August 21, 2020

Solution journalism can help India achieve agricultural sustainability - an essay

A tribal farmer of Kandhamal conserves turmeric seeds for next season © Basudev Mahapatra

Abstract

Agriculture is still a neglected area in the mainstream Indian media space, be it national or regional or even sub-regional by character. Most of the time, the space it gets is due to the misfortunes integral to the sector. To save agriculture from the current crises, journalists have a bigger role to educate farmers, sensitize policy makers and the government through information substantiated with scientific facts and evidence.

Mostly, there often remains a dearth of information in reports on agricultural issues to fulfill the desires of a reader, listener or viewer, as during the worst agrarian crisis of 2015 that saw a spate of farmer suicides following failure of Kharif (monsoon) crops due to severe drought. Such dearth of information widens the scope for journalists to delve deep into the issues, look for stories reflecting solutions to the crises, and bring them to larger public.

Sustainable agriculture being the solution to many problems facing India’s agriculture sector, the dongor of Kondh tribal farmers seems to be a successful model with possibilities for wider replication in hilly and upland regions. This apart, reintroduction of indigenous landrace crops in single crop farming bears hopes about food and nutrition security of the farmers as well as minimizing farm distress.

Solution journalism is the need of the time to save agriculture from the impacts of climate change, soil quality degradation and biodiversity loss. It’s through solution journalism that best agricultural practices can be spotted and reported for public knowledge and replication.

Introduction

In the mainstream Indian media, be it national or regional or even sub-regional by character, agriculture gets least amount of space. Most of the time, the space it gets is due to the misfortunes integral to the sector, such as farmer suicide, drought or dry-spell, flooding, delayed monsoon or unusual rainfall causing extensive damage to the crops shattering the dreams of the farmers. However, with a sort of environmentalism growing in the Indian society, issues connected with agriculture like groundwater depletion, declining water flow in rivers, desertification, temperature rise and sea level rise impacting local climates and monsoon rainfall patterns are getting some space these days. Occasionally, we also see a few pathetic news depicting dangerous health impacts of chemical fertilizer residues in the food chain. The related areas or beats are so many. Even though status of agriculture as a vertical has improved in some newsrooms because of increasing policy focus on food and nutrition security, the overall scenario is not very inspiring yet.

Journalists, from the beginning of their career, are so influenced by the demands of the newsrooms that they don’t consider many events affecting agriculture newsworthy unless something very unfortunate happens to the sector or to people engaged in it. Newsrooms quickly agree to cover news stories having strong political connections or the potential to erupt a controversy. Well oriented or tuned journalists spend their rigor to trace and highlight such an element while pitching story ideas related to agriculture to their respective newsrooms. To my understanding and belief, most of the journalists based in rural India and covering agriculture do not consider it a science but a traditional practice involving majority of rural working population, who are otherwise called farmers.

As a result, many a times, we see news like farmers organizing marriages of frogs offering an invitation to rain as agriculture news. Even in times of agrarian crises, emotional elements more often dominate news stories than scientific examination of facts and analysis. Instead, to save agriculture from the current crises, journalists have a bigger role to educate farmers, sensitize policy makers and the government through information substantiated with scientific facts and evidence. This needs scientific temper among journalists and a better understanding of agriculture and the factors affecting it.

Agrarian crisis of 2015

One of the worst agrarian crises faced by the state in the recent past was a spate of farmer suicides following failure of Kharif (monsoon) crops due to severe drought in 2015.  Disturbed by the news of farmer suicides, this author decided to visit western Odisha, which was the epicenter of the crisis, to meet surviving family members of the deceased farmers to understand their lives and causes of the crisis, and examine whether it could have been evaded or its effects minimized. Although quite good number of reports on farmer suicides, due to crop loss and debt burden, and plights of their surviving families came across media, there was a dearth of information to fulfill the aforesaid desires.

Farmers held drought responsible for the crop loss, debt burden as the pressure builder forcing many to commit suicide, and termed the government and administrative machinery as apathetic towards the plight of the peasantry in time of a crisis. Some farmers explained how they tried to deal with the situation by using available irrigation facilities but couldn’t succeed because some of the projects were incomplete, some didn’t work due to lack of maintenance or administrative stiffness. While showing the dried up ponds and drought hit paddy fields, most of the affected farmers of Bargarh district told, had the projects meant for drought management worked in time, miseries of farmers could have been minimized, crop loss wouldn’t have been so massive.

