Agriculture

Crop risks, environmental damages, hunger and the 2020 farm laws

Improved access to new markets, better yields and higher income need to safeguard environmental sustainability and farmers’ indebtedness

 
By KAS Mani
Published: Friday 22 January 2021

The ongoing agitation by farmers on the borders of Delhi provides an opportunity to flag concerns about various aspects in the agriculture sector, including the environment, society, economy, food security and risk coverage for farmers.

Several commentators have already spoken about the 2020 farm laws, supported by statistics, and experience. Many of these claims are not unfounded and should be seriously examined by all concerned.

Let us look at some of the socio-ecological concerns that need a serious relook.

‘De-risking’ agriculture

The farm laws limit the risks in the agriculture sector to pricing mechanisms while climate, environment and food security concerns are not taken seriously.

The missing element in the entire policy process is the absence of ‘mitigation standards’ for different agro-ecological zones.

Such a norm will help define the role of farmers, private players, market and insurance companies to fulfil risk protection compliance. Risks can only be minimised but never altogether averted.

In the absence of scientific risk mitigation standards, farming turns into a gamble that cannot be wished away by the laws.

Insurance companies, the primary actors in risk coverage, need to be sustained to design and promote appropriate packages that navigate possible risks and minimise exposure.

Experience shows that crop insurance payments are defaulted due to wrong product design. Insurance schemes are more about amassing premiums than adequate risk coverage.

The operational crop insurance launched with much fanfare have failed to deliver, as none of the stakeholders have come out unscathed.

Faith in insurance is at its lowest when it is needed the most. When mitigation standards are made mandatory, all concerned parties will need to be vigilant.

Aggressive crop yields need to be scaled down to a realistic environmental threshold. The choice of crop type, plant variety, farm inputs and outputs will then be rationalised.

While climate change and environmental degradation trigger agrarian distress, market forces' greed, price fluctuation, indebtedness and irrationality of insurance packages turn it worse. Risk insurance for all farms must be mandatory and in contract farming, total liabilities must be transferred to the contractor.

‘Performance bond’ as a guarantee for timely payment of claims is an urgent necessity. Such a facility will help in settlements from the performance bond regulated by an independent board.  

Protection to ‘environmental damages’

The farm laws make no effort to incentivise either private players or farmers to upgrade the micro-environment. On the other hand, they seek to extract the maximum out of the environment through technology, seed, inputs, higher yields.

Environmental protection is critical for sustenance in production. Typical protection techniques such as agroforestry, biomass, watershed, forest and wildlife do not find any mention.

The promotion of industrial-scale agriculture comes with huge risks. India’s prevailing farming practices, assumed as ‘archaic and outdated’, remain guzzlers of natural resources. These specifically relate to:

  • Plunging groundwater levels
  • Depreciating groundwater and surface water quality
  • Reducing nutrients from the soil
  • Unbreathable air
  • Elimination of local biomass
  • Deforestation

Large-scale mechanisation for increased productivity shall further aggravate the situation. 

Climate change concerns like heavy downpours, extreme summers, increased pests and locust attacks are not foreseen in the farm laws. There is a need to design a ‘safety net’ against environmental damages.

Ecological taxes on private companies entering contract farming, aggregators, processors, wholesalers, large retailers and exporters shall limit damages. This way, the burden of environmental protection becomes real and markets can be forced to ensure sustainability.

Thus, a mosaic of crop production systems becomes fundamental to environmental protection. Aspects of biodiversity, organic farming and balanced agronomic practices need to come into play. The correct mix of food, fruit, flowers, forest, fish, milk will become a part of the overall food basket.

Legislative bodies need to bring in specific bills linked to green tax, sustainable agriculture, organic food, water footprint thresholds, soil protection and micro-climate enhancement.

Hunger and buffer food stocks

The obsession with monocropping of rice and wheat has created a wrong assumption of food surplus. The farm laws are all about this white elephant — “surplus food stocks” — that the government is keen to divest.  Existing food stocks are too costly to store and too expensive to distribute, even as hunger and starvation are witnessed in several districts.

India’s ranking on the global hunger index is among the bottom-most 15 countries. The farm laws make no mention of hunger while being most concerned about dealing with buffer stocks. The hunger index conveys a lot many things that are wrong in agriculture.

A third of Indian voters face hunger or starvation. No other country among the bottom 15 in the global hunger index has the luxury of over-flowing food stocks or export food crops while ignoring its starving population at the same time.

It is time such indices are taken cognisance of and adequate steps taken for their mitigation.  The globally accepted explanation of the link between environmental degradation and uncertainty with small landholdings’ agricultural productivity is one reason for starvation.

Be it droughts, floods, crop failures or ecological collapse, all lead to food shortages. Groups vulnerable to starvation include small farmers, farm labourers, rural artisans and non-farm wage earners.

The farm laws, with their priorities in disinvesting food grains, are likely to cause more economic segregation. Many farmers in environmentally degraded marginal lands are exposed to starvation and are struggling to stay alive.

The existence of ‘food buffer’ and ‘unfed mouths’ is a massive national shame and a serious effort needs to be made to get past this.

Suo motu cognisance of hunger as human rights violations can set things in order. Pressure needs to be brought to ban food export until hunger is fully addressed.

Farmers in areas reporting high starvation levels need customised food cropping programmes for small landholdings, with assured protection of minimum productivity.

Food entitlements also need to be made available to the vulnerable that can be exchanged for a cooked meal in notified establishments.

Meanwhile, India has magnanimously proposed to the World Food Programme to part with its overflowing food stocks for mitigating global hunger. Clearly, compassion and concerns get misplaced while seeking international commendation.

Other overhanging threats

As the formal institutions of credit, banks have played a significant role in protecting small farmers’ interest in particular. The continuation of institutional credit, although assured in the laws, will become difficult with increasing contract farming.

Contract farming promotes informal credit through farm inputs, land development and technical advice. During the final payments, all costs are subtracted and only the balance given.

There is no costing for the destruction of the soil, water, air and micro-climate. Once the productivity levels flatten or fail, the promoters and the entire value chain shift to new areas to continue with the process of environmental degradation without any accountability.

The presence of formal banking institutions will help the farmers stay out of captivity and act independently, focusing on balanced investments and returns.

Gender inequalities are another concern with contractual farming. Few women have land ownership or bank accounts for taking up contract farming. Even as women continue to be significant contributors to agriculture production, their inability to exercise contracts and receive funds will completely marginalise their role with decision-making processes.

With a dwindling role in the crop selection, farm inputs and production process control over the sustainability aspects are entirely taken away. Gender-specific obstacles need to be identified, and appropriate protection needs to be part of the farm laws.

The farm laws have helped bring the various ills with the current farming system and the need for change into the spotlight. We are all responsible for handing over this earth and its resources to the coming generations. The current approach of stealing the entitlements of the future is neither ethical nor sustainable.

KAS Mani is a water resources consultant with over four decades of experience largely with UN and other funding agencies

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth 

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