What sustainable agriculture means to me
To me, “sustainable” means something that can be continued over a long period of time with considerable changes in the environment.
Sustainable agriculture hence means agricultural practices that farmers can continue doing as they battle through the changing ecosystem around them.
A quick read through what I found on internet around sustainability led me to the idea that sustainable agriculture has 3 aspects i.e. social, economical and environmental.
Looking at it from a farmer’s perspective, a farmer needs to grow his/her produce and sell it at enough profit to manage their expenses. To be able to grow the produce a farmer needs land & other resources, some money to buy inputs and a supporting weather & climate. To sell it at a profit a farmer needs a buyer who is willing to pay a fair price.
There are obvious challenges that one can probably identify from above paragraph that farmers face in current ecosystem.
- Land & other resources: Soil fertility is reducing almost everywhere, ground water level is reducing. It has a tendency to turn a land barren and hence taking away everything from a farmer.
- Money to buy inputs: Cost of inputs are increasing and most of us have read about the vicious cycle of credit in our economics text books in secondary school. It can again ruin a farmer economically, force him to sell his land and again lose everything.
- Supporting weather & climate: Climate change is real and it is impacting the weather considerably. Droughts & heavy rains have equally damaging impact on crops which lead to huge economic loss for farmers & hence risking losing everything.
- Selling produce at a profit: The idea is that however small or large the produce may be, the net earnings should be greater than cost incurred. And the variations in market prices often work against the farmer especially when input cost is high.
Reducing it to a fundamental principle, the overall risk in current agriculture is so high that even a small negative event can lead to a farmer losing everything and hence the suicide rate of farmers.
To achieve sustainability for a farmer, the easiest way is to reduce the inherent risk involved in agriculture.
What does sustainability for a farmer looks like?
- Economical: The economical risk comes from the cost incurred by the farmer. The maximum risk is in the event of a crop failure which is equal to total cost incurred. Lower the cost of cultivation, lower the risk and higher the economic sustainability. It is then obvious why farmers are so easily attracted to the idea of “Zero Budget Natural Farming”.
The absolute economic sustainability comes when the cultivation doesn’t require any external one time inputs so that when the crop fails only sunk cost is that of a farmer’s time and labour.
- Environmental: I could talk about how agriculture can reverse climate change with probably the largest single handed impact. But a farmer probably wouldn’t care a lot about that. The environmental factors that affect a farmer are mostly rain, adverse weather, pest & disease attack etc. The two ways a farmer can defend himself from these adverse effects are first by diversifying the type of crops they grow so that smaller events do not wipe of their entire produce and second by creating micro-climates which can protect their farms from a more intense weather effect.
While micro-climates may sound a bit too fancy but using basic principles of permaculture and watershed movements have already led to micro-climates as a byproduct.
- Social: It is probably the most non-obvious aspect of sustainability. The social risk comes from the risk of a farmer losing his land & hence his social identity. Further, increased dependency on others affects the social standing of a farmer. The social resilience hence comes from higher resilience of the farmland against adverse environmental changes and a reduced dependency on others for basic cultivation & selling produce.
Improved soil fertility & better water management (against both drought and excessive rain) provides resilience of farmland. A reduced need of credit and inputs reduce dependency for cultivation. Having multiple marketing alternatives ensures a reduced dependency on others for selling produce.
Why I am bullish on natural farming as the sustainable future?
As it is probably clear from what sustainability of a farmer means to me, natural farming seems like a very obvious choice.
- It has been proven again and again by farmers that following ZBNF and allied practices can actually reduce the cost of cultivation considerably while maintaining the quanta of produce at par with chemical farming.
- Diversification of crops, improved soil fertility, water conservation, and an emergent ecology & micro-climate all are at the very core of agriculture models being developed around natural farming.
- Excessive stress on preventive measures and strengthening the soil in general increases the overall resilience of the farm.
- Because of reduced cost of cultivation and being able to develop inputs on the farm itself, the dependency in cultivation is mostly reduced to that of labour and knowledge. Both of which either strengthens social standing of peers or the ones who are worse off than the farmer.
- The least obvious and direct impact is that on the marketing of produce. While a lot of these farmers continue to sell their produce in traditional markets, their reduced cost of cultivation and diversification of crops makes them less susceptible to price variations in the market. Further, a parallel awareness on consumer side is opening new channels for these farmers to short circuit the traditional markets and reach to consumers through more direct channels.
What role can we play as outsiders if the spontaneous shift towards natural farming is the future?
Clearly biased by what we plan to do at Seed Savers Club, here is what I believe we can do to enable this spontaneous movement of farmers.
- Accelerating the pace of conversion: From what I understand, there is a huge amount of awareness among farmers already. What is a challenge for farmers is to be able to learn the entire new set of skills and successfully implement the same on their farms.
- Enabling a resilient farming community: Success of any spontaneous movement requires a well networked community. Connecting farmers to other farmers & other benefactors will hence lead to a more resilient community that can quickly adapt to new challenges.
- Increasing access of farmers to the outside world: While the spontaneous movement has helped farmers achieve reduced cost of cultivation and resilient farms, it has not helped much in reducing the market side risks for a farmer. Mitigating that risk requires connecting this spontaneous movement to that of health conscious consumers. Creating new value chains linking natural farmers to health conscious consumers is probably the single largest support this movement needs right now.