In a significant critique of corporate farming, two senior scholars have argued that revitalization of family farming traditions with emphasis on the empowerment of women and youth will enhance small farm productivity and profitability, on the one hand, and nutrition-sensitive agriculture, on the other. However, corporate farming displaces three to four jobs for every single job created. Excerpts from the paper, “2014 International Year of Family Farming: A Boost to Evergreen Revolution”, published in “Current Science” (December 25, 2014) by KC Kesavan and MS Swaminathan*:
The history of cultivation and domestication that took place in different continents and countries at varying periods before the advent of the Christian era reveals one thing in common, i.e. farming activities were essentially a family affair and community-centric. The Harappa and Mohenjo-daro excavations have provided evidence of farming with techniques of plough cultivation and irrigation about 2450–2300 BC. Apparently, men ploughed, and women following behind them, put the seeds in the furrows. The granaries discovered at Harappa and Mohenjodaro suggest that women managed the storage of grains, as they do even now. Most of the post-harvest processing was done by women.
Even in the United States, family farming has been the preponderant system of crop and animal husbandry. The family farms could be very large, about 100–250 ha as in USA and Canada, or just about 1.0 ha or even less as in India and several other developing countries. Big family farms with fewer family members as in USA and Canada necessitate the use of massive farm machines and implements powered by fossil fuel. On the other hand, small and largely resource-poor farms depend mostly on the manual labour of the family members and landless labourers to carry out agricultural operations such as ploughing, sowing, weeding, harvesting, etc. The work in the farms is shared by men and women.
In India and several other developing countries, women manage the farm animals, especially milking the cows, selling milk and its processed products (butter, ghee, etc.). Women also take care of the management of feed and water for the animals. They also collect dung and urine both for keeping the animal sheds clean and also using these for preparing manure; cow dung is also used as ‘green energy’ for cooking purposes. Rural women play a major role in all these sustainable development activities.
The corporate farms invariably practice monocropping with intensification of inputs that are largely chemically derived. The goal is to use improved, high-yielding varieties of crops and exploit their high yield potential by applying huge amounts of inorganic chemical fertilizers, copious irrigation mostly using groundwater and energy from fossil fuel. They also drastically reduce the manpower on the farms. It promotes jobless economic growth. Data from the United States show that corporate farming only creates 9.44 jobs displacing 27.97. This is also reflected in the fact that back in 1900, about 39% of the US population worked on farms, and today, only about 2% of all Americans are working on farms. USA has a population of just about 312 million and has an unemployment rate of about 9%.
Judged against this background, the adverse impact on employment/livelihood by corporate farming in the Indian situation could be quite drastic, since hunger and malnourishment of millions of people in India, especially in the rural areas, is on account of famine of livelihoods. So, corporate farming would only increase the number of women and men without income-generating livelihoods. Without livelihoods, there will be a sharp rise in poverty-related hunger and malnourishment.
A recent estimate by the Rangarajan panel puts the number of poor people in India at 363 million (i.e. about 30% of the country’s population), although this figure is disputed. Even if the number of poor people is put at about 250 million, it is still the highest for any country in the world. Corporate farming will increase and not reduce the number of poor people. And poverty is the root cause of hunger and malnourishment. Thus, corporate farming largely fails on both the ecological and social dimensions of sustainable development.
Advantages of family farms
The monocropping system adopted by corporate farms cannot provide agricultural remedies for maladies caused by nutritional deficiencies. Once the nature of nutritional deficiencies is identified, appropriate vegetable, fruit or any other edible plant species can be included in the cropping system of the family farms, so that these are also included in the daily consumption. Along with cereals, oilseeds and pulses, several horticultural plants such as sweet potato, bread fruit, various berries, and citrus species which are rich in micronutrients and vitamins could be cultivated in the family farms.
There are plant species specifically noted for high levels of iron, iodine, zinc and vitamin A. Such naturally biofortified plant species which are not the major concern of industrial farming would enhance the economic and health benefits of family farms. A family farm with such a diverse plant source of carbohydrates, fats, proteins as well as micronutrients is wholesome both in the macro- and micronutritional needs of the family members and other consumers. From the time of preparing the land, sowing, raising the crops, and post-harvest processing until the food is put on the dining table, the labour involved is shared between women and men of the families.
Manual labour supplemented with draught power provided by farm animals greatly reduces the need for fossil fuels. Weeding is mostly done by women members of the family. Landless women from the neighbourhood may also join to earn livelihoods. Family farms which raise landraces and indigenous varieties of diverse crop species are more resilient to the extreme hydro-meteorological events (floods, droughts, cyclones, etc.), which are increasing both in frequency of occurrence and destructive potential because of climate change.
Another major ecological as well as socio-economic benefit associated with family farming comes from the inclusion of farm animals for milk, eggs, meat and draught. Women take up much of the work such as managing feeds for the animals, milking the cows, collecting urine and dung for making manure and/or ‘green’ fuels for cooking. The dried cow dung is used as fuel for cooking. In a more advanced system, ‘cooking gas’ is produced from cow dung. All these different aspects of work associated with family farming have pro-nature, pro-poor, pro-women, pro-livelihood and pro-renewable energy dimensions. The crops-plus-animals-based agro-systems are still prevalent, although threats to these highly sustainable family farming systems are increasing in scale and intensity.
Cropping systems in the family farms are not monotonously uniform. In fact, these vary widely depending upon the local cultural, culinary and curative needs. For example, the different varieties of rice grown in smallholder farms in Kerala, Odisha and the North East are cultivated for specific needs and occasions as follows:
(i) ‘Kala jeera’ rice – in Odisha and the North East (Imphal) to prepare a sweet dish (‘kheer’) on certain festive occasions.
(ii) Medicinal rice – in Kerala for curative purposes; for example, ‘Navara’ rice for concocting medicinal preparations to cure arthritis, joint pains, etc.
(iii) ‘Basmati’ and other scented rice, as well as long grain rice are used for making specific dishes with meat or vegetables. In fact, the specificity is so high that one variety cannot substitute another to serve a particular purpose. For example, ‘basmati’ rice is most suitable to make ‘pulav’ or ‘biryani’ and not ‘curd rice’.
Corporate farms are hardly designed to cater to the various culinary, cultural and curative needs. While agriculture in any form is not entirely benign to the environment, family farming is certainly in greater harmony with the natural ecosystems. The family farms include cultivation of nitrogen-fixing leguminous crops. Crop rotations and multiple-cropping systems help in managing pests below an ‘economic injury level’. Conservation of biodiversity rules out eradication of species, including pests. With vegetable and fruit crops alongside cereals, pulses, oilseeds and fodder, the beneficial organisms in the soil (e.g. earthworms, nitrogen-fixing bacteria, etc.) and above the soil (e.g. pollinator insects, predators, parasites) flourish.
Thus family farming is indeed a kind of farming with landscape/nature. Since no toxic residues of chemical pesticides are left in the soil, plant parts and water bodies, the health risk (e.g. cancer) to the family farmers and the neighbours is exceedingly low. The soil health in several smallholder farms could be poor for want of resources such as biofertilizers, manures, etc. but is not degraded beyond repair as it happens with intensification of agriculture with chemical inputs and fossil fuel-based energy.
Threats to family farms
Family farms have both national as well as global threats and challenges. The first is the myth that productivity increase (kg/ha) in crops cannot be achieved in smallholder farms. The basic question here is whether smallholder family farms can substantially increase the yields. In the past decade, significant progress towards sustainable agroecosystems has taken place mainly in the developing countries. A very large study, analysis of 286 projects in 57 countries, found the mean relative yield increase was 79% across a wide variety of systems and crop types.
Further, the smallholder farms can practice eco-friendly intensification with ‘green’ inputs (biofertilizers, biopesticides) and largely renewable energy (cow dung gas, wind and solar). This is called ‘sustainable intensification’. The process of achieving the yield gains may, however, be slower than in the case of ‘chemistry-based intensification of agriculture’, but the former is not ‘exploitative’; ‘sustainable intensification’ (including green agriculture) is acceptable within the purview of evergreen revolution.
Although the smallholder family farms are inherently eco-friendly and socially equitable, they still need the benefits of continuously advancing new technologies as well as market and policy support in order to enable them to slash mass poverty, and to promote food and nutrition security by farm-based progress. Thousands of resource poor small farms require soil health care. Without proper soil health monitoring and necessary ameliorative steps, soil health to support crop growth remains poor.
Often, the resource-poor small farmers are misled by the fertilizer dealers to apply those fertilizers which they want to sell, and not what the soil is hungry for. ASoil Health Monitoring and Amelioration Centre in every block can also help farmers in the effective utilization of nutrient-based subsidies. Young agricultural graduates could be employed in such centres, including the agribusiness centres and agri-clinics for farm animals. The smallholder family farmers also require technological support for community-centric rainwater harvesting, conservation and efficient use.
The smallholder farms would greatly benefit from proactive support in the conservation of precious genetic resources, for achieving sustainable food and nutrition security, especially in view of extensive environmental degradation and climate change. Particular attention is necessary to conserve animal genetic resources. Several cattle breeds have already been lost. Small family farms owning and conserving the endangered animal breeds should be given appropriate incentives and recognition.
*With MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai. Click HERE for the full paper