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Food Security & Ecosystem Protection New Buzzwords

The time has come to bury our obsession with increased productivity and production and focus on food safety and protecting the agriculture ecosystem. This was the message that came out strong and clear in the course of deliberations held by 30-odd environmental and agricultural scientists from across the country on the theme ‘Measuring the Economics of Food and Agriculture Ecosystems’ at a city hotel on Friday and Saturday. Punjab Local Bodies, Cultural Affairs and Tourism Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu promised to lend his full support to the outcome, saying that the dialogue and conversations on ways to halt the destruction of the environment had to come out of the conference rooms and be transformed into a mass movement. “Shrishti ko badalna hai to drishti badalni hogi (If we are to save our environment, we need to change our mindsets),” he said in his inimitable style.

Participating in various sessions, speaker after speaker at the 3rd National Dialogue on Himalayan Ecology, organised by Chandigarh based trust ‘Dialogue Highway’, orchestrated the trending narrative that the cost of all activities related to production and productivity could no longer be considered in isolation, and needs to be factored together with the cost to the agriculture ecosystem.  

Food Security & Ecosystem Protection New Buzzwords, Lifeinchd

Photo By : Life In Chandigarh

Putting across the message of sustainable development, Prof. L. Venkatachalam, from MIDS (Madras Institute of Development Studies), Chennai, said the bounty of Nature needed to be harnessed for the benefit of mankind without plundering it in the process. It is like opening a fixed deposit account in a bank and meeting your requirements for survival from the accruing interest without touching the capital, he added.

Among all the sessions, the one on ‘Ecosystem Services for Income Security’, chaired by Dr Dinesh Marothia, from the Centre for Integrated Natural Resources Management, Raipur and former Chairman of CACP (Commission For Agricultural Costs and Prices) turned out to be the most engaging.

Odisha Model on Millets

Sharing a successful model adopted by Odisha in an effort to reduce dependence on high cost traditional crops and try out cultivation of new crops like millets, especially ‘ragi’, which consume less water and are more resilient to climatic vulnerabilities, Dr. Srijit Mishra, Director of Bhubaneswar based NCCDS (Nabakrushna Choudhury Centre for Development Studies), said after sensitising the farmers community through a network of local facilitating agencies and NGOs, millets were reintroduced in 30 blocks of the state on a pilot basis. Seeing the optimism in the community, with both productivity and production nearly doubling and incomes showing a matching increase, the state government has extended its reach to cover 55 blocks, he added.

“Initially it was a chicken and egg situation, with producers not sure of the market, and consumers not sure of the supply. There was also this general impression among the consumers that millets were a poor man’s diet and not good to taste. After researching and experimenting, the state government came up with attractive recipes which were showcased in cities and towns to press home the message that millets were not only healthy and high on nutritional value but their preparations could also tickle the taste buds of food lovers,” Dr. Mishra said.

The central government has also declared 2018 as National Year of the Millets to boost production of the nutri-cereals and the sunrise agri industry involved in it. Among the main varieties of millets are sorghum, ragi, pearl millets, small millets, etc.

Tackling Eco Crisis In Punjab

Speaking on the topic ‘Addressing Ecological Crises in Punjab : Will Ecosystem Services Approach Help’, Ajay Vir Jakhar, chairman of the Punjab State Farmers and Farm Workers Commission, a statutory body constituted by the Capt. Amarinder Singh led Congress government to advise it on improving livelihood of farmers and farm workers, said in its new agriculture policy, the state government will not concentrate on increasing productivity and production, and instead focus on improving the livelihood of farmers.

He said the quantum of loans extended to farmers had increased manifold in recent years from Rs. 20,000 crore to Rs 63,000 crore, but these did not result in an incremental rise in productivity, which inched up just over 1 percent, despite Punjab having 100 percent irrigation coverage and 200 percent cropping intensity. The result an estimated 10,000 farmers have ended their lives in the last ten years, he added.

Citing various reasons for farmers’ distress, Jakhar said largely it was a result of prices they were getting for their produce not keeping up with the high cost of inputs like interest on loans, heavily depleted groundwater level, fertiliser, pesticides, etc. Lax enforcement by successive state governments to check sale of spurious fertilisers and pesticides has also played a significant part. Information gathered by the commission has shown that all these years only a handful of accused – 17 for sale of spurious pesticides and 8 for sale of spurious fertilisers – had been convicted, but none had gone to jail because convictions remained confined to local courts. The commission has issued suo moto notices to several government officials tasked with prosecution to explain why this was allowed to happen. “All guilty need to be sacked,” he asserted.

“Theft of canal water is also continuing unchecked. We are suggested to the government to create village level committees to address the issue,” Jakhar said.

Use of Pesticides To Be Phased Out

 Spelling out measures being suggested to the state government to prevent the destruction of the ecosystem, he said for a food surplus state like Punjab the immediate task on hand is to arrest the level of environmental degeneration at the current level. While ruling out the possibility of going all out for encouraging organic farming in the state at this stage, he said we would be happy to reduce dependence on pesticides at the rate of 10 percent annually for the next 10 years. We are proposing that each one of the 12,500 plus inhabited villages in the state create a 2-hectare biodiversity hotspot on village common land with the aim to bring 25,000 hectares in the state under biodiversity hotspots, he added.

Besides diversification of crops, the farmers’ commission wanted greater focus on diversification to livestock and intercropping. Integration of the departments of agriculture, horticulture and cooperation into one large department is also on the anvil. “We are pushing for filling up all of the 50 percent vacancies of extension workers and increasing strength of veterinary doctors with a view to deploying one vet for every 5,000 animals as compared to one for every 6,000 animals as at present,” he said.

Jakhar informed that the commission has also recommended that power subsidy should be discontinued to all farmers who were paying income tax. An estimated 60 percent of the government employees who were paying income tax also owned farm lands, he pointed out, and added that power should also be supplied at a flat rate of Rs 100 per horse power capacity of motor installed on tubewells by farmers owning ten or more acres of land.

Sharing shocking figures of the level of water consumption in irrigating a single paddy crop, Dr. G.V. Ramanjaneyulu, Executive Director of Secundrabad based Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, said the 66,000 litres of irrigation water consumed per acre of paddy crop is enough to meet the entire annual water needs of 1,000 families.

Strongly advocating diversification to more robust crops and turning to organic cultivation, he said by cutting down on risk and cost factors, farmers’ distress can be tackled in a big way.

Andhra To Go Completely Organic

Giving the example of Andha Pradesh, which has announced its target of going completely organic by 2027, he said the agricultural transformation taking place in the state is not of recent making. The seeds of organic farming in recent times were sown as early as in 2004 when then state government announced incentives for three years. The confidence of farmers built up over the years is now showing results. Investment in social capital in the form of efforts towards generating a strong movement of women’s self help groups in rural areas since 1979 had also facilitated faster acceptance of organic farming in the state, he added.

Dr. Ramanjaneyulu informed that in 2004, Andhra Pradesh was the third largest per hectare consumer of pesticides in the country after Punjab and Haryana, and today it is at 20th place, though it still continues to be the largest overall consumer of pesticides in the country.

Batting for direct transfer of subsidy to farmers and doing away with the system of assured procurement of select crops at minimum support price, he said MSP will never give farmers a fair deal since the decision making process for it was heavily loaded in favour of affordability of consumers and did not so much focus on giving farmers a price economically viable for them.   

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