8:14 AM Mar 26, 1996


Penang March (TWN/Martin Khor) -- In the search for ways to improve "food security" worldwide, scientists, policy-makers and citizen groups are fiercely debating the merits and demerits of different agricultural technologies.

This debate has been sparked in part by the disillusionment with the conventional "Green Revolution" model. There is mounting evidence of the ill effects of chemical fertiliser on the soil, the threat of pesticides to farmers' health and water systems, and the loss of agricultural biodiversity as a few crop varieties wipe out the wide range of traditional farmers' seeds.

Environmentalists, scientists and the public are also wary about the newly touted genetic engineering technology because of fears that it could cause adverse ecological and health effects.

Public attention is thus increasingly turned on "sustainable agriculture" or ecological farming as the solution to producing for the world's food needs.

However, in contrast to the popular support, relatively little official interest has been shown to sustainable agriculture, apart from occasional rhetoric.

'Sustainable agriculture' generally refers to types of farming that are environmentally sound, do not damage the soil's fertility nor pollute the water system, and which promote rather than destroy the diversity of crop varieties. The food produced is also healthy to eat, a condition that is now in great demand by consumers worldwide.

Sustainable agriculture also has a social component: the income and welfare of the farmer should also be satisfactory.

There is a prevailing premise that whilst "sustainable agriculture" may be good in preserving the environment, it is inferior and grossly inadequate in terms of productivity and thus cannot be relied on to feed the increasing population.

This premise could actually be a prejudice, for there is evidence that ecological farming can be high yielding as well, higher yielding in fact that the Green Revolution method.

For India, Vandana Shiva cites the studies of the eminent Indian rice scientist, Dr Racharia, who showed that indigenous varieties can be high yielding, given the required inputs, and that the yields of many traditional farmers "fall in or above the minimum limits set for high yields and these methods of cultivation deserve full attention".

Dr Vandana Shiva concludes: "India is a Vavilov centre of genetic diversity of rice. Out of this amazing diversity, Indian peasants and tribals have selected and improved many indigenous high yielding varieties.

"In South India, in semi-arid tracts of the Deccan, yields went up to 5,000 kg/ha under tank and well irrigation. Under intensive manuring, they could go even higher."

There is now a great flowering of organic farming practices in many parts of India.

Recently the Karnataka State Farmers' Union set up an International Institute for Sustainable Agriculture to train farmers to switch from conventional chemical-based agriculture to organic farming.

The Union's deputy president, Baba Goweda Patel, has himself taken to organic farming, with great success.

In 1991, using the conventional chemicalised system, he grew 15 acres of sorghum with an average output of five quintiles per acre.

In 1992, he stopped using chemicals altogether and went organic. He could still get five quintiles per acre, but since he saved on not using fertiliser or pesticide, his net income increased.

By 1994, his organic farm was thriving, with output of nine quintiles an acre. Three years after conversion to organic agriculture, his farm was showing increases of 80 percent in productivity and 170 percent in net income.

Now, 500 farmers in his village has switched, at least partly, to organic farming.

In the Philippines, host country of IRRI and the Green Revolution, several sustainable agriculture experiments are being conducted by farmers, scientists and environmental groups.

At a FAO Asian regional seminar on sustainable agriculture in 1993, a Filipino agricultural scientist, Nicanor Perlas of the Centre for Alternative Development Alternatives, presented case studies of successful vegetable and rice farms using ecological methods in the Philippines.

In the largest set of adjacent farms totalling a thousand hectares using the bio-dynamic farming method, there was a yield increase of 50-100 per cent and an increase in net income by farmers of 200-270 per cent, compared to the conventional (Green Revolution) method.

Efforts are being taken to "scale up" the implementation of ecological farming to macro scales involving many thousands of farmers and hectares.

According to Perlas, the lessons from the case studies are that:

* Sustainable agriculture can be practised in large scale;

* Yields do not necessarily drop without the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides; and

* A rapid (even immediate) transition from chemical farming to sustainable agriculture is possible if correct technical principles are followed.

Also in the Philippines, the MASIPAG group (an alliance of farmers and university scientists) has pioneered an alternative rice farming method which is non-chemical and uses seeds (developed in its rice breeding stations) which are suited to particular regional weather conditions. By 1993, the group's method was used in 4,200 hectares spread over 23 provinces.

MASIPAG's data show that yields from farms using its method are generally higher than from conventional (Green Revolution) farming.

MASIPAG's average yield per hectare was 4-5 tons of rice (ranging from the lowest 3.5 tons to the highest 8 tons), compared with the overall national average of 2.7 tons and the national average of 3.5 tons for irrigated rice fields with fertiliser applied.

There are many other examples of successful and high-yielding ecological farming in various parts of the world. Yet only a minute fraction of agricultural aid (in either research or projects) has been spent studying or promoting them.

Since the Earth Summit in 1992, there has been agreement in principle of the need to move away from environmentally-harmful to sustainable agriculture.

However, the aid agencies and the international agricultural technical agencies have not taken effective action to phase out chemical-based agriculture nor to promote sustainable agriculture.

A large dose of commitment is needed from these agencies. They need to put their resources where their lip-service now is so that greater scientific understanding of sustainable agriculture can be accumulated, and a paradigm shift in policy can then take place.

Such a policy shift is important, for sustainable agriculture today remains at the level of anecdotes and case studies.

The biases against it are deep-seated, so that policy-makers are still chasing after new technological miracles to feed the world, whereas the essential elements for both sustainability and productivity are already present and need to be rediscovered: the indigenous knowledge of farming communities and the broad diversity of Nature's resources.

The value and productivity of Third World traditional agriculture has been underestimated because of the wrong estimation methodology used in comparing it with the Green Revolution model.

Studies should be sponsored to understand the many types of low-input ecological farming methods, traditional as well as modern.

Such studies should include analyses of their workings; energy efficiency; use of inputs; outputs of all the different crops, products and activities and the relationship between them; and the nature and use of agricultural diversity.

The studies should also incorporate the various problems encountered in practice (such as shortage of organic manure, pest control, water management), and the methods of solving them.

A reorientation of agricultural and aid policies is thus in order, that should give priority to:

* Research on reassessing the concept and measurement of agricultural productivity, giving due recognition to the value of traditional and ecological farming and enabling a scientific comparison with conventional Green Revolution methods;

* Research into sustainable agriculture systems, their operations and dynamic inter-relationships, their problems and solutions to these problems;

* Support for sustainable agriculture experiments, test farms and demonstration farms;

* Support for training programmes for farmers, policy and extension officials, and NGOs on sustainable agriculture;

* Support for farmers' programmes and government programmes for implementation of sustainable agriculture, including eventually on a large scale.

* Support for establishing community-based seed banks to revive and promote the use of traditional varieties, to exchange seeds amongst farmers, and for improvement of seed varieties using ecologically appropriate breeding methods.