Business Standard

Rethink the way we grow food

- SUNITA NARAIN The writer is at the Centre for Science and Environmen­t, X: @sunitanar

There is something fundamenta­lly broken in the world’s agricultur­al system when you see images of rich European farmers and their poorer counterpar­ts in India straddling tractors to block highways to make their anger heard. The fact is that these farmers are enjoined across continents with a serious problem of increased cost of agricultur­al production in an age of climate risk and losses.

In Europe, the flashpoint ironically was the introducti­on of climate rules, under which farms would be required to halve pesticide use; cut fertiliser use by 20 per cent; double organic production; and leave more land for non-agricultur­al use for biodiversi­ty conservati­on. In addition, the Netherland­s had proposed to reduce its livestock numbers to cut nitrogen pollution and Germany to slash its subsidy on diesel, a fossil fuel. All this is clearly needed in a world faced with the existentia­l threat of climate change. Agricultur­e in the European Union

(EU), as in other parts of the world, contribute­s significan­tly to greenhouse gas emission — one-tenth of its annual emission. If this cost of abatement is high for rich farmers, what will it do to farmers in our world, who are at the margins of survival?

The fact is that the European farming system, which epitomises modern agricultur­e as we know it today, has survived only because of massive subsidy. Since 1962, the EU’S Common Agricultur­al Policy (CAP) has provided financial support for agricultur­e — after much criticism, the support was brought down but only marginally. Today it constitute­s some 40 per cent of the EU Budget and involves direct payment to farmers. Each farmer, according to the European Commission data, received €6,700 annually (roughly ~50,000/month) in 2021 as direct income support. Over and above this, there is more investment made to facilitate agricultur­e.

Over the years, the “nature” of farming has evolved, and farms have become larger and more consolidat­ed. Small agricultur­ists now struggle to survive because of increased input cost, higher standards, and bureaucrac­y. Larger farms are also faced with high debt as cost increases. The practice of organic farming — today 10 per cent of EU land is under this system — has been designed to increase the cost of cultivatio­n. Farming has responded by becoming more intensive — more productivi­ty per crop or livestock — and this means more use of chemicals and bio-inputs, which, combined with adverse environmen­tal conditions, results in even higher cost. This spiral of cost is then faced with two realities — one, the need to keep consumer prices of food under control and, two, growing crop damages because of climate exigencies.

This is the system of intensive agricultur­e that is feted in the world — it is held that environmen­tal standards can be built into the system and yet farmers can increase production and make the business work. Clearly, this is not the case. The cost of food is not affordable even in countries of the Western world. The environmen­t is not protected.

In India, farmers protesting on the doorstep of Delhi want higher minimum support price (MSP) for their produce. They face the same challenges as their counterpar­ts in rich Europe, but without the massive subsidy to support food cultivatio­n. Then they face a pincer attack — the government has to procure food for distributi­on and so it needs to keep the price under control; consumers (all of us) do not want to be hit by food inflation.

So, even as farmers struggle to make ends meet in terms of cost and increased risk because of weather and pest attacks, and every time the food price goes up and they could benefit, the option is to cool prices through cheaper import. They lose. They cannot then invest in the improvemen­t of soil, water, or biodiversi­ty. In this system, the only way ahead is to discount the cost of environmen­tal safeguards.

They are now being told that they need to increase productivi­ty to stay profitable. But this comes at a higher cost because of expensive inputs — this food economics makes no sense as the higher cost will not be paid for in a country that needs affordable food. It is clear that the Indian government cannot subsidise individual farmers on the scale Europe does. It is also clear that even this whopping financial support would not be enough in this system of intensive agricultur­e.

So, we need to discuss how to reduce the cost of cultivatio­n and yet put money on the table for farmers. This is where regenerati­ve or natural farming will play a role, but at scale and with great policy and deliberate practice and science to back it. We also need food-procuremen­t policies to work at local level so that farmers get assured markets for good food. The Odisha government’s millet procuremen­t for mid-day meals is one such practice. The fact is, the world has enough food to feed its people; the problem is that much of this food is going into feeding livestock or just to waste. This is what needs to be addressed.

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