‘We Are What We Eat’: An Interview With Agricultural Scientist And Activist Dr GV Ramanjaneyulu
“I owe my understanding of the Indian agricultural economy to all the months that I spent preparing for the Indian Civil Services. When I cleared the examination in 1999, I had two choices before me: either to work with the Indian Revenue Services or to pursue a career in agriculture. I chose to work as an agricultural research scientist as I wanted to work with farmers.” – Dr GV Ramanjaneyulu.
As a scientist who has transformed the landscape of Indian agriculture, Dr GV Ramanjaneyulu has implemented community managed sustainable agriculture in 1500 villages covering 35 lakh hectares of land in 18 districts across Andhra Pradesh.
He has a PhD in Agricultural Extension from the Indian Agricultural Research Institution, New Delhi; since 2003, he is working as the Executive Director at Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA).
The Logical Indian interviewed Dr Ramanjaneyulu about his journey and his inspiration behind taking Indian agriculture on the road to sustainability.
Is the food that we eat safe?
Food is as healthy as it is grown. Today, the indiscriminate use of chemicals in production causes residues to come back into the food that we consume. A number of studies show that the food grown in India has high amounts of pesticide residues, even as many of the pesticides sold in India are banned in other countries.
Recently, a committee that was appointed by the government of India recommended at least 50 pesticides be removed from sale. But the recommendations were not paid heed to and the sale of pesticides continued. The primary reason behind the increased use of chemicals in production can be attributed to extension services of both the public and the private sector. (Extension services are a common feature of the administrative structure of rural areas that have the responsibility, in partnership with the farmers, of directing programmes and projects for change). This makes food very unhealthy.
Similarly, if you look at the livestock – a lot of growth hormones are used in chicken or meat, both in the dairy and the poultry sector. Growth hormones and antibiotics come back in the food that we consume. Nowadays, there has been a considerable increment in the oestrogen content in our food. All of these practices continue because of the intensive agriculture model we are following. We keep chickens in a cramped up space in order to increase production, but as diseases spread, we use antibiotics. It’s a vicious circle.
So the problem begins with production. Furthermore, our food production on the processing side also has serious issues as there are no regulations or lack of it, including the regulations in marketing. Sometimes the food is sold without any tests. Many of the imported food is consumed without testing where or how they are grown.
Unless the backend system is cleaned up, nothing is going to change.
Despite its advantages, why is sustainable agriculture not being promoted?
It’s all about the priority in terms of the investments made. The chemical fertiliser lobby is stronger than the organic lobby. So it’s obvious who gets the say. There is vested interest at every step. It’s not about the inputs that are used, but the people who push these inputs; and people who make their own produce to encourage sustainable agriculture form the organic lobby, hence there is no market. When the market doesn’t exist, there is no stable lobby to recommend the government. So the decisions by the government are influenced by the input seller (pesticide and fertiliser companies) so they are the ones who decide, sell and when there is any new regulation, try to cut into it.
Across the country, studies show that pesticide use can be reduced by over 50% and fertilizer use over 60-70%. Andhra Pradesh has recorded 50% reduction in pesticide use between 2005-10, according to the government’s own data. So there is a possibility to start sustainable agriculture, but it needs to be supported and hand-held by the government. Individuals cannot do this own their own; farmers need a support system.
Pesticides are bought by the farmers at a subsidised rate. There are also farmers who make their own compost, but they don’t get any government support. Certain practices have been wrongly incentivised.
The government says that the yield will fall if chemicals are not used, but no research supports this. Out of the budget allocated for agriculture, 99% is used to procure chemicals. Where is the money set aside for alternative methods of farming? Not even 0.1% of the total that we spend on research is spend on organic farming. We need the technology and we need good people to work on this.
Why do consumers remain unaware of how unhealthy their food is?
Somehow, in the consumerist world, we get carried away by advertisements and by the place where we buy our products. We feel that if the supermarket is clean, every product is clean. But we never care about the kind of footprints the food has before coming to the supermarket.
As consumers we are neither worried about what happens to the product before it comes to the shelf nor after it is consumed.
For example, before buying a plastic packet we are never worried about how the packet is made and what happens to it after we throw it. Our attitude is such that the environment and our health are none of our concern. Lack of empathy is one of the factors for the consumers to remain unaware of the harms of the food on their plate. We feel as long as more supermarkets are coming in, there is food security. But food security depends on the framers and on the production process; not the supermarkets.
Our country is amidst a crisis. So many farmers have committed suicides, but as consumers, we are not agitated. Even if the producers are dying in the process of production or are becoming bankrupt to feed us, we remain apathetic.
As consumers what can we do to ensure that the food we are buying is healthy?
First, know the origin of the food – who has grown it, where and how. You should know your food before placing it on your plate. This is very critical as production defines the health of your food.
Secondly, we need to be more sympathetic toward the people who are producing the food – find out how much of the consumers’ price is going to the farmer. So I suggest that consumers buy from farmers or farmer cooperatives directly.
Could you tell us a little about your work in sustainable agriculture?
I am an agricultural scientist and I also used to work with the government. When I first started out, many of us were worried about the framers’ crusades happening in Andhra Pradesh every year. People were losing their lives; so as students of agriculture, my friends and I decided to do something about it.
We were trying to figure out a better model – a change in production, institution, markets and policies. We wanted to start something that uplifts the lives of the farmers, so we began working in villages to help farmers reduce their Cost Of Production (COP). Initially, we worked to reduce the use of fertilisers, as fertilisers form 30% the COP, in spite of the farmers getting subsidy. Then we expanded our work into pest management because pesticides are more harmful to the environment. We also started working with the government. Our model was – to collaborate with the government to implement sustainable agriculture with farmers. Today, we are working across 8 states. We have worked with farmers, and organised them into cooperatives, which have then established Sahaja Aharam – a portal through which farmers sell their produce directly to the consumer.