Some research revealed that the drought of 2015 was the consequence of an El Nino (ENSO) system that became active since February. Issuing alert in this regard, America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) warned in the month of March that the impact of the system could extend beyond spring upto the next summer. India Meteorological Department (IMD) issued an advisory in April highlighting that the El Nino system would largely impact monsoon rainfall. Later, IMD predicted that the El Nino system would cause rain deficit by 15 percent. According to IMD’s annual climate summary for the year 2015, in Odisha, pre-monsoon and monsoon rainfall deficiency were 18 and 10 percent respectively while annual rainfall deficiency was 17 percent. As rainfall excess or deficit upto 19 percent is counted as normal, 2015 was in fact a year of normal rainfall for Odisha.

Further analysis based on reports and data showed that the drought hitting most districts of the state and causing over 33 percent of crop loss and spate of farmer suicides across the state was consequence of a series of extreme weather events such as days with extremely heavy rains and prolonged dry-spells. As per Odisha government’s memorandum on the drought of 2015, the state faced dry-spell condition for 119 days between June and October.

Such observations bear importance when scientific studies and reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change, predict that local climates and Indian monsoon would be largely affected due to temperature rise. Under the influence of rising temperature, frequency of extreme El Nino, La Nina and Indian Ocean Dipole events would increase resulting in frequent extreme weather events like floods and droughts primarily affecting agriculture and its sustainability.

These facts, projections and future threats to agriculture widen the scope for journalists engaged in reporting agriculture to look for agrarian practices reflecting solutions in the wake of ongoing climate crises and bringing them to larger public in forms of news and analytical stories for further discussion.

Dongor: a dependable farm space

The search for solutions to current agrarian crisis took the author to the farms, called dongors, raised far away in the hilly forest lands by farmers of Kondh tribal communities.

Unaware of the scientific reports and debates over temperature rise, climate change and their subsequent effects, these indigenous farmers of Odisha show the way towards climate resilient, sustainable agriculture by preserving the idea of dongor, their intimate farming-space. Through their traditional agrarian practice, they not only adapt to climate change successfully but also maintain the quality of the soil while protecting biodiversity. Inhabiting the hilly forest villages of Rayagada, Koraput, Kalahandi and Kandhamal districts of Odisha, the agrarian Kondh tribal community have been raising their dongors to support their subsistence throughout the year by keeping the farm spaces rich in terms of agrobiodiversity. It’s worth mentioning that agrobiodiversity or agricultural biodiversity is crucial for food and nutrition security and instrumental in climate change adaption. It increases land productivity and maximize effective use of resources while reducing pressure on surrounding ecosystems. 

Driven by their traditional wisdom, the Kondhs put the idea into practice by diversifying their crops and sharing the dongor with insects, pollinators, flies, and birds to thrive on it. Basically, they choose lower hill slopes for farming where they grow a variety of crops ranging from paddy, millets, sorghum, leaves, pulses, legumes, vegetables, and tubers in a farming season and harvest them crop by crop between October and February.

In the year 2017, when the author visited Muniguda and Bissamcuttak blocks of Rayagada district, the dongor of 55-year-old Kondh farmer Raina Saraka of Leling Padar village could accommodate 50 varieties of crops. 50-year-old Sunamain Mambalaka, a tribal woman from Tada village, grew over eighty varieties of crops in her five-acre land-space. Starting from upland paddy to finger millet, foxtail millet, pearl millet, barnyard millet, little millet, sorghum, maize, edible leaves, black gram, horse gram, pigeon peas, cowpeas, varieties of beans and several types of vegetables including tubers like yam, sweet potato, and tapioca and many more were grown in her Dongor.

Growing such many crops has been the standard practice in villages of the region. For this, the Kondhs have a sowing time extended up to five months from April to August. Broadcasting of the millet seeds on hill slopes are conducted during the summer. Upland paddy seeds are sown at the beginning of monsoon. The tribal farmers grow leaves, vegetables and other crops based on soil and climatic conditions. While leaves and vegetables fulfill daily food requirements, other crops are harvested during winter and spring.

