correct information from the relevant scientists/experts and provide an adequate opportunity and space for their expertise in the mainstream media.

Further, the scientists should be encouraged to raise their voices through mainstream media and also through scientific conferences and forums on the issue. Social media, too, can be used effectively to achieve this objective.

Extension professionals should contribute in the process by communicating the ground realities since they directly engage with the farmers.

The scientists who have already taken the steps to communicate the science on organic agriculture should be much appreciated. However, that is not adequate at present to communicate to the general public, and especially to guide the policy makers.

Scientists and or the science communicators should be differently communicating with the lay public, media and the policymakers. Science communication itself is an art and science that need to be understood by everyone for its effective application.

The public should be educated by the professionals qualified to give science-based information and recommendations on agriculture. Again, the scientists should not take the issue as personnel or political. If so, it makes the general public more confused.

The most dangerous result is the misleading of the policy makers. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the scientists and science communicators too, to become “truly scientists” and “development communicators”. They should maintain the “professionalism” by communicating the science leaving out the personal opinions, interests, and the politics.

If the scientists are politicised, it decides an unfavorable future destiny of the nation. It is a timely need to train and produce more science and development communicators who are capable in translating science to an understandable language to the general public and the policy makers, supporting in achieving the development goals of the country.

Middle path

The country had a traditional knowledge system especially related to agricultural production. Of course, that system did not damage the balance and sustainability of natural eco systems. However, the population has increased and the society has changed with technological, economic, political, and cultural transformations and the traditional knowledge system alone cannot yield the present-day demand in food and agriculture.

Considering the above facts, taking the middle path is a good way of negotiation of the pros and cons of organic and conventional (chemical) agriculture.

The writer is a Senior Lecturer, Department of Agricultural Extension Faculty of Agriculture University