We recognised that the problem with the current market system is that the farmer’s share in the consumer price is only 20-25%. Our model ensured that the farmers got at least 50-60% of the profits. Therefore, it is possible to build a profitable market system if proper support is provided.
The Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) was built around this model – we first began with pesticide-free farming, then moved into organic farming and seed production. We keep growing as we identify newer issues. Till now we have worked in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Punjab, Tripura, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and Sikkim. In Andhra Pradesh, we have successfully transformed many areas into pesticide-free zones. Recognising this, the state government came up with a program where in the next 5 years, at least 1800 villages are going to become organic. Sikkim government also plans to turn the entire state organic. All these are the efforts taken by state governments because they realise that a change is essential.
CSA works in collaboration with the farmers and the state governments as we feel that the government’s role is significant. The kind of investments that need to be brought in and the regulatory systems that need to be established – these decisions lie with the government. Saving native agriculture is one of our agendas and it is essential that the government understands our goals and works in collaboration with us.
There is an ongoing debate surrounding GM Mustard. What are your thoughts on it?
Firstly, as technology, GM Mustard is very outdated. Expecting that a hybrid mustard will increase yield is draconian. The government is pushing GM Mustard because if a public sector variety can get approval, the path becomes clearer for the private sector. My understanding is that the GM Mustard is being used as a surrogate. If you go by all the data submitted by the government, it shows that GM Mustard is not viable. On top of that, there are biosafety issues as well. All the committees appointed by the government of the India said that the country should not opt for a Herbicide Tolerant (HT) seed.
Secondly, there are a number of improved varieties of mustard than the GM Mustard.
In 2003, the same mustard had come for approval from ProAgro – a private company – and a number of objections were raised by the regulatory bodies. But now, when the same technology with slight modifications is introduced, they are saying that a lot of research has been done on it and it is safe. But hardly any research is done. The questions that were raised in 2003, should be answered now.
When Bt Brinjal was introduced in 2010, there was larger public discourse and it was scrapped by the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh. Another point to be noted here is that when Bt Brinjal was brought in, the government said that it is not only an issue of technology, but of socio-economics and politics too, and that public should participate in the decision making. Where are the public hearings now? Already five state governments have said that GM Mustard should not be permitted.
The main problem with GM Mustard is the gene they are transferring – it’s a herbicide tolerant gene. The more herbicides, which are carcinogenic, are used, the more the environment will suffer.
Moreover, the difference in the yield of HT Mustard and regular Mustard is negligible so why take the risk?
India is the home of mustard. We have a lot of diversity here, but if you bring in HT mustard, it can outcaste and contaminate several other varieties of mustard. The health issues with GM seeds is well-documented, but the necessary steps are not being taken.
What are your thoughts on the recent farmer protests?
This distress has been building up for the last 20 years. Small and marginal farmers were the first victims. If you look at the data from 1995 onwards, more than 3 lakh farmers have committed suicide. This is mainly because the cost of production has been increasing, whereas the prices of the produce have hardly risen. So if you look at year by year price increase, there is not even a 5% rise.
In a situation where the COP is increasing by 15-20% per year and the cost of living is increasing by 10-15% a year, but the consumer prices don’t even go up by 5%, the farmers end up in loses. This is what is happening in the last 20 years.
There is another significant change – the number of farmers who own lands has decreased. Landowners have moved away from farming and those who cultivate are not owners. Tenant farmers are increasing.
The support systems that the government provides – loans, insurance, crop compensation – all of these go the land owners and not to the tenants. Today, across the country, 7 lakh crore is given as agricultural credit, but the farmers who are actually cultivating get half of that. Moreover, only 20% of the farmers get institutional credit. So when government declares loan waivers, who benefits when only 20% of the farmers get institutional credit? The remaining 80% who take credit from private money lenders are the ones committing suicides, but the loan waivers are only beneficial to big farmers and benami farmers. What is the point of waiving loans when the farmers are not getting loans in the first place?
Out of the 80% of the small and marginal farmers, not even 10% of them get institutional credit. What needs to be done here is that the government should invest in a credit guarantee scheme as tenant farmers are denied loans because there is no collateral that they can offer.
Additionally, the government needs to expand its focus from not only managing the consumption price, but also the production price. Whenever there is an increase the consumption price, the government purchases the produce and sells it to the consumers at a lower cost. But the same method is not followed when the production cost rises. The government always intervenes when the consumer prices are up. Last year, when the price of dal went up, all the state governments started purchasing dal and selling it at a lower cost. But when the price of tomatoes fell to Rs 2-3, they did not buy it.
So the protests are an accumulations of all of this. And unfortunately, the farmer political parties also don’t bring forward these concerns. They want to make profit for their own parties rather than solving the issue.
If the consumer prices are not increasing then the input prices should come down and so should the cost of living. One of our major demands from the government is that a farmer income commission should be set up which looks into all these issues – cost of living, the income level at which the farmers can live sustainably, etc. Why should tomatoes be available at Rs 2-3 for the last 20 years? There should be some protection for the farmers.
What is the way forward?
Around 1985, the share of the agricultural budget and the investment made in that sector was 20%. Now, it is less than 3% even though more than half the Indian population is in the agricultural sector. All that is done in the name of farmers is an investment in private companies that provide the inputs. The government announces Minimum Purchase Prices (MSP) but they are never honoured. When someone is buying at a price below the MSP, there should be some protection to the farmers – either make MSP mandatory or the government itself buys from the farmers.
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