Industrialising agriculture dooms the sources of life

Greens contend that agricultural productivity can be increased many times with minimal use of water and a few external inputs, but most definitely without giving in to those who shout the slogan: Declare agriculture an industry.

By Gail Omvedt
Published: Wednesday 30 September 1992

-- (Credit: Tekshaw)WHEN THE slogan "Declare agriculture an industry" was raised at the All India Congress Committee (AICC) session in Tirupati some months ago, it was an attempt to include rural toilers in the ruling party's grand policies of social reconstruction. But, at best, the slogan is a redundancy, for agriculture is already an industry and its "industrialists" are plentiful: fertiliser companies, seed and petrochemical corporations, grain trading companies and multinational food processors, to name a few. Peasants and farm labourers remain an unrecognised part of the industry -- and the work of peasant women is not even tallied in the census.

Agriculture refers to a production system that centres around obtaining biomass from land. In the pre-industrial period, the peasant communities, artisans, herders and forest-dwellers, maintained and controlled most of the production cycle, from providing seed and natural manure to local marketing of products of the soil, from food and clothing to housing and medicine.

While much of this production system supported a low-population density, it was not necessarily low technology if related to energy used. It was, on the whole, more productive of water and other input, than Green Revolution technology. For millennia, it was these communities practising cultivation that carried forward the natural productivity of the earth. Agriculture is a potentially regenerative production system, because it puts as much back into the land as it takes out.

True, for thousands of years, such agricultural practices were linked to brutal feudal empires based on the extraction of surpluses by levying taxes, renting or simple looting. True, the peasant communities themselves were often patriarchal and highly stratified by customs such as caste. There were also millennia of relatively stateless societies and, even in the feudal period, hierarchies were mitigated by the fact that the poor had access to common properties. Women's subordination was eased by the decisive role they played in the agricultural process itself, such as controlling seeds, planting, dairying, small-animal production and marketing.

Industrialism brought with it not only a new system of manufacture, but also irrevocably changed the relationship of human societies to the earth. Tremendous growth in productivity was made possible by using free, or extremely cheap, natural resources at a rate that is now beginning to destroy the conditions of production.

Industrialism has also imperialised agriculture by taking control of inputs and processing and marketing the products of the land. Thus, agriculture has been subjected to a wasteful use of resources. For instance, in USA, it takes eight calories of energy to produce one calorie of food. If every country used inputs at this level, the entire global energy output would have to be earmarked for agriculture.

Is chemical-industrial agriculture inevitable? Yes, insist orthodox economists, who see no other way to increase agricultural productivity. They see the peasant as a technological idiot and the land and the earth as inert objects that are nothing without the application of industrial "science and technology". The result is that every development economist sees agriculture only as a field from which food and labour surpluses must be extracted, to provide the starting point for industry to take off.

The Marxists agree with them, but the problem with orthodox Marxists is that not only have they concurred with liberal ideologues in seeing peasants as backward, they have often not even seen them at all. For both the liberal capitalist and the traditional Marxist, the poor are never real partners in development, let alone part of its foundation.

But the rising voices of the Greens are being heard in the world today. They are not simply tribals fighting displacement, urbanites fighting pollution or housewives vehemently opposing toxic wastes. Greens include economists, technicians, physicians, engineers and agricultural scientists, who keep us informed about energy accounting and the law of entropy; We cannot go on drawing from the earth without putting something back into it.

Greens tell us that the final source of energy is the sun and the most efficient use of sunlight is to be found in the photosynthetic capacity of plants; that agricultural productivity can be increased many times with minimal use of water and few external inputs. That a detailed understanding of these processes would enable basic needs -- at an even higher standard than presently exists in villages and urban slums -- to be met primarily from biomass production. Greens tells us that the specialised training of scientists and technicians can be merged with the traditional knowledge of peasants and forest-dwellers to help sustain the earth and develop its resources. The voices of the Greens are the ones we should heed.

Should agriculture be an industry? No, for that would be the road to the final destruction of the sources of life. Agriculture should be a science.

Gail Omvedt is a Maharashtra-based academic and political activist.

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