April 15, 2009

life in general & financial markets: myth of green revolution in agriculture

There are many falsehoods being spread by companies, bureaucrats and politicians with regard to yields in agricultural produce being increased through the use of fertilisers and geneticially modified seeds.

Factory-made chemical-based fertilisers do not add any value to the soil on which they are used. Instead, they hasten the process of extraction of nutrition from the soil by the agri seeds sown and where fertilisers are used.

Below are three (you can also directly get them here, here and here) of many insightful reports on the matter that brings out the facts:


India's Farming 'Revolution' Heading For Collapse

All Things Considered, April 13, 2009 · Farmers in the village of Chotia Khurd in northern India don't realize it, but they symbolize a growing problem that could become a global crisis.

They gathered on a recent morning in a stone-paved courtyard — a circle of Sikhs with brightly colored turbans and big, bushy beards — to explain why the famed "bread basket" of India is heading toward collapse.

Their comparatively small region, Punjab, grows far more wheat and rice for India than any other region. But now these farmers are running out of groundwater.

They have to buy three times as much fertilizer as they did 30 years ago to grow the same amount of crops. They blitz their crops with pesticides, but insects have become so resistant that they still often destroy large portions of crops.

The state's agriculture "has become unsustainable and nonprofitable," according to a recent report by the Punjab State Council for Science and Technology. Some experts say the decline could happen rapidly, over the next decade or so.

One of the best-known names in India's farming industry puts it in even starker terms. If farmers in Punjab don't dramatically change the way they grow India's food, says G.S. Kalkat, chairman of the Punjab State Farmers Commission, they could trigger a modern Dust Bowl. That American disaster in the 1930s laid waste to millions of acres of farmland and forced hundreds of thousands of people out of their homes.

The story of Chotia Khurd is a cautionary tale: Political leaders and scientists can't necessarily transplant a technology from one country and culture to a vastly different one and expect it to flourish without serious side effects.

The 'Green Revolution'

The story begins in the 1960s, when parents in America's well-fed suburbs would admonish ungrateful children to "think about the starving people in India." Occasional news reports told wrenching stories about Indians subsisting on grass and leaves. The country survived on imports, like a beggar.

The public concern prompted a loose coalition of scientists, government officials and philanthropists — spurred and funded, in part, by the Rockefeller Foundation —to launch a "Green Revolution."

In the context of the times, "green" did not refer to what it means today — organic, pesticide-free farming methods. To the contrary, India's farmers were persuaded to abandon their traditional methods and grow crops the modern, American way.

For example, the advisers told farmers to stop growing old-fashioned grains, beans and vegetables and switch to new, high-yield varieties of wheat, rice and cotton. Farmers began using chemical fertilizers instead of cow dung. They plowed with tractors instead of bulls.

The "Green Revolution" of the 1960s and 1970s meant that if farmers embraced chemicals and high-yield seeds, their fields would turn lush green with crops. (An official at the U.S. State Department, William Gaud, apparently coined the term in 1968.)

During the Cold War, the term also implied that if countries like India could stamp out hunger, the population would be less likely to foment a violent revolution and go communist.

A Temporary Fix

In India, ground zero for the Green Revolution was the state of Punjab, which borders Pakistan and the foothills of the Himalayas. And the system seemed to work miracles — for a while.

The United States sent money and technical support, including advisers from one of America's most prestigious agriculture universities. India's government showered Punjab with low-cost chemicals and seeds — and they paid the farmers, in effect, to use them by guaranteeing minimum prices for Green Revolution crops.

It helped India transform itself from a nation that depends on imports and food aid to a budding superpower that often exports grains.

Villages like Chotia Khurd were harvesting three to four times as much grain per acre as they did before.

Many of the farmers and the local government were flush with money. They paved their dirt roads. The farmers replaced their mud houses with bricks and cement. They bought American tractors for a small fortune.

Just about everybody in Chotia Khurd bought cell phones, with a wide variety of ring tones — so it's hard to chat with a farmer without getting interrupted by electronic versions of Sikh chants or theme songs from Bollywood hits.

But government reports and farmers themselves say that era is over — and today, the Green Revolution system of farming is heading toward collapse.

