Losing Agriculture and Gaining Nothing

There is a village in Azad Kashmir that has so far not recorded a single case of cancer. This is attributed to organic food locally produced. Few decades ago the similar story was of this part of Kashmir. Where have we gone wrong?

Today we lament Green Revolution, we think agriculture is no longer worth investment, we find massive unemployment of farmers. All this implies catastrophe for a population that heavily relied on agriculture for livelihood. Let us understand how we destroyed our traditional basis for livelihoods and replaced it with something that is elusive and deceiving. And we end up with hardly anything worth having at such a huge cost. I illustrate the case by turning to Ladakh that has been very recently modernized and can be seen as almost a contemporary case for anyone to see. I simply reproduce few passages from a book Ancient  Futures written on modernization of Ladakh by internationally acclaimed scholar Helena Norberg-Hodge that traces the tragedy with all its poignancy.

Throughout the world, the process of development has displaced and marginalized


self-reliant local economies in general and small farmers in particular. In the

industrialized world, more than 90 percent of the population has been pulled away from agriculture. Now, the same process is occurring in the Third World, only much more rapidly, as rural subsistence is steadily eroded.

The same forces that push farmers off the land seek to replace them with the ever

more capital- and energy-intensive methods of industrial agriculture. It is assumed that this shift from agriculture to agribusiness is necessary in order to increase yields, and that increased yields are in turn necessary to feed the growing global population. Industrial agriculture, however, has proved to be unsustainable. Its fertilizers and pesticides pollute the water and destroy the soil, and after an initial increase, yields tend to decline. In addition, monoculture makes the crop very vulnerable to destruction by a single pest, while chemical pesticides have tended to disrupt natural systems of pest control. Farmers in Ladakh who have been persuaded to use pesticides tell of a noticeable increase in pests!

Industrial agriculture is now eliminating the diverse range of seeds indigenous to

specific environments and replacing them with standardized strains. Multinational

corporations and large petrochemical companies are expropriating seeds, particularly from the Third World, and using the genetic information—which represents millennia of adaptation to local conditions—to create hybrids. These are then sold back to Third World farmers along with the chemical fertilizers and pesticides that they require. These hybrids often lack the ability to regenerate themselves, and farmers are forced into a cycle of dependence, buying new seeds and chemical inputs from the corporations that own and control them.

As the logic of industrial agriculture unfolds, it looks increasingly sinister. With the biotechnology revolution—the transplanting of “desirable” genetic traits from one organism to another–we are seeing scientific manipulation on a grand scale. As nature is adapted to meet the needs of industry the result is greater standardization and uniformity, and thus increased vulnerability.

The emphasis is not on human welfare but commercial gain. Despite the fact that

much of the research was done with public funds, control of this technology is firmly in the hands of transnational corporations, which are now able to engineer plant, animal, and even human genes, to turn them into products that can be patented and sold.

Of course, people have been developing hybrids in one way or another since the

beginning of agriculture. The dzo in Ladakh is an example of a crossbreed that is well suited to its environment. What is different about today’s genetic engineering is that the hybrids it develops have no connection with living local ecosystems. Moreover, the genetic base of life is being manipulated without any clear idea of the long-term consequences. What we do already know is that these technologies erode diversity and unravel the web of biological interdependence.

The products of biotechnology promise to be better than nature: pest-resistant,

drought-resistant, and high-yielding. But for how many years will the patented corn come up bigger and brighter yellow? And for how long will the tired soil sustain it? For people with unlimited faith in science and technology these are not matters of concern.

Vogue for hybrid seeds today should be a matter of concern as it calls for critical reflection. Horticulturization of Kashmir too is an issue that has more to it than appears on surface. Use of weedicides and pesticides has become normalized and there is hardly any attention to turn organic. Why isn’t any debate on policy change by our policy makers on such issues? Why we keep begging for pesticides, fertilizers and why don’t we consider the costs on health and environment that far exceed gains in productivity?