Can India become the agricultural superpower she once was?

In my previous post, I wrote about the potential of microbes to change the face of the agricultural industry. A critical player in the health of soil ecosystems, microbes are responsible for nitrogen fixation and phosphate solubilisation actions that nourish crops. With the emergence of technology, scientists have developed sustainable products like bio-fertilisers and bio-pesticides that enhance food quality as well as security. Organic farming, which is simply a return to age-old farming traditions, will not only nourish us with high nutritional food but protect our planet for coming generations.

Throughout history, India has been a predominantly agrarian economy with the majority of our population engaged in agricultural enterprise. Farmers were the backbone of the Indian economy and as such always merited special status in our socio-cultural narratives. While agriculture’s share in India’s economy has progressively declined to less than 15% due to the high growth rates of the industrial and services sectors, the sector’s importance in India’s economic and social fabric goes well beyond economic indicators. Close to one-third of our population continues to be engaged in agricultural and allied activities. It is also the only segment of the economy where the contribution of women as a percentage of hours contributed utterly overshadows men.

India is the world’s largest producer of milk, pulses, spices, and has the world’s largest cattle herd (buffaloes), as well as the largest area under wheat, rice and cotton cultivation. It is the second largest producer of wheat, rice, cotton, sugarcane, tea, farmed fish, goat meat, fruit and vegetables.

Between 1965 and 2011, our total food production grew by over 230 percent. It is ironic then that despite agriculture being one of the primary professions in India, we are not able to produce sufficient food for all our citizens, particularly those from the poorer strata of society. Many blame our ever increasing population and illiteracy for this, something I am deeply conflicted about. India has always been blessed with the most fertile soils anywhere in the world. Our diversity of climate allows our farmers to grow up to four crops a year in certain parts of the country. We genuinely have the most abundant biodiversity in the world.

Why then should anyone in this country face malnutrition or hunger? The last half a century since the Green Revolution has seen our traditional farming practices cede way to dependence on chemical fertilizers, industrial agriculture, and a systematic move away from biodiverse agriculture in favour of genetically modified ‘high yield’ cash crop varieties.

Over the last 50 years, successive generations of farmers have, through no fault of their own, systematically lost the wealth of knowledge that once made us an agrarian powerhouse. Our farmers were brilliant breeders and knew how to coax abundance from the soil. Our agrobiodiversity was a result of many centuries of hard work by farmers, who experimented, selected and propagated desirable nutritional traits in the crops they grew.

Our rich biodiverse soil has degraded over time because of unchecked chemical and industrial farming coupled with large-scale deforestation, polluted water due to industrialisation, depleting water resources and an ever-shrinking land bank in favour of urbanisation. Soil infertility today is a widespread problem.

Agricultural predisposition towards extremely intensive farming practices has also played its part in degrading our soil. Farmers from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and Assam to Gujarat cultivate genetically modified varieties of cash crops for higher yields. These GMO crops have all but disappeared our traditional varieties. India traditionally had 1500 different varieties of cotton, yet 95 percent of the cotton planted today is GMO Bt Cotton.

I believe that only a return to our age-old farming practices will put an end to this catastrophe. If we take systematic steps towards sustainable farming techniques and seed freedom, with re-education and proper management, we can reclaim our floral and faunal biodiversity and lead the charge on reshaping the agrarian landscape sustainably.

Sustainable farming or farming as we knew it half a century ago is a mixture of well balanced agronomic practices, local resources, crop rotation, use of bio-fertilisers and bio-pesticides to enhance soil fertility. Moreover, it shows better results than industrial and chemical farming techniques. Our ecosystems are protected from harmful effects of hazardous chemicals. Crops are more nutritious, and we, as a result, are healthier. Sustainable agriculture preserves and even enriches the agro-diversity at the field, farm and ecosystem level!

Instead of chemical protection, it uses bio-fertilisers and bio-pesticides made from natural resources, primarily living microorganisms. Once bio-fertilisers are applied to seeds, plant surfaces or even soil, microbes start colonising the rhizosphere or the interior of the plant. While growing along with plants, microbes from bio-fertilisers promote the development of plants by increasing the supply as well as availability of essential nutrients to the host plant. Bio-fertilisers enhance the quality of soil through natural processes such as solubilising phosphate, fixing nitrogen as well as stimulate plant growth by synthesising growth-promoting factors, say plant hormones. Bio-fertilisers and bio-pesticides also reduce the financial burden of chemical fertilisers as they are comparatively less expensive.

The use of microbes is not just limited to enhance growth, but they can also be used to protect plants from various infections as well as climatic stress. I have mentioned the symbiotic association that saves the plant from dehydration in my last post. Technology today enables us to use a wide range of microbe-plant interactions to provide immunity from stress as well as pathogens to the growing plants. Microbes indirectly influence the climatic flexibility in plants and therefore offer plants with fitness by harmonising their growth and defence responses. Additionally, plants can manipulate bacteria to help them grow in a stressful environment.

Quorum Sensing is another fantastic use of microbes to improve agricultural output. Bacteria in catastrophic conditions release and react to chemicals secreted by them. These chemicals guide them towards each other, and eventually, they form a protective structure known as biofilms. These biofilms are stronger than planktonic cells as the bacteria living under it are protected in polymeric substances secreted by them.

Successful establishment of working biofilms of beneficial bacteria is a boon to agriculture. Bacteria can sense the environment and spot nutrient deficiencies in the soil, which in turn stimulates them to secrete that specific nutrient. Secondly, working biofilm secretes many chemicals in the soil, like acids, which retard the growth of pathogens and eliminate the risk of plant infections. High acidity also kicks off production of Indole Acetic Acid, a substance that stimulates plant growth.

While sustainable farming today is seen as pretty much a fad and it has its detractors, the results speak for themselves. People the world over are now deliberately and consciously seeking out organic produce. Restaurants like Blue Hill Farms are building their business models around the Farm to Table concept. I strongly recommend watching the Chef’s Table episode featuring Chef Dan Barber on Netflix (Season 1, Episode 2) to understand how impactful empowering farmers can be. In India, we need more voices raised, we need more people consciously seeking out organic produce grown by farmers who are looking to learn from the past so that we can thrive in the future.

Going back to our organic farming roots is not, however, a choice farmers can make alone. This is a choice that needs to be enabled for them by governments and consumers.

For us as consumers, making the switch is easy actually. Weigh the perceived higher costs of organic produce today against the real costs of impaired health for you and your family over years and generations even and organic produce suddenly doesn’t seem so expensive.

For governments, this will be a little more complex. First, they need to shed populist, politically convenient options such as waiving off farmer debts. Instead, they need to address the cause of the debt, which is dependence on chemicals and modern farming techniques.

They must invest in teaching and propagating good and healthy farming methodologies. Invest in rebuilding the biodiversity of each of our regions. Reject the over-lobbied GMO seed variants and invest in research on ideal crop variants for our regional and climatic conditions. Empower farmers with the results of this research. Reduce the impact of urbanisation on farmland. Reduce the impact of deforestation on our waters. Invest in cleaning our rivers and water bodies.

Sure, in the near time, waiving off farmer debts might seem like a good solution but are they really? Waivers do not include agricultural labourers, marginal and small land holders. For medium and large farmers there is instant temporary relief from debt but the subsidy largely fails to contribute to their welfare in the long run. Then there is the environmental impact to consider as subsidies encourage farmers to consume more electricity and flood the farms with excess water leading to excess soil salinity.

All of these steps above might appear fraught with risk – financial and political – but even governments are made of people who have future generations to think of. We need to make them aware of their obligations to those who will inherit this planet from us. Do we want to leave for them barren lands and rice that can only taste one way ever? Or do we want to leave a rich, fertile India where, as the song goes, mere desh ki dharti sona ugle, ugle hire moti?

This post first appeared on LinkedIn