'Farmers Are Committing A Kind Of Suicide'

To show why, the district director of the Punjab Agriculture Department, Palwinder Singh, leads the way up a narrow dirt road into wheat fields that encircle the village.

On the surface, they look robust. The countryside is electric green in every direction.

But Singh points to a large contraption rising above the crop, like a steel praying mantis. The machine is blanketing the countryside with a percussive, deafening roar.

"That's part of our most serious problem," he says. It's a drilling rig. A young farmer in a purple turban, Sandeep Singh, is standing next to the rig, looking unhappy. (The two men are not related — according to tradition, all Sikh men share the last name "Singh," which means "lion.")

When farmers switched from growing a variety of traditional crops to high-yield wheat and rice, they also had to make other changes. There wasn't enough rainwater to grow thirsty "miracle" seeds, so farmers had to start irrigating with groundwater. They hired drilling companies to dig wells, and they started pumping groundwater onto the fields.

But Sandeep says he has been forced to hire the drilling company again, because the groundwater under his fields has been sinking as much as 3 feet every year.

Government surveys confirm it. In fact, his family and other farmers have had to deepen their wells every few years — from 10 feet to 20 feet to 40 feet, and now to more than 200 feet — because the precious water table keeps dropping below their reach.

Nobody was surprised when environmental activists started warning years ago that the Green Revolution was heading toward disaster. But they were astonished as government officials started to agree.

"Farmers are committing a kind of suicide," warns Kalkat, the director of the Punjab State Farmers Commission. "It's like a suicide, en masse."

Kalkat offers an unsettling prediction in a nation whose population is growing faster than any other on Earth: If farmers don't drastically revamp the system of farming, the heartland of India's agriculture could be barren in 10 to 15 years.


'Green Revolution' Trapping India's Farmers In Debt

Morning Edition, April 14, 2009 · As the world's population surges, the international community faces a pressing problem: How will it feed everybody?

Until recently, people thought India had an answer.

Farmers in the state of Punjab abandoned traditional farming methods in the 1960s and 1970s as part of the national program called the "Green Revolution," backed by advisers from the U.S. and other countries.

Indian farmers started growing crops the American way — with chemicals, high-yield seeds and irrigation.

Since then, India has gone from importing grain like a beggar, to often exporting it.

But studies show the Green Revolution is heading for collapse.

A Thirst For Water

On a recent morning, a drilling rig is pounding away in the middle of a wheat field near the village of Chotia Khurd. The sound, part jackhammer and part pile driver, is becoming increasingly common in the farm fields of northern India's Punjab region.

The farmer, Sandeep Singh, is supervising and looking unhappy as the rig hammers away, driving deeper and deeper under his field in search of water.

When India's government launched the Green Revolution more than 40 years ago, it pressured farmers to grow only high-yield wheat, rice and cotton instead of their traditional mix of crops.

The new miracle seeds could produce far bigger yields than farmers had ever seen, but they came with a catch: The thirsty crops needed much more water than natural rainfall could provide, so farmers had to dig wells and irrigate with groundwater.

The system worked well for years, but government studies show that farmers have pumped so much groundwater to irrigate their crops that the water table is dropping dramatically, as much as 3 feet every year.

So farmers like Sandeep keep hiring the drilling company to come back to their fields, to bore the wells ever deeper — on this day, to more than 200 feet.

Farmers In Debt

The groundwater problem has touched off an economic chain reaction. As the farmers dig deeper to find groundwater, they have to install ever more powerful and more expensive pumps to send it gushing up to their fields.

Sandeep says his new pump costs more than $4,000. He and most other farmers have to borrow that kind of cash, but they are already so deep in debt that conventional banks often turn them away.

So Sandeep and his neighbors have turned to "unofficial" lenders — local businessmen who charge at least double the banks' interest rate. The district agriculture director, Palwinder Singh, says farmers can end up paying a whopping 24 percent.

Another side effect of the groundwater crisis is evident at the edge of the fields — thin straggly rows of wheat and a whitish powder scattered across the soil.

The white substance is salt residue. Drilling deep wells to find fresh water often taps brackish underground pools, and the salty water poisons the crops.

