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Farmer to farmer in India

Links to other CropChoice stories and commentaries are available at end of this piece.

Editor's note: During his trip to India in mid-July of 2001, British farmer Michael Hart saw plans -- developed by U.S. government and corporate agribusiness interests and pushed by the same types in the United Kingdom -- for large scale corporate farms. He submitted to CropChoice a piece he wrote during his trip. After Hart's commentary, you'll find links to recent stories from the Independent and The Washington Post (09/25/02 edition) on the same subject.

Farmer to farmer in India

by Michael Hart
UK farmer

(Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2002 -- CropChoice news) -- What would a small family farmer from Cornwall and small farmers in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh have in common to talk about if they met? Well that Cornish farmer met those Indian farmers last week [early July 2001] and despite the distance between their countries and differences in their farming systems, they had a lot in common with each other.

Why was the Cornish farmer there in the first place? I was there as a witness to take part in a prajateerpu or citizenís jury on the plan for agriculture in the state of Andhra Pradesh drawn up by American consultants called Vision 2020.

Part of that plan is to modernise and mechanise agriculture, it promotes the use of genetically modified crops and intensive and monoculture farming systems including intensive dairy and poultry production. With much of this production being done on a contract-farming basis and with most of the produce exported.

For policymakers there to consider following the route western agriculture has already taken and the economic, cultural, health, and environmental problems that has caused, I found to be rather naÔve and disappointing. To then discover that the UK government through DFID is supporting this Vision 2020 along with other aid agencies I found even more disturbing. This plan is likely to put as many as 20 million farmers off the land in the name of so called efficiency as farm size is increased and mechanisation takes place. What they are to do with 20 million ex farmers is not addressed at all other than in vague terms like employment in the service sector. There is also mention of training, diversification and adding value to produce as part of the Vision 2020 plan. Now anyone who is familiar with the UK governmentís plan for agriculture will have read much the same plan for farming in the UK. Increase farm size giving economies of scale and so called more efficient farms, produce competing on the world market due to the WTO opening up free trade in food and agriculture by removing barriers that protect each countries food production and therefore their food security. In this UK plan we also have training for farmers, diversification and adding value and just like in Andhra Pradesh, it means people will have to leave the land.

So I had much in common with my fellow farmers in India before we even looked at where we both are now and once again the reality of the situation was very similar. Low prices for produce, often the selling price below the cost of production, due to imports and market place power in a very few hands at the far end of the food chain from the farmer. Increasing debt among farmers, like here where the UKís farming industry has help fund a cheap food policy by borrowing money to the tune of some 10 billion pounds in total now and of course there were the usual farming problems of weather pests and disease and politics. It is therefore not surprising to find the same results in both countries: farmers committing suicide, farmers leaving the land for an unknown future and a feeling of having no value in the eyes of the rest of todayís society.

It is as though, the world over, the vast majority who have left the land have become so remote from where food comes from that they fail to see the connections between what they buy in their local supermarket and farmers and the land. That failure to make the connection between what is seen as just another commodity and the environment and farming is what has driven farming in the UK and caused many of the problems we have today. That failure is now what is going to drive farming in Andhra Pradesh into the very methods of production that we all claim we donít want-- intensive monocultures and factory farming of animals, both of which cause damage to the environment, wildlife, the landscape and to rural people.

We now appear in the UK to be thinking that we must swing the other way, in which the environment becomes more important than food production, food we can import because we are a rich nation. That way we will have the best of both worlds -- cheap food and a fine environment and wonderful landscape to look at. We will of course ignore the environmental consequences of transporting that food around the globe and we will ignore the cost to the nation from whom we buy that food. Those cost include cultural changes, environmental damage, removing access to food from the very people, many of whom already are malnourished, who will be growing and producing it under contract. We will claim that the people on average will be better off, ignoring the fact that farmers donít export food, only exporters and transnational companies do that, which of benefits them. These countries will use all the methods we disapprove of including biotech crops. But of course because we will be sending aid out through DFID and other sources that will make it all right.

Not for the 20 million farmers displaced from the land in Andhra Pradesh it wonít, or for the 40,000 more on top of the 50,000 who have already left the land in the UK.

And it is not just the UK and India where these problems are happening. On the way back home, I had a 7-hour stopover in Bombay. In the airport there, I got talking to an Australian farmer's daughter, who told the same tale of farming in her country. In Queensland, family dairy farms are giving up farming in ever-larger numbers. Why? Because the price they are paid for milk is below the cost of production just like here in the UK. It is down, so they are told, because they have to compete on the world market for milk products, but we in the UK are told we have to compete with these farmers from Australia. Just who are they supposed to be unable to compete with? The result is big factory dairy farms instead of family farms.

The answer to the question is the international traders who are so few and so powerful that they are able to set the market price to suit their tastes for profits.

Although the scale of displacement in numbers of farmers from the land and the results are far greater in India than facing farmers here, there are the same unnerving similatries that I found in other areas. The lack of dialogue with grassroots farmers and rural people by government, by environmentalists and other NGOís and, in the case of India, the aid agencies. I can to some extent understand governmentís reluctance to engage in debate with grassroots farmers. But the NGOís and aid agencies and their we-know-best attitudes and with many of them coming up with their vision for farming without ever consulting with farmers I find unbelievable.

One of the final points made by the citizens jury was that their verdict on their farming future should be "that foreign aid (from white people) should follow their vision and benefit the poorest". I have no doubt that DFID and the other aid agencies will claim that this is their aim too but have they really consulted the people whom it will affect or is it a case of we know best and our very expensive consultants say this?

Without a true dialogue with people, frustration and disillusionment with the existing political systems will lead to more radical uprisings, such as the fuel protests in the UK, the like of which has been seen in many other countries. Rather than sitting around waiting for the next uprising and then dealing with it, governments could have a real dialogue with farmers and consumers and that might help them to get a handle on the complex issues of food and farming.

Unless this debate takes place in the case of food and farming bringing family farmers, rural people and consumers in to the debate rather than the current "we know best" attitude of governments, we are in for some major problems.

I found my experience in India a very interesting and exciting one, but also one which deeply disturbed me with its vision for agriculture.

I believe that farming systems are unique to each and every country for many reasons with climate the main one; this uniqueness has developed over many centuries. To do what we are attempting to do now with a one system fits all for agriculture under the power of the WTO and transnational corporations will in the end lead to disaster for mankind in terms of it ability to deliver a sustainable supply of food for us all which does as little damage as possible to the planets environment.

India can, based on all the evidence I saw and heard, feed itself without genetically modified crops, without excessive us of pesticides and fertilisers and without massive changes to the culture of rural people. There are undoubtedly problems with food storage after harvest, processing ability for crops to stop wastage and with distribution but none of them are unsolvable given the will to do so. The farmers in India undoubtedly have the skills and ability to feed India. What they donít need are aid agencies telling them we know best and placing our material values on their lives as a measure of quality of life, or transnational companies exploiting them, the soil and environment to make money by feeding us in the West.

We all have to wake to the fact that food and farmers are vital to our very survival. You cannot eat money. Governments and others around the world have to be prepared to listen, learn and make decisions for a sustainable world food production which does not exploit rural people and the environment for the financial gain of the few.

Britain funds £13.4m GM programme in Third World
By Severin Carrell and Geoffrey Lean, 09/15/2002

China's New Economy Begins on the Farm: Growers Bear Burden of Being First As Trade Brings Opportunity, Risk
By Peter S. Goodman, Washington Post Foreign Service 09/25/2002; Page A01

Also on CropChoice

1. Studies show Roundup herbicide to be hormone disruptor; http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=998

2. Three Strikes and You're Out; http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=994

3. Food the foundation of everyone's security; http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?RecID=1009

4. World Food Program director stands by 'GM or death' policy; http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?RecID=1008

5. Don't shove biotech down Africa's throat; http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?RecID=995

6. EU backs right to reject bioengineered food, crops; http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?RecID=1003

7. Farm worker pact stirs Calif. conflict; http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=1001

8. European regulators approve Bunge-Cereol deal; http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=992

9. Monsanto gets nod for GM cotton in part of Australia; http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=1004

10. Three ways for nations to acquire wealth; http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=1002

11. Neil Young at 15th FARM AID Concert:'We'llbe back next year, and the year after that...We're not giving up!' http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=996