Gannoruwa Agriculture Park. Photo credit Chaminda Wijesekara

“We” said the villager holding his dying child in that unspeakable agony only parents in such situations know, “don’t want the right to vote, just the right to live”.  In that statement lies the truth that seems to elude most development work.  There is a deeper human need than democracy or the right to vote, the right to life.  The more we look to science to validate modern society, the more evident becomes the conclusion that we humans share the same evolutionary heritage as all other life on this planet.  This evolutionary heritage, one of evolving to sustain genetic information through environments that vary in time, tells us that adaptation can only be made within finite limits.  All living things stressed beyond these limits die.  It is as simple as that.  Heat or cool a bacterium, algae or elephant beyond a certain threshold and they die.  The same holds true for all elements of the environment whether they be as innocuous as salt or as toxic as strychnine.  This is life, the ability to maintain ourselves without approaching the thresholds that reduce our capacity to exist as living beings.  The right to sustain conditions that are benign to life is the most fundamental right that can be recognized for any human.  Until this right has been recognized, how can we answer the plea of that parent?

We address the human condition so eloquently these days, but is it not time to address the human being? For instance, we are ready to spend billions on the war on poverty.  We are in a race all across the planet to have the best definition of poverty so it can be made into a fundable engine of growth.  Will poverty be defined as a lack of clean water, food and access to health care?  Where will it be recognized as an erosion of the right to life? Or will it be defined in handy economic terms where a change in settings will address the problem?   Unfortunately in the latter solution, any change of settings in the economic system can only be done with the full participation of those who benefit greatly from the current settings.  Changing the rules may not be so easy.  As the cynic at the political convention commented ” It is wise to remember the golden rule – It is he/she who has the gold that makes the rules”

It is in this context that we should examine food security and food sovereignty. The production of food has been the domain of the farming and fishing communities from beyond history. The strong links that farmers had to their land was severed by the introduction of industrial farming and the ‘Green Revolution’. Traditional knowledge that has sustained humanity for over three thousand years was discounted and replaced with a high energy dependent, biodiversity poor, toxic method of farming which has been supported and financed by the international banking system.

Lessons learnt:
However, recent research has begun to demonstrate the dangers inherent in the industrial approach and It has been pointed out that governments and international agencies urgently need to boost ecological farming techniques to increase food production and save the climate,” (De Schutter 2010). This call comes as the international system begins to realize that ‘modern’ agriculture discounted traditional approaches and the data on the value of utilizing tradition approaches are legion.

In Sri Lanka the tradition of selective hand weeding resulted in a crop increase of over 400% in Rice paddies (National Geographic). In Africa It has been shown that a 79% increase crop increase has been obtained through cultural and ecological approaches to agriculture (Petty 2003).

Tree planting methods have changed the environments of thousands of hectares of Sahelian desert to more sustainable ecosystems in Tanzania, Senegal and Mali.

Analog Forestry projects in Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Cuba, Ecuador and Viet Nam have increased both crop and non-crop biodiversity by over 150%. The potential of Analog Forestry to reverse the trends into annual crops have been demonstrated clearly (Senanayake and Jack 1998 )

Given these experiences why does the international system insist on promoting and funding high energy input monocultures as the way forward in modern agriculture ?

One reason may stem from the perspective of agriculture promoted by many international consultants and ‘experts’ who continue to define agricultural goals for the international system. The following statement to a CGIAR meeting illustrates this point.

The primary objective of agriculture is not to enhance the resource base on which agriculture depends, and certainly not to enhance environmental quality.  These requirements therefore seem to reflect the views of advocates of sustainable agriculture in Western countries rather than the views of farmers in developing countries. Harmsen and Kelley ( in Press)”

This rapacious perspective of agriculture is certainly not shared by most traditional societies.  In fact this view of agriculture is alien to the traditional farmer who takes pride in the appearance of the field, stock and the appearance of the home.  It would be antithetical to the ‘Cultivator-to-plant-“I-thou” relationship of indigenous people (Wilkes 1991).

