Farm Bills and Stone Age

A common argument that we hear against the simple lifestyle that Noushadya and I are trying to lead is that we are going backwards from the common narratives of progress and development.

The comment that we usually encounter is that we are heading towards the stone age. While it is known or can be intelligently guessed that most hunter gatherer societies lived a healthy and peaceful life even through the Bronze Age and the Iron age. Contrast it with the stressful lives we lead now with uncertainties about our existence as a species with the threats of climate change starting to turn real. The industrial consumerist lives the majority of us are now trying to lead is neither healthy for us as individuals or civilization nor for other species.

Species or even human civilizations that have utilized more resources than the ecosystems can handle have perished in the past. And they will continue to do so. It is an automatic self correcting mechanism that nature will employ. Our response as a society should not be to accelerate this process but to decelerate it; especially given the knowledge we have now gained about the planets carrying capacity and feedback loops enabling runaway climate change. The wisdom is in choosing technologies and minimalistic lifestyles which will help us do so.

What may actually push us into a time of constant war and deluge seen in ancient times such as stone age is pursuing the resource intensive globalised capitalistic forms of production and consumption. An approach where we reorganize ourselves into local self-sufficient communities seems to be the only one which is just to us and our future generations. We need to stop looking at our foraging, pastoralist, rural agrarian histories with disdain and instead learn from their best practices instead of choosing heavy machinery, artificial intelligence and economies of large scale.

Global cooperation will be needed to release ourselves from the strongholds of rich and greedy corporations. Democracy was our best hope to reduce concentration of power among the elite and the rich. But most governments that are now turning towards right-wing politics are ignoring the needs of the public. They are choosing to advocate and advertise lifestyles which will enrich the few rather than the many. Politicians these days make it seem like they are reforming systems under the garb of progress and development. Whereas we are only making mistakes that have been made in the past and by other countries.

Yes, I am talking about the 3 farm bills 2020. Income inequality has been rising sharply ever since the economic reforms unleashed by Manmohan Singh in early 1990s. People employed in agriculture have been reducing and they are getting reorganized in resource intensive sectors of manufacturing, services, heavy industry etc.. Not that agriculture has been getting less resource intensive – agriculture has been getting more and more exploitative since the green revolution. The narrative that keeps getting pushed in our economy’s plans is to reduce the GDP contribution of and people employed in agriculture. This school of thought has originated from western business and economics schools. So, it comes as no surprise that the US State Department has supported the implementation of these farm bills.

The farm bills are intent on dismantling whatever little socialistic support systems farmers had to protect themselves from the vagaries of the free market. Free markets are never really free. An illusion is created by the capitalistic system. Incentives are provided only to the largest players in the market by corrupt practices. In a truly free market, shouldn’t there be many small players controlling regional markets instead of one or two large players controlling commodities in the entire country? But what you see now in India, like in the US is that monopolies, oligopolies control the market. They determine prices by collusion, manipulate demand by smart advertizing and control supply by hoarding. The 3 farm bills enable all three steps.

Instead of reforming the public sector, we have chosen a path of disinvestment and elimination of public sector’s role in the country. Is this why we elect governments in the country? Governments are afraid of cleaning up their own act. So they want to handle the control of important systems of food & agriculture to the private system. Whatever little culture is left in our communal food practices will be given up to provide way for commiditized food. Procurements will see economies of scale, but distribution and retail sales will see as small a division of quantity as possible to realize maximum margins. Everything will be wrapped in plastic because that is the only way food can be preserved in transporting over long distances to seek profit maximizing markets. When profit-maximizing becomes the only motive, all other priorities of public health esp. elimination of malnutrition, soil health esp. increasing carbon in the soil, goes for a toss. Governments and public sector has a much bigger role to play than ensuring only the growth of our economy.

We need food to travel shorter distances if we want to have any chance of reducing the carbon footprint of soon-to-be world’s most-populous country’s food. We need many more local state level markets instead of One Nation One Market. Governments need to conduct massive awareness / advertising programmes about local greens, vegetables, fruits, cereals, pulses, that are far less intensive to cultivate, that are going missing from our diets. Don’t you think it is ironical that the current government which is so keen on promoting local manufacturing is so keen on destroying local agricultural systems?

We need to encourage farming cooperatives or FPOs to crop up in every village or Taluk level, instead of encouraging contract farming. This model has proven succesful in the country already. Encouragement is needed in the form of knowledge dissemination, shared infrastructure availability for soil/water testing, seed banks of native seeds. These need to be public investments because private investments look for short term profits whereas returns from these would be long term. Now that we have massive amount of communication technology across the country, state governments can monitor the effectiveness of programmes and incentives more efficiently. The approach should be as decentralised as possible though. By pooling together small and marginal farmers for contract farming, we are only going to realize economies of scale for the buyer, not the seller. Only small-scale cooperatives and FPOs have the possibility to distribute income through the supply chain more fairly.

We should incentivize farmers to cultivate organically by dismantling subsidies for only fossil fuel based fertilizers. We should encourage more kitchen and urban gardeners. In fact, farmers who make compost and add crop waste back to the soil are doing a much greater service than other farmers. Not only are they making food and soil healthier, but also capturing back carbon from the atmosphere in the form of necromass of trillions of bacteria. Public investment in agriculture as a part of GDP is too miniscule for the amount of people it employs. The productivity loss in the first few years while slowly transitioning to organic cultivation needs to be compensated by higher public funding. Organically farmed produce has started to command higher prices now that people have started to realize its benefits to their health and ecosystems. Even small and marginal farmers can practice organic farming without access to technology or complicated knowhow, by learning the local best practices from the nearest cooperative or FPO organization.

Because citizens / voters are not enlightened yet about the long terms effects of the current consumerism driven system on water, soil, air, these changes are very hard to come by. Given the current trends in education, I have no hope for any enlightenment in this direction in the masses. So, this is going to be yet another rant aimed at no one in particular.

Droughts coupled with poor storage and distribution policies led to pre-indpendence famines and eventually led to industrial foreign ways of farming viz. green revolution. Only major crises have ensured that we alter our paths significantly for the good for the society at large. Only when food production reduces drastically because of drastic ground water level decrease, or sea level rises drastically because of global heating displacing people from coastal areas permanently, will we see major significant reforms in the directions I have mentioned. Anything till then is going to be capitalism-on-drugs.

Regards
Sudhakar

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