Dongors are primarily influenced by the forest systems and the tribal farmers call forest as part of their dongor and vice versa. As the forest thrives on diversity of plants, a dongor thrives on the diversity of crops and acts as a reliable source of food and nutrition. Recently, under COVID 19 lockdown, when food and nutrition security of poor people emerged to be a big issue, these tribal communities lived on the staple, tubers and pulses harvested from their dongors.

Climate resilient agriculture

The main crops cultivated in the dongors, like millets and sorghum, are climate-smart and ideal for environments prone to drought and extreme heat. Traditional upland paddy varieties, which are harvested 60 to 90 days after sowing, consume less water making them resilient to drought-like conditions. These staple food crops are less likely to fail even in extreme heat. Even if any single crop fails in a season, these farmers have many others to depend upon. All the seeds cultivated in the dongors are indigenous varieties grown and conserved by the tribal farmers.

Cultivation pattern followed in the dongors are so planned that the crops can also survive intense and untimely rainfall. The thick shrubby black gram and groundnut plants remarkably slow down the speed of rainwater flowing down the hills and protect other plants during extreme rainy days.

While no chemical fertilizer is applied in the dongers because the lands are organically fertile, these tribal communities do not use harmful pesticides as well. According to their belief, each dongor supports 10 families (dus parivar) including that of the grower, the pests, insects, ants, flies, earthworms, spiders, birds and other pollinators etc.

With crops grown, pests and insects come to the dongor. As part of a natural pest control mechanism, the ants, flies and spiders follow and eat them. Birds, searching for food, also visit the dongors and eat the flies and insects.

Culture of nature conservation

Living in unison with nature since time immemorial, Kondh indigenous farmers of Rayagada district have been growing multiple crops simultaneously in their dongor without using any chemical fertilizers or pesticides. The practice is largely inspired by strong environmental conservationism integral to their life and culture. There is a strong bonding between the tribal people and nature. They in fact cohabit with nature than exploiting it for any purpose.

When asked why these people do not use chemical fertilizers and pesticides, a woman farmer from the community replied that the birds and insects coming to the dongor were part of nature thus extended family of the Kondhs with their own share in the dongor. Why should the Kondh ever think of killing rest of the nature by applying any kind of chemicals?

Adding to this, another tribal farmer of Tikarpada village in Muniguda block termed land as a gift from nature, the source of everything from food, energy, materials to make cloth, space and all materials for housing etc. It’s for all – from humans to animals, plants, insects, birds etc. Kondhs shouldn’t be in conflict with any of them but live with them in harmony.

Such replies or ideas give a glimpse of the relationship between Kondh tribal communities and rest of the nature. These tribal people have also observed that chemical fertilizer use in agriculture is ruining the soil and killing the flora and fauna of the region making local ecosystems deficient to provide the services as before.

It’s established through scientific studies that socio-ecological cost of inorganic fertilizer and pesticide based single crop farming is quite high. With the amount of chemical input increasing year by year, it leads to environmental pollution, land degradation exacerbating impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss, decline in human health and livelihood, and erosion of traditional farming wisdom as well. Such practice also requires more investment and escalates level of distress among farmers in case of crop loss. Many believe this is one of the reasons behind increasing farmer suicides in Odisha and India.

Renewed relevance of traditional practices

Traditional agricultural practices, like using seeds of local or indigenous landraces and growing crops without applying inorganic fertilizers and pesticides, of Kondhs and many other tribal communities of Odisha seem to be influencing the distressed neighboring agrarian communities. The communities under influence are those who abandoned traditional seeds and agricultural practices decades back and embraced the method of growing high yielding variety (HYV) seeds to get better harvest thus more profit.  

Allured by the promises of higher yield, upland farmers of Daspalla regions of Nayagarh district started cultivating HYV seeds about 40 years back. They got better yield in the initial 2-3 years by applying inorganic fertilizers as per norms. However, fertilizer demand increased year by year. On the other hand, high yielding crops attracted more pests forcing the farmers to buy chemical pesticides from the market and apply in the fields to save the crop. So, every year the farmer had to invest more than previous years to grow such crops.

Climate change and erratic rainfall, due to temperature rise, caused frequent floods or droughts and badly affected farm production. With progression of time, farmers experienced more years of crop loss despite all necessary investments on labour, fertilizers and pesticides. Hopes of the farmers to recover the loss got shattered every time due to climate change and disturbed weather system leaving them in a state of distress to reel under significant financial burden. Even the local ecosystems and peripheral forests were so degraded in the cascading effects of soil pollution and loss of quality because of chemical applications in the fields that they couldn’t deliver expected services to support these farmers in times of distress.

Moved by the traditional wisdom of the elderly persons from different villages, these farmers then decided to return to indigenous crop cultivation for which the investment required was very less compared to HYV seeds. Initially, indigenous crops didn’t perform well because the soil was highly degraded. As the soil quality stabilized in two years, these farmers had a good harvest of Kharif (monsoon) crop in the year 2019 after years of crop loss.

The Kutia Kondh tribal farmers of Kandhamal district also share a similar story. After abandoning the local landrace crops for decades, they have returned to their traditional practices and growing indigenous crops since last six years.

While nearly 1000 Kutia Kondh farmers spread over 50 hamlets are now growing more than 100 varieties of indigenous crops including paddy, millets, maize, tubers, leaves and vegetables in their farmlands, farmers of Nayagarh district have conserved about 50 varieties of paddy crop.

On the change that has come at community level in the aforesaid districts, Dr. Debasis Mishra, senior scientist and head of Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK), Kandhamal, mentioned that most important benefits of local landrace crops include their field resistance to different prime pest and diseases. Highly adapted to the climatic conditions of the land these varieties had been responsive to organic methods of agriculture and were resilient to disturbed weather events and climate variability.

Appreciating the reintroduction of local landrace crops, he observed that such practice if expanded could relieve farmers from the current distress, help conserve local landraces, and change the food production scenario. However, he emphasized on gradual expansion of the practice in a phased manner by ensuring adequate protection and infrastructural support to the farmers to make it sustainable.

Hopes about sustainable agriculture

Reflecting the state of food and nutrition insecurity in the developing world, EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems noted in its report, Food in the Anthropocene, that more than 820 million people have insufficient food and many more consume low-quality diets that cause micronutrient deficiencies, otherwise called hidden hunger.

According to the United Nations and many other think tank organizations, global food production needs to nearly double by 2050 to evade food crisis. Therefore, to increase food production to meet such a gargantuan challenge, chemical fertilizers are used in agriculture in most of the developing countries as a primary booster.

However, increased use of pesticides has already posed serious dangers to environment and public health, as discussed earlier in this essay. Experts apprehend, on basis of scientific evidence, that use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides over a long period of time would accelerate physical and chemical degradation of the soil by altering the natural microflora adversely affecting the production potential of the land.

Adding to the issues encountering agriculture sector, IPCC special report on climate change and land observes that the land surface air temperature has risen nearly twice as much as the global average temperature since the pre-industrial period. Climate change, including increases in frequency and intensity of extremes, has adversely impacted food security and terrestrial ecosystems as well as contributed to desertification and land degradation in many regions.

Taking all these projections and apprehensions in mind, scientists, experts and policymakers world over plead for sustainable agriculture and food systems. However, there is no single model available or developed for implementation across the globe to fulfill either of the two ideas.

Somehow, the traditional agricultural practices followed by tribal and other farmers fulfill the primary objectives of sustainable agriculture by facilitating easy access to healthy food to address hunger as well as micronutrient deficiencies; guaranteeing income of small and marginal farmers by promoting indigenous crop cultivation as part of climate smart practice; and making agriculture environment friendly by avoiding use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to check soil quality degradation and biodiversity loss.

In the search for solutions to the larger agrarian crisis, this author found that even though the aforesaid traditional practices are not single answers to the bigger crisis facing the agriculture sector of Odisha and India, they are the solution models of sustainable agriculture and food systems in the localities they exist and thrive. Both the ideas of dongor and reintroduction of indigenous landrace crops in single crop farming bear hopes about food and nutrition security of the farmers as well as minimizing farm distress, and both have the potential for wider replication.

The essay was a part of the monograph on Agriculture Journalism published, in August 2020, by Dhenkanal (Odisha) based Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), India's premier journalism school under ministry of information and broadcasting.

 

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