However, it is precisely this view, that agriculture should not enhance its resource base, that has allowed the international system to have an increasing influence on the evolution of a non-sustainable type of agriculture, in practically all the nations of this world.  It has also contributed greatly to the discounting and demise of traditional agriculture.

Sustainable Agriculture:
Agriculture is production of food medicines and fiber by biological systems.  Thus agricultural sustainability must consider biological sustainability.  In a biological sense, sustainability is the potential to recover from perturbation and stress (Conway, 1985).  A sustainable system oscillates between inflexible boundary conditions.  If the boundary conditions are exceeded, a change in state occurs so that the system loses its original identity and potential.  Thus, the sustainability of this system is determined by its boundary conditions as well as its internal dynamics.  A biological entity is a product of its temporal and genetic history in varying environments.  There are environmental thresholds that cannot be transcended without extinction.  While acclimatization often allows an individual or species to change its measured thresholds (McLeese, 1956), there exist lethal thresholds beyond which an organism cannot transcend (Hart, 1957).  So, sustainability when applied in the biological context will be seen to be defined by inflexible boundaries. If the degree of perturbation or stress makes it transcend the boundaries it looses its identity as an organism or an ecosystem.

Agrarian societies with long histories, posses the credibility of having  sustained themselves successfully under the rigor of survival in a natural world.  The concern for the future is that the model chosen for sustaining future global agrarian society is an energy and resource demanding production system.  No investment is being put into developing traditional societies.

The burgeoning populations of the future may have no other option than high energy input agriculture to sustain them simply because we have not invested in examining any other option.  Some of the reasoning may lie in thinking that feeding a rapidly growing world population, a socioeconomic problem, can be resolved through reductionist, technological approaches (Lappe and Collins 1986, Conway and Barbier 1990).  However, it is becoming evident that the present resource expensive system of agrarian production will become increasingly more expensive to maintain.  This phenomenon is a result of increasing input costs and decreasing productivity of the land.  The predicted global climate effects will also make large areas of monocultures risky.  Thus there may be value in examining other options.

The value in maintaining diversity is the constant availability of a large number of options.  This applies equally well, weather in the case of marketing products or responding to disease or episodic climatic event.  Thus the question to be examined by designers of global society is ‘how much diversity can be conserved within the emerging global society?  If the lessons learnt at the level of local societies are anything to go by, the goals of sustainability will be achieved best by conserving the diversity of global society.

The biological system was viewed as nature and personified.  Gaia, Pacha Mama, Pattini, Valli Amma are but some examples.  The natural constrains that nature placed upon human production systems, were dealt with over years of experimentation and the resulting information encoded into traditional belief systems.  Thus the phenomena of forest maturity was incorporated into the traditions of swidden farmers and the ecological characteristics of wet rice production encoded into the cultural activity of Asian societies.  Modern research is demonstrating the values that biodiversity have on  production systems.  The innovative use of biodiversity is a hallmark of all traditional cultures.

Organic Farming:
Organic Farming, arose from a need to produce clean food and sustain a healthy environment.  Organic farming, seeks to re-establish the balance that was maintained between farmers and the land for centuries.  In contrast to the observations of decreasing biodiversity in monoculture situations, the pattern of increasing ecological stability with increasing diversity in land use is corroborated by studies of traditional land managers, whose management systems are sustainable and conserve a much higher level of biodiversity than conventional responses (Altieri et al 1987).  High levels of diversity in the agricultural field produce positive effects of biological control, spread the risk in marketing and production, as well as distributing labor needs to fit with a single family unit (Conway1987).

The important question is how do we identify success in organic production?  Is the mere non-use of prohibited items meet with success?  Has the maintaining of biodiversity of value; has the sequestration of carbon or other ecological services any value?  Under the criteria that have been adopted for organic certification, such considerations have no value. Moving to sustainable production must take all ecosystem services into account.

