Back to the future

Before 12,000 BC, when a climate change event occurred, man was more of a hunter-gatherer. Farming was ‘invented’ in different places: in West Asia about 12,000 BC, in Africa about 10,000 BC, in South America and China about 8000 BC. From these places, agriculture spread to Europe, northern Europe, Sudan and Native Americans between 7000 BC and 1 AD.

Early farmers didn’t have many tools. They made holes in the ground with sticks to plant seeds in, pulled weeds by hand, and harvested using their bare hands. Research shows that these early farmers were women, the keepers of seeds.

Around 3000 BC, people started to build dams and dig irrigation canals that supplied water to places where it didn’t rain enough to grow crops. Asian farmers used ploughs pulled by oxen while in Africa it was donkeys. Flint sickles, with little flint triangles, were used to cut the grain for harvesting. Men now did most of the ploughing and harvesting and women the weeding. Over time these tools improved – for instance the harrow in the middle ages. Even the use of the land became more efficient with farmers using three-crop rotation to get the most yield out of their fields.

In the early 1800s, the invention of the internal combustion engine revolutionised farming. Powerful machines like gas-powered tractors and harvesters replaced many ploughmen and harvesters as well as animals. From this time on, the world also witnessed a population explosion on a massive scale. With the discovery of antibiotics and vaccines, the mortality rates were lower than ever before. People were living longer. Agriculture needed to keep up.

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and our need for more food led to the birth of a global phenomenon we know as the Green Revolution.

In the 1940s, Norman Borlaug developed semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties that led the introduction of these high-yielding varieties combined with modern agricultural production techniques in Mexico, Pakistan, and India.

The crop varieties designed during the Green Revolution were genetically engineered plants. They were bred primarily in response to the need for improving food security of nations by producing an enormous amount of grains per acre planted. Synthetic fertilisers such as urea and potash were used to protect the crops from pests. These fertilisers solubilised the nutrients like nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus to make them consumable for crops. As the rate of action of artificial fertilisers is higher than natural processes, this accelerated the growth of plants. Production of essential crops like wheat, rice corn, quadrupled all around the world.

The Green Revolution came to India in the 60s. The project included planned irrigation of farms, use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides along with new high yielding breeds of wheat. India transformed herself from ‘a begging bowl’ to ‘bread basket’. The state of Punjab was the ambassador of the Green Revolution, and to this day we call the state ‘the granary of India’.

In recent years, more and more experts across the globe have developed divergent views of the success of the Green Revolution and its aftermath. They assert that in our urgency to feed the world we have ended up destroying the very earth that sustains us.

Dr Vandana Shiva, one of the foremost critics of the movement says, “The Green Revolution did not save India from famine, as the proponents of Industrial Agriculture and GMO technology would argue, in fact, the Green Revolution reduced India’s production.”

Loss of crop diversity is one of the most disconcerting effects of the Green Revolution. The Green Revolution strategy mandated planting select breeds of high yielding crop and phasing out the others. This has led to a significant loss of crop genetic diversity. In India, about a half-century ago, rice farmers used to cultivate around 30,000 rice varieties. But after the Green Revolution, this number was significantly dropped, as today, 75 percent of the rice farmers harvest only ten rice varieties. This loss of genetic diversity has been reported all over the world.

Moreover, massive amounts of chemical fertilisers, as well as pesticides were applied to crops for the sake of higher yield. Eventually, the synthetic chemicals started accumulating in the soil, destroying its natural texture as well as microbial flora. Currently, significant agricultural lands in India are experiencing a remarkable deficiency of all the essential minerals like sodium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, molybdenum and boron. There is a significant increase in nitrogen toxication and heavy metals pollution. This is particularly alarming given that in 1905, when Sir Albert Howard, was sent to India to introduce chemicals in farming, on seeing how fertile our soils were with no pests in the fields, he wrote a treatise simply called An Agricultural Testament. This treatise that spread organic farming worldwide was based on India’s ecological farming; today recognised as agroecology – ecology as applied to agriculture.

Studies show that 51 percent of all food commodities are contaminated by pesticides leading to serious illnesses and cancers. In 2008, researchers at Punjab University detected DNA damage in the Indian farmers who used chemical herbicides and pesticides to treat their crops. A study published by the Post Graduate Institution of Medical Education and Research concluded a direct connection between the emergence of cancer and use of pesticides in specific regions. Another study published indicated the health hazards like hypertension, still-born babies, diabetes and respiratory illness are all linked to the use of toxic chemicals in pesticides.

An agonising indicator of the situation is “the cancer train”, a train from Bhatinda that carries hundreds of cancer patients and their families to the cancer treatment centre of Bikaner – every day!

Chemical monocultures and commodity production have displaced biodiversity which is a source of nutrition. Green Revolution monocultures have destroyed our pulses and oilseeds.

All over the world, we’re seeing a shift to organic and sustainable farming, which is nothing more than traditional methods of farming that were the modus operandi before the invention of fertilizers and pesticides. So what did these ancients know that we have lost along the way? They depended on tiny microscopic organisms that are quite literally the first dwellers on this planet. Yes, I’m talking about microbes.

Microbes have pretty much the same effect on the soil as yoghurt has on the human body – making it stronger by helping to absorb more nutrients. Microbes thrive in soil and play an essential role in many of a plant’s biological functions. They help plants get a good start, secure nutrients and even help to fend off pests. The natural benefits of microbes represent the next step in the art of agriculture.

Without the microorganisms in the soil, there would be no plant life and eventually no humans on the earth. Nitrogen is one of most crucial elements, which is essential for the growth of every living form on earth. Nitrogen is present in the atmosphere in the gaseous form. However, neither plants nor animals can consume this nitrogen directly, but microbes can. Bacteria, such as Nitrosomonas, Azotobacter, etc., live in soil and fix the atmospheric nitrogen so that it becomes available to other life forms. Just like nitrogen, there are multiple elements such as phosphorus, potassium, zinc, etc., which are fixed by microorganisms present in the soil. This community of millions of microbes residing in soil is called agribiome. Thousands of inter-dependent bacteria and fungi make a healthy agribiome.

Microbes establish symbiotic associations with plants, where both benefit from each other. They colonise roots and help plants to absorb more nutrients through their decomposing actions. Certain fungi, by residing at the roots, maintain moisture and therefore protect them from drying. In return, plants provide shelter as well as their waste products, which microbes use as food.

In simplest terms, sustainable agriculture is the production of food, fibre, or other plant or animal products using farming techniques that protect the environment, public health, human communities, and animal welfare. This form of agriculture enables us to produce healthy food without compromising future generations’ ability to do the same.

Sustainable farms produce crops without relying on toxic chemical pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, genetically modified seeds. They rely on traditional agricultural principals like crop rotation and use of organic waste as well as helping microbes (bio-fertilisers and bio-pesticides). These farming methods strictly forbid the use of any synthetic material and therefore contribute to maintaining soil fertility and ecological balance. In a way, sustainable farming is aimed keeps the soil alive and lets nature do what it is best at!

Sustainable farming uses bio-fertilizers made with crop-specific bacteria that help crops absorb available nutrients in the soil as well as air. They allow farmers to minimise the use of chemical fertilisers as well as preserve the quality of land for coming generations.

With the help of nature and every farmer’s not so secret superstar, microbes, sustainable farming gives us food that has higher nutritional value compared to those from modern farming. It is the only way to sustain the earth for future generations.

This post first appeared on LinkedIn