Rethinking Food system to address Hunger, Health and Social equality

As a prelude and preparation to my scientist visitorship to INRA (Institut national de la recherche agronomique (INRA) Centre d’Economie et de Sociologie appliquées à l’Agriculture et aux Espaces Ruraux. laboratory. Dijon Cedex France for my research on “A comparative study of organic farming in Assam,India with the French model of Organic farming emphasizing enhanced capacities of informal, indigenous local knowledge through formal strategies of ICT and sustainable business management” I would like to share a few anecdotes from the Far Eastern world where indigenous communities managed to preserve some of the unique traditions of sustainable agriculture. This may, however, be short-lived, as they struggle to grapple with the onslaught of conventional agriculture. In Assam, we need to note that conventional industrial agriculture only penetrated through the colonial capitalism of the tea industry. Food crops were fortunately not tampered with, and communities were allowed to carry on with their traditional practices. However, it is not to say that the scourges of industrial agriculture and production of tea did not impact the local ecosystem, biodiversity, and livelihood patterns due to the indiscriminate use of chemical fertilizers for mass production. Thus, in spite of large-scale degradation of soil quality, water, and human health, what can be still salvaged is probably the invaluable indigenous knowledge of sustainable agricultural practices among the indigenous communities in areas of flood control and management, bio fertilizers, pest control, multi-cropping, seed preservation, food storage, livelihood support, and local food security. It is remarkable that most of the tribal communities inhabiting this region have been self-sustaining in terms of their social structure and economy. Starvation deaths are unheard of, and common property resources are regulated through customary laws that ensure equity, inter-generational stability, and to some extent gender equality.

Popular in India, the traditional paradigm of sustainable agriculture is the organic agricultural practices underlined in the greater traditions of Hinduism and its grand narrative in texts such as Vrikshayurveda and in practices of agnihotra yajna, etc. The little traditions of the tribal folk cultures, such as those inhabiting the peripheries of Northeast India, many a times go unnoticed due to the lack of proper documentation and research in these areas. There is a great impetus in this region to go organic, given the potentials for organic farming and a growing market of citizens seeking ‘clean and pure food’ production. Undoubtedly, there is enormous potential for this region, given that it is not even halfway as polluted as the other parts of India that went for intensive agriculture during the Green Revolution, such as Punjab and Bengal. Learning from the price that was paid by the Green Revolution in terms of adverse health impacts and natural resource pollution, the
current agenda is to go towards an evergreen revolution with full support of the government. Regions like Northeast India, being the last frontier to the Indian post-development planning, await this attention eagerly. But, are they ready for this? A government commissioned study as was reiterated by Guy Dauncey in Canada should be the first step. A haphazard adoption of organic farming will not only jeopardize the ethical component of going organic, but will also uproot and destabilize prospects of agroecology in one of the most deserving regions of the world. Right now, there are a number of unorganized endeavours towards organic farming by private entrepreneurs and local farmers. However, in the absence of awareness and commitment to organic food; coordination and networking between farmers and consumers; and community and institutional support for farms to be self-sustaining in terms of seeds, storage, marketing and brand building, organic farming in Assam and North East India as
a whole may never see the dawn of success.

In fact, even when industrial manufacturing backed by large corporations has tried to transition to sustainable practices, it has found itself bitterly overthrown. For example, in Assam in the year 2006-07, in an experiment undertaken by Dhekiajuli Tea Estate owned by Parry Agro Industries Ltd, a corporate conglomerate tried to implement sustainable agricultural practices pertaining to production techniques in tea cultivation. The initiative was taken by the local management primarily to address the hazardous impact of toxicity in the local environment, particularly soil and water quality. The impact on the health of the resident labour population made the management sit up when they found a significant rise in the number of lung diseases, skin infection, and birth deformity among workers. I first visited the tea garden in 2007 to conduct fieldwork with my students from the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, who had registered for my course “Concepts and Ideologies in
Social Life,” where sustainability and sustainable development as a conceptual paradigm from sociological perspective was explored. The experience for us was positive, and the optimism of the management and workers was contagious and motivating for the young technocrats of future India. The management was committed to a market-driven, competitive industrial manufacturing process but steered their motivation with a parallel experiment of vermicompost, agnihotri yajna, Panchgavya or cowpathy, Amrit pani or fermented cowdung which generates about 250 kinds of beneficial bacteria and other localized and organic pest control and fertiliser techniques to promote sustainable industrial growth with low chemical impact. Sources of Indigenous knowledge such as Vrikshayurveda were systematically explored to unearth traditional organic practices in farming and agriculture. The cultural worldview of environmental sustainability embedded in our traditional knowledge about agricultural practices
and farming is elabourate in its glorification of trees and tree planting. Every topic connected with the science of plant life such as procuring, preserving, and treating of seeds before planting; preparing pits for planting saplings; selection of soil; method of watering; nourishments and fertilizers; plant diseases and plant protection from internal and external diseases; layout of a garden; agricultural and horticultural wonders; groundwater resources; etc.; finds a place in these texts.

The management was forced to abandon the grand project as an unfulfilled legacy, succumbing to the formidable forces driving our unsustainable existence. In spite of significant progress made towards environmental and labour health and the quality of natural capital like land, water, and soil (which started reflecting low toxin and chemical content that is disastrous and highly polluted), the Dhekiajuli Tea Estate abandoned this experiment in 2014. Apparently, the embedded externalized costs of poor health, environmental degradation, and toxic waste generation are seldom reflected into the company balance sheet. As a result, the transition towards the new paradigm of sustainable industrialization of tea manufacture was seen as a failure in terms of production cost and output. The situation will be worse in case of unorganized farmers who live in rural areas and for whom in the first place itself agriculture is economically non-viable due to small landholdings and lack of
infrastructural support. Moreover, the rather inferior value attached to manual labour makes farming a very low-prestige profession which the emerging educated middle classes loathe to associate themselves with. The push factors of emerging urbanization have made rural India and all its associated riders of village life and farming as a livelihood option unattractive to the youth. This is a dangerous trend for emerging economies: the centrifugal forces of urbanization are creating havoc with the balancing of local development of rural India and preservation of its ‘little and folk traditions.’ In fact, what is happening is even dangerous: a booming ICT, satellite TV, mobile, and internet facility is bringing the global society into the threshold of village society, but at the cost of a great loss to the self-esteem of rural India as it finds itself dispossessed of its sustainable heritage, which includes organic farming and sustainable food cultivation.

Dr Sujata Dutta Hazarika