Today we witness a radical change in the practice of agriculture.  Both the ‘Green Revolution’ and  ‘Industrial Agriculture’ with its emphasis on energy subsidies to overcome constraints in increasing production, has brought about an enormous change in the biodiversity and sustainability status of agriculture.  The impact of this high energy input, low biodiversity agriculture has not only been felt on the sustainability of Ecosystems.  It has also impacted the sustainability of cultural systems.  The Ethics of such changes have largely gone unaddressed.

Ethics is loose currency in a world justified only by ‘objective’ science.  Yet, it is this very blind faith in ‘objectivity’ that has contributed to the collapse of social relations as seen in the ever-increasing rates of crime and social dislocation in ‘developed’ societies.  This dilemma is clearly brought into focus by the question posed by Upali Senanayake at the first conference on Agricultural Sustainability (Douglaas 1984) Answering a question as to ‘what is so important in maintaining ethics as a value in an objective scientific community’ he answered with the question; “If you are completely ‘objective’ and place no value in ethics, then how can I trust you? By this question he highlighted the value in ethics in maintaining social contracts.

The role of ethics and spirituality has been central to the development of humanity over history.  The discounting of its value in favor of ‘objective’ science may have contributed greatly to the present trend of reducing local agricultural sustainability and biodiversity.  Perhaps it is time to examine a new set of criteria that can advance human development towards real sustainability.

The call for the rights of farmers to be recognized is indeed valid, but we should not forget that with all rights there are also corresponding responsibilities that have to be recognized as well. In calling for the right to food, we have to recognize that the right to food does not stop at the farm gate or community boundary. There are more human beings living in urban or peri urban situations than ever before. They too have a right to food and it becomes the responsibility of those who manage the food production to attend to their needs. Thus, until those calling for the rights of the farming community to produce food also call for the responsibility of the farming community to feed the urban population, it will be difficult to reform the current status quo and  challenge industrial food production.

Organic agriculture and the elimination of toxins from the food production system will ensure our right to clean food.  It is also clear that well managed small farms demonstrate the greatest potential for meeting these aims. However, ecologically based agriculture will need to consider, the level of output required by each ecosystem under management and recognize the fact that if a small farm is required to produce more than merely sustaining the farmer and his/her family, some level of external input will be required to balance the substantial outflow. Optimizing this input should be the goal.

References :

  • Conway, G, R, and E.B.Barbier 1990 After the Green Revolution, sustainable agriculture for development. Earthscan Publications, London.
  • Douglaas Gordon K. 1983 (ed.) Agricultural Sustainability in a Changing World Order pp 227-307. Boulder, Colorado.
  • Olivier De Schutter, while presenting the findings at an
  • international meeting on agroecology held in Brussels on 21 and 22 June.
  • Jules Petty 2003 Rethinking Agriculture as if the real world matters, University of Essex
  • Hart, J.S. (1957)  Climatic and temperature induced changes in the energetics of homeotherms.  Reviews in Canadian Biology, 16.
  • Harmsen and Kelley ( in Press). CGIAR, Jakarata meeting 2001
  • Lappe, F.M. and J.Collins 1986 World Hunger, Twelve Myths. Food First, Grove Press, New York.
  • McLeese, D.W. (1956)  Effects of temperature, salinity and oxygen on the survival of the American lobster.  Journal of the Fisheries , Resources Board of Canada, 26, 247-272.
  • Senanayake R. and John J Jack  1998 Analog Forestry: An Introduction, Analog Forestry: An  Introduction. Monash University Publications. Monash Univ.Clayton,. Vic. Australia
  • Wilkes, G. 1991 In Situ Conservation of Agricultural systems In Biodiversity: Culture, Conservation and Ecodevelopment (eds M.L.Oldfield and J.B.Alcorn). Westview Press, Boulder, Colo.