The government’s abortive attempt to introduce market-oriented reforms in the farm sector in the face of stiff opposition from farmers in 2020-21 has only served to highlight the crisis that has overtaken agriculture in India. But those who have the biggest stake in farming rejected them.
While the government claimed that the new laws would double farmers’ incomes, the latter contended that it would only hit the producer and endanger the country’s food security by dismantling regulated markets. The issue ended with the government being forced to scrap the three farm laws. But neither side had answers to the main problem—how to increase food production while ensuring adequate income for farmers, particularly the small farmers who form the bulk of the country’s farming community.
The last time agriculture achieved a quantum jump was more than half a century ago when the Green Revolution rescued India from the humiliating dependence on imports to meet severe food shortages—it was called ship-to-mouth existence. High-yielding varieties, extensive use of fertilisers and expansion of irrigation networks powered the hike in food grain production from 83 million tonnes in 1962-63 to 200 million tonnes in 2003-04. But, like all good stories, the Green Revolution too began to falter as some of its troubling effects began to surface: a falling water table, land degradation and GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions. Worse, growth that climbed vertically in the initial two to three decades began to plateau despite higher quantities of inputs. The population, in the meantime, continued to burgeon, meaning more mouths to feed.
Many suggested a second Green Revolution as a way out. A paper published in January 2022 in the Reserve Bank of India bulletin suggested that it should be driven by technology and soil enrichment by fertilisers. According to this view, mechanisation and land consolidation were all that was needed to increase productivity.
Dr M.S. Swaminathan, the original architect of the Green Revolution, had instead proposed as long back as 2006 the idea of what he called an ‘ever-green revolution’ in which the productivity of small farms had to be increased. Since 85% of farmers had holdings of one to two hectares, the introduction of integrated crop-livestock systems would increase both productivity and employment.
It is this idea that has been carried forward by senior agricultural scientist Dr Uma Kanta Behera who has made the integrated small farm concept work in practice. Behera, principal scientist at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), holds the rather unconventional view that “it was the Green Revolution that derailed the agricultural train”.
The ‘Green Revolution’, he says, follows the industrial model of agriculture, a leftover from the commodity-based systems, which was the result of economic and social pressure to exploit crop and livestock products that satisfied the demands of growing Western industrialised nations. It assumed that water and cheap energy to fuel modern agriculture would always be available, and that climate would be stable and not change.
The chief drawback of industrial agriculture is that it produces monocultures and increases environmental risks by reducing biodiversity thereby reducing ecosystem functions and ecological resilience; it can make crops highly vulnerable to climate change.
Monocultures finish ecological regulation mechanisms and become heavily dependent on poisonous pesticides. Besides, they are dependent on agro-chemicals, fuel-based mechanisation and irrigation that are all derived entirely from dwindling and even more expensive fossil fuels with their attendant GHG emissions.
The answer to India’s agriculture crisis, therefore, does not lie in green revolution techniques but in the adoption of a low-cost holistic model of farming. The present situation, as Behera emphasises, calls for a transition from industrial agriculture to more diverse combinations of farming systems that are ecologically sensitive, economically fair, and socially sound that will benefit small and marginal farmers who own an overwhelming majority of holdings.
That system is the integrated farming system (IFS), which will help these farmers produce more food. Out of 145 million farmers in the country, 68% own less than one hectare (10,000 square metres) and another 16% own between one and two hectares. Essentially, IFS is a business plan that makes farming profitable for small and marginal farmers.
Behera’s confidence in IFS stems from the fact that he has tried and tested it under varied conditions in several parts of the country. He is currently conducting proof-of-concept tests at the one-hectare farm inside the IARI campus. It has been developed under his watch as a successful experimental farm in an irrigated agro-ecological system and is one of the five major such eco-systems.
As one enters the farm, there is a biogas digester next to a cattle shed that houses three cows. Diagonally across is a five-foot-deep, 1,000 sq m pond. About a dozen ducks swim in the pond that has three varieties of fish, while at one edge of the pond is a henhouse containing 50 chickens with part of the structure extending over the pond water. Orange trees line one side of the pond while the rest of the plot is divided among different crops and vegetables such as rice (kharif) and wheat (rabi), spinach, onions and okra, and fodder crops as well.
IFS is not the same as mixed farming because different products are organically linked to one another with recycling of wastes and by-products within the system. Each component of the system needs to be designed carefully so that it fits properly into the overall farming system. For example, when a two-cubic-metre capacity biogas plant is set up, it requires three cross-bred cows to generate the 50 kg of dung required per day for the plant to function optimally. Similarly, poultry droppings fall directly into the pond, providing nutrients for phyto and zooplanktons, which act as fish feed, while biogas meets the energy needs of the farm and the farmers and the waste from the digester is used as fertiliser for the farm as is the waste from crops and vegetables.
IFS farming is usually less risky than conventional farming since it benefits from the diversity and synergies of the components, explains Behera. The income of farmers increases from selling fish, eggs, poultry, and milk and milk products, and fruits and vegetables. The yield of grains also goes up. He has established that between 2010 and 2013, in five 0.8-hectare farms at different locations in Odisha, annual incomes increased in the range of ₹85,000 to ₹96,000. The added advantage of IFS is that it is environment friendly and not only prevents carbon emissions but also emission of methane, which traps more heat than carbon dioxide.