Indian questions hi-tech agriculture

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Sep 4 06:26:13 MDT 2002


DEVINDER SHARMA: There isn't a time when an educated Indian doesn't search
for answers from "America --- the dream land" for the problems that crop up
time and again back home. Whether it is hunger, sustainable agriculture,
kick-starting industrial growth, food habits, music, and of course the
successful model of economic growth, India must follow the Americans.

No wonder, the intelligentsia, the economists and the scientists are always
desperate for opportunities to travel and return with a bag full of answers
to our multitude of problems.

The solutions to India's raging drought --- some call it the worst in
recent memory --- which haunts and ravages 12 States, too rests in the way
America has managed its crop lands. After all, the United States has put
together a drought-mitigation strategy, which has been touted as something
that India needs to follow immediately.

With hi-tech transformation, American agriculture, we all believe, has
become insulated from the vagaries of drought. They apply laser,
information technology and huge machines to crop farm land. They use
satellite data, electronics and now genetic engineering for what is
popularly called "precision farming."

For Indian agriculture, with its fragmented land holdings, subsistence
farming methods, poor productivity and the exploitation of the natural
resource base as a consequence have cast serious doubts over the
sustainability and viability of the farms.

The only escape for the country, we are invariably told by agricultural
scientists, is to follow the American model. Such an approach will provide
an impeccable drought proofing. And it is primarily for this reason,
corporate agriculture is being pushed as the way out from the crisis that
afflicts Indian agriculture.

By a strange coincidence, America too is faced at present with its worst
drought since the days of the great "dust bowl" of the 1930s. As many as 26
of the 50 American States are reeling under a severe drought, with
"exceptional drought" conditions --- the worst level of drought measured
--- prevailing in thirteen states, including New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado
and Utah.

Such is the crop damage that like the drastic reduction expected in rice
production this year in India, the U.S. wheat production is anticipated to
fall to its lowest levels in nearly 30 years. There couldn't have therefore
been a better time to study America's drought coping mechanisms and suggest
its replication in a poor developing country like India and for that matter
in South Asia, Africa and Latin America.

It comes as a rude shock. The American agriculture that we all studied in
the universities and appreciated has crumbled with one year of severe
drought. The drought proofing that we heard so much about the American
agriculture appears to be a big farce. It is a known fact that Indian
agriculture falters because of its complete dependence on monsoons. But
with the kind of industrialization that took place in American agriculture,
and with the amount of investments made, we were always told that the U.S.
agriculture is not dependent upon rains.

"Precision farming" is the most-efficient farming method that needs to be
adopted on a mass scale. At first impression, news reports appearing in the
American media looks like emanating from a drought-stricken village in
India's hinterland. Till of course you see the dateline. You continue to
read in utter disbelief.

About 100 desperate farmers and rural residents praying for rain at the St.
Patrick parish church in Grand Rapids, Ohio. With hands clasped and eyes
cast downward, they seek divine intervention. "None of us have control over
whether it is going to rain or not," said Sister Christine Pratt, rural
life director for the Catholic Diocese of nearby Toledo told Reuters, the
wire agency. "But the people are praying for one another and there is some

Another report in the Washington Post states President George Bush was
unwilling to extend anymore finances under drought relief than the support
that can come from $180 billion farm bill he signed in May. The president
however underscored his commitment to helping farmers under current
programs, including the Agriculture Department's decision that provides
$150 million in surplus milk --- "spoiled milk," as Democrats called it ---
to be made available for use in animal feed in four drought-stricken
states, including South Dakota.

Cattle are dying and crops are shrivelling. Fodder has become scarce, and
therefore the need to feed surplus "milk" instead. There is a scramble for
new water sources as town and city residents are urged to stop watering
lawns and washing cars. In heat-baked fields ranchers have sold off herds
rather than let them starve for lack of pasture.

"I have never seen it like this and I'm 60 years old," said Richard
Traylor, who owns 37,000 acres in Texas and New Mexico but has sold off
much of his cattle herd. Serious hydrological problems with wells and
reservoirs have emerged. Streams have gone dry. The groundwater table has
fallen drastically.

Wildfires have become more rampant, and an estimated 4.6 million acres, has
been scorched this year, twice the average acreage burnt in the previous
decade. "It is pretty dire," said Mark Svoboda, climatologist for the
National Drought Mitigation Center. From southern California to South
Carolina and from Montana to New Mexico, individuals and industries are
suffering, the news agency reports. In India, the total drought relief
demanded by the affected States is around Rs 30,000 crore. In America, the
drought relief being sought is in the range of US $ 5 billion.

In India, the government still hasn't banned watering of lawns. But in
Monticello, Georgia, south of Atlanta, all outside watering has been
banned, because creek levels were so low that the area could run out of
water in 30 to 45 days.

And like the loss estimates being worked out by the Indian Ministry of
Agriculture, the national estimates for drought-related losses are also
being prepared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture waiting for harvesting
of corn and soybean and other key crops to conclude before loss figures are
compiled. Where are the genetically modified crops that one thought would
be hardy enough to withstand the impact of the acute dry conditions?

Lack of rain is the obvious factor for the prevailing drought in both India
and America. But let us not forget that while India receives almost its
entire rain in 100 hours during the monsoon season, it continues to rain
intermittently in America. And still, water shortages are prompting battles
between "upstream and downstream states and between individuals and
businesses in Dodge City, Kansas." In Jasper County, South Carolina, a drop
in an underground aquifer left households without water.

Rural residents, like In India, blamed business operators for using too
much water. And as if this is not enough, North and South Carolina are
fighting over North Carolina's refusal to release water from its reservoirs

In Colorado, Denver's water reservoir has already hit a historic low.
Colorado Gov. Bill Owens has approved a $1 million emergency drought fund
so that farmers and ranchers can buy water. "People are battling for water
like we've never seen before," said Hope Mizzell, South Carolina's drought
program coordinator. Like Rajasthan in India, which is faced with its
fourth consecutive year of drought, some areas in America are also
experiencing their fifth consecutive year of drought.

The conditions are near those seen during the country's most devastating
drought in the 1930s --- the "dust bowl" years, when some 60% of the United
States was affected, media reports. Isn't it the same situation that India
is also passing through? After all, if a severe drought some 70 years after
the 1930 "dust bowl" years still results in such a massive devastation,
isn't it time to question the efficacy of the American model of farming?

Isn't it a fact that the hi-tech American agriculture remains as vulnerable
to dry weather as the subsistence farming systems that prevails in India?

Why then should India follow a faulty agriculture and farming system? It is
time India realizes that it has to develop its own low-cost farming
strategies suiting the needs of the country. It is time Indian agricultural
scientists looked inwards for building up a farming system that meets the
nation's requirements and also addresses problems of sustainability. It is
time the developing countries realized the mistake of replicating a faulty
agricultural system that will further exacerbate the economic crisis
considering the massive investments required. Blindly aping the industrial
farming system would only push the developing countries into a hitherto
unforeseen crisis, much severe than the recurring drought.

Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi, India-based food and trade policy analyst


 From The
September 4, 2002 #186
Monitoring Corporate Agribusiness
 From a Public Interest Perspective
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