Notes to the People: From Industrial Agriculture to Natural Farming
Posted on December 3rd, 2021

By Sumanasiri Liyanage Courtesy Ceylon Today

Without questioning the honesty of the Government’s initiative to move away from the system of industrial agriculture in spite of the presence of some contrary evidence it is not difficult to reach a conclusion that the Government’s effort has ended with abject failure. Although many had anticipated the Finance Minister, Basil Rajapaksa, in his maiden Budget would have reversed the import ban on chemical agricultural inputs in the face of growing protest by the farmers and small scale tea estate owners, such a policy reversal had to wait until the committee stage of the Budget debate. 

The Government has taken a 360 degree turn once again going back to the chemical agriculture input solution. No emphasis was placed on the following quote from the Budget Speech: Therefore, I propose to draft a Green Agricultural Development Act that protects the traditional knowledge of our farmers, safeguards their right to own lands and right to the distribution of water and ensures the participation of farmers in the decision-making process.” The private sector appears to be allowed to import chemical inputs and to sell them to the farmers following their own price formula. 

In the current context in which the world market prices of urea has reached an alarming level, the question arises if the farmers can afford to buy them at market prices in the absence of a fertiliser subsidy. Hence, one may wonder that all the zigzags and reversals that the Ministry of Agriculture had performed in the last six months are oriented towards the abolition of the fertiliser subsidy that have been in operation since the early 1960s in varying ways by almost all the Governments.

The policy shift if it leads to a systemic shift from industrial agriculture to natural farming would definitely change the agrarian landscape of the island. However, there has been no consensus among the scientific community with regard to the impact of such a transition. The debate between the soil and agriculture scientists on the one hand and the medical practitioners on the other around the impact of the use of chemical inputs goes on with no sign of consensus. 

Like in India, the majority of agricultural and soil scientists in Sri Lanka, especially those who are attached to the Sri Lankan university system, seem to reject the idea that agriculture without chemical inputs is possible. This is understandable since these specialists acquire their training and knowledge from the universities and research institutions that are designed to cater for the needs of multinational chemical companies. This is evident in that case of India where while the Central and some State Governments have taken measures to encourage natural farming methods, national institutions of agricultural scientists had vehemently opposed such a policy shift.

I am not a natural scientist so that I opt not to enter into this debate notwithstanding the fact the discussion would not produce a complete picture if it does not refer to the possible long-term reactions of chemical inputs in soil and agricultural products.The social scientists have much to offer on this debate since what matters most are the farmers. 

Industrial agriculture balance sheet

The practices in Sri Lankan agriculture adopted after the Green Revolution are key elements of the system of industrial agriculture a presence of certain traditional practices notwithstanding.The system is based on the use of imported or commodified seeds, chemical fertiliser, pesticides and weedicides, the principle of monocrop, separation of crop from livestock and fisheries and the heavy use of labour-subsuming machinery. As a result, the yield has increased so is the total agricultural output, especially in paddy. That has been the positive aspect often cited in the debate. 

Nonetheless, this balance sheet is not a neutral and objective observation. Nor is it a complete one. Drawing from his own experience on the left bank of the Walawe, Mahinda Siriwardene, a farmer who is one of the key leaders of the Walsapugala farmers protest, has shown that the net income of an average farmer who engages in paddy cultivation is Rs 675 per day. Of course, there may be spatial variations. Athula Disanayake of Eppawala has given figures relating to the cost of production in paddy farming and has revealed that the cultivation of one hectare of paddy in the North Central Province under the present condition may cost 

Rs 300,000. If the average yield is between Rs 5,000 – 6,000 kilograms of rice, the cost of production of paddy would be Rs 60 a kilogram. It is important to note that some of the reproduction cost of farmer households is not included in this figure.  

So, one may also ask if there is any use of continuing with industrial agriculture practices? We may ask the Opposition Parties: is the non-availability of chemical inputs the problem that farmers face or is there some other unfathomable involvement here? My conclusion is the problem that is at the centre of the agricultural crisis is this very mode of agriculture, namely, industrial agriculture. So, steps should be taken, through a system of mass education, to come out of this system that was introduced in the 1960s. 

A different system of agriculture

Two agricultural practitioners cum agro-scientists from Japan and India have shown with empirical evidence that there is a different system of agriculture. The increasing world prices of urea have shown that agriculture would be a totally unprofitable and a costly business to our farmers as it was to Japanese farmers. Fukuoka writes: When the concept of commercial agriculture first appeared, I opposed it. 

Commercial agriculture in Japan is not profitable for the farmer. Among merchants the rule is that if an article which originally costs a certain amount is further processed, an extra cost is added when the article is sold. But in Japanese agriculture it is not so straightforward. Fertiliser, feed, equipment, and chemicals are purchased at prices fixed abroad, and there is no telling what the actual cost per pound will be when these imported products are used. 

It is completely up to the merchants. And with selling prices also fixed, the farmer’s income is at the mercy of forces beyond his control.” The Government put the farmers once again in the same situation where the monopoly in importing agricultural inputs is given to a private company. The solution to which is not to statize the import but to go for natural farming. Natural farming is less costly and no significant difference in yield. Of course, there may be a slight and insignificant reduction of yield in the first two kannas but in the long run it would be more profitable for the farming community and to the environ in which they live. 

The response of the Opposition led by Samagi Jana Balavegaya, and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna to the decision to stop the import of chemical aagri-inputs and the policy reversal of the Government has demonstrated that politicians do not have a vision how the agriculture problem can be resolved. The problem lies with the extant agricultural mode of production and transforming it into a new mode of production is in the hands of the peasant community itself. No saviours coming from Colombo will resolve their problems.

The writer is a retired teacher of Political Economy at the University of Peradeniya. sumane_l@yahoo.com

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