The land can teach how. to use it best

 
Published: Thursday 15 April 1993

UNDER the unrelenting pressure of population growth, millions of landholdings in Asia and other parts of the developing world are small - and getting smaller. India alone has at least 33 million holdings of less than half a hectare. These plots may be small but they are far from insignificant. Indeed, they are critically important for the economy of,the individual families that farm them and, cumulatively, of the nation.

The economic viability of these farms is vital, and the only way of ensuring it is through intensive use of the land. If the drive for intensification is not to result in debt, chemical poisoning, polluted water sources and exhausted soils, caused by high-cost, high-input, hightech practices, there is a definite role for organic techniques, such as conservation farming methods being practised primarily in the Philippines (See page 29).

In China, maintaining ecological balance has enabled a rice crop to be taken from the same fields every year for 4,000 years; but in parts of California, home to what has been described as "the'most varied and productive farming empire the world has ever seen", and where agriculture is indistinguishable from industry, even 400 more years of use of chemicals, water and energy at current levels, looks like a hopelessly overambitious dream. In California, because of the damage already inflicted in the shape or top- ts soil erosion, groundwater contami- ' nation and *soil salination, organic farming goes under the name - regenerative agriculture.

Yet governments and large agribusinesses rarely take chemical-free fanning seriously. They are mesmerised by the lure of short-term production gains, uncaring of longterm sustainability, worried that shortages resulting from ever-growing demand may spark public outrages, and concerned about their ability to disburse the largest possible amount of funds in the shortest possible time. Hence, they are locked into technical-fix approaches, such as the Green Revolution, partly because it is institutionally easier to administer apparently universal, cureall prescriptions. than to adapt policies and programmes to particular conditions that vary in place and time. They push panaceas until the failures and side-effects are too damaging to ignofe. Then, instead of learning from their mistake, they proclaim another panacea and pursue it, literally, to the end of the earth.

But just as the achieverrie 'nts of the Green Revolution come with a cost, in terms of money and environmental damage, such as imbalanceslIn soil content as a result of repeated applications of phemical fertilisers, organic farming also carries a i a above all, its labour intensity, which usually fallitharTest on already overbur dened women. The extra w k demanded by non-chemi cal pe@t control, weeding by hand, land contouring, planting hedgerow digging canals, preparing beds'And replenishing soil for conser'vation farming in the Philippines is conceded by its proponents to be a barrier to its spread. particularly among farmers who do not own the land. Organic farming also requires adaptations to sometimes rapid changes in the resource base, such as population pressure and land fragmentation.

At present, the debate between protagonists of chemical and of organic farming is based on blind faith in either agro-industrial solutions or traditional approaches. The fact is- that both sides need to learn from each other and to understand that cultural factors are as important as biological or climatic conditions.

Thus, development and application of scientific techniques to traditional practices in order to raise yields and productivity, as is being attempted by the Philippines programme, are needed to prevent further impoverishment of the poor, forest destruction by people hungry for land and increasing migration from villages to towns. As ever, this means planning for diversity - cultural as well as biological - and, as ever, listening to farmers, instead of preaching to them.

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