"The salt causes root injuries," Palwinder says. "The root cannot take the nutrients from the soil."

Destroying The Soil

In the village of Chotia Khurd, farmers agree that the Green Revolution used to work miracles for many of them. But now, it's like financial quicksand.

Studies show that their intensive farming methods, which government policies subsidize, are destroying the soil. The high-yield crops gobble up nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous, iron and manganese, making the soil anemic.

The farmers say they must use three times as much fertilizer as they used to, to produce the same amount of crops — yet another drain on their finances.

A farmer named Suba Singh has seen the good and bad effects of the Green Revolution.

Clad in a bright blue turban and his face furrowed like a field, he opens a squeaky wooden gate to his compound. He points to a small building made of mud and straw, with faded green doors.

"That's where my family used to live," he says.

During the profitable years of the Green Revolution, he saw that everyone else in the village was building brick houses.

"So I took out a loan," he says, "and built a brick house for my family, too."

He turned the old mud house into his cattle shed. But now he is in debt.

A study by the Punjab State Council for Science and Technology calls it a "vicious cycle of debt."

Suba and the other farmers say they've had to borrow money to buy just about everything that makes them look prosperous — their brick homes, tractors, cattle, even their plastic chairs.

The farmers have also built their Green Revolution farms and lifestyle on another unstable source of money: Family members have moved overseas to find jobs, because they couldn't make a living farming, and now they send part of their income back to Chotia Khurd to support their relatives.

"It's like a disease that is catching on in the world," says Suba, "building a life that is like a house of cards."

A System About To Collapse?

Some leading officials in the farming industry wonder when this house of cards might collapse.

"The state and farmers are now faced with a crisis," warns a report by the Punjab State Farmers Commission.

India's population is growing faster than any country on Earth, and domestic food production is vital.

But the commission's director, G.S. Kalkat, says Punjab's farmers are committing ecological and economic "suicide."

If he is correct, suicide is coming through national policies that reward farmers for the very practices that destroy the environment and trap them in debt.

Kalkat says only one thing can save Punjab: India has to launch a brand new Green Revolution. But he says this one has to be sustainable.

The problem is, nobody has yet perfected a farming system that produces high yields, makes a good living for farm families, protects and enhances the environment — and still produces good, affordable food.


Corn, Soy Yields Gain Little From Genetic Engineering: Study

WASHINGTON - The use of genetically engineered corn and soybeans in the United States for more than a decade has had little impact on crop yields despite claims that they could ease looming food shortages, a study released on Tuesday concluded.

"A hard-nosed assessment of this expensive technology's achievements to date gives little confidence that it will play a major role in helping the world feed itself in the forseeable future," said the report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The study evaluated the effect on corn and soybean crop yields of genetically engineered varieties commercialized in the United States over the past 13 years, examining peer-reviewed academic studies that date back to the early 1990s.

"Based on that record, we conclude that GE (genetic engineering) has done little to increase overall crop yields," it said.

The report said genetically engineered soybeans account for 90 percent of soybeans grown in the United States, while genetically engineered corn accounts for 63 percent of the US corn crop.

"Overall, corn and soybean yields have risen substantially over the last 15 years, but largely not as a result of the GE traits," the report said. "Most of the gains are due to traditional breeding or improvement of other agricultural practices."

It found that corn and soybeans that were genetically modified to increase their tolerance to herbicides "have not increased operational yields, whether on a per acre or national basis, compared to conventional methods that rely on other available herbicides."

Corn modified with genes from Bt, or Bacillus thuringienisis, bacteria for resistance to several kinds of insects did provide higher yields, but the study estimated the increase at between 0.2 and 0.3 percent a year on average over the past 13 years.

Overall corn yields in the United States have increased an average of about one percent a year, it said.

"More specifically, US Department of Agriculture data indicate that the average corn production per acre nationwide over the past five years (2004-2008) was about 28 percent higher than for the five-year period 1991-1995," it said.

"But our analysis of specific yield studies concludes that only 4-5 percent of that increase is attributable to Bt, meaning an increase of about 24-25 percent must be due to other factors such as conventional breeding," it said.

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