RIO+20: Detoxicating Agriculture

Future of farming in Bangladesh depends on the capacity of the government to insist on the priority of detoxicating agriculture and stop further erosion of agroecology and environment.

Rio plus twenty means a decision about our future. Somehow the declaration of the Heads of States and Governments, knick-named as Zero Draft, has the title “The Future We Want”. But whose future? The governments do not seem to be willing to address the various crises, created by the systemic failure of global economic order resulting in increased poverty, hunger and unavailability of food. There are often fatal spill-overs from the environmental and climate crisis, the resource depletion or the financial meltdown and economic collapse. The world is not shining as it was a decade ago. Amid the chaos the global elite are coming up with the proposition of ‘green economy’.

 The Conference will focus on two major themes: (a) ‘green economy’ in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication and (b) the institutional framework for sustainable development. But questions have already been raised around the concept of ‘green economy’ which is a deceptive way of continuing the same old system of economic exploitation and environmental and ecological destruction by the developed countries and of the rich in north and south.

Twenty years ago, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), commonly known as the Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro of Brazil. The upcoming United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) will take place again in Rio from 20-22 June, 2012 and therefore known as Rio+20. The Earth Summit in 1992 was very significant in raising concerns related to environment, ecology and biodiversity and introduced weak but still workable notions such ‘sustainable development’, adopted Agenda 21 and Forest Principles. It adopted several legally binding environment treaties, particularly the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 1993 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Unfortunately, the developed and the rich countries of the world did not keep their promises and continued the brutal destruction of the nature arguing that the industrial lifestyle of the North is not negotiable. This was publicly spelled out by a global power head. The dream of greening the world through Earth Summit faded quickly. The massive environmental destruction and ecological erosion of biological resources and diversity continued unabated.

But in an unseen way the net result of the Earth Summit is the high cost eventually paid by the people in the South’. The local struggles, local solutions and the indigenous ways of identifying the environmental, ecological or biodiversity problems have been ‘globalized’, a new elite class emerged in the name of ‘expertise’, which is authorized to take decisions about the life of the billions of people across the world. The Earth Summit, as the 1992’s global event is called, destroyed the ‘local’ in order to install the ‘global’, destroyed the community knowledge in order to install ‘expert knowledge’ in a more brutal, destructive and alienated way.

From this perspective the recent cooked up notion of the so-called ‘green economy’ as a new buzz word to fashion the pale notion of sustainable development can draw at best suspicion rather than an invite to dialogue and discussions. It is a far cry to deal with poverty and the crisis of global economy. It is not surprising that many critics have already indicated that ‘green economy’ is a deceptive notion to legitimise greed-based economy, profit making, and global financial morbid architecture. Global elites are brushing an economy with romantic colour of green without any change or even reform. They are rather trying to reduce the Mother Nature into raw materials or basic economic resource to overhaul a failed global machine.

As one of the countries of the south, Bangladesh belongs to the bioregion of the origin of biodiversity. Despite the rampant destruction by various developmental and industrial interventions it is still a beautiful country of diverse green painted by the diverse crops of small farmers. It depends on agriculture as a main source of employment and livelihood of people. Agriculture is not dominated by big land owners, or by corporate agriculture, although national and multinational seed companies have taken all measures to destroy the farmer’s seed system taking advantage of government seed rules and seed policy. The small farmers constitute more than 70% of the farming households owning less than 2.5 acres of land. Farmers are the strength of the agriculture of this country, because they are capable, despite insurmountable odds, to produce crops and reproduce their life. With their surplus they are engaged in the market.

Unfortunately small farmers have been under attack for over last 5 decades and are gradually reducing in number from 85% to now 70%. Since the mid-sixties of the last century, the agricultural policies are dictated by international agencies such as the World Bank, IMF, ADB and various bilateral agencies. The policy has essentially been infusion of various kinds of toxics in the name increased production, pest management, management of weeds, etc. Such interventions, couples with neoliberal macroeconomic policies have always been justified in the name of population increase and the need to produce more food. In contrast to socio-economic ideas of radical ‘red’ political challenge, it was dubbed as “green”. The ‘green’ is now returning again, but this time as a farce.

Toxic Green 1: Green Revolution Agriculture

In the early sixties of the 20th century, the World Bank and other international agencies made conditional loans to the developing countries to adopt “modern agriculture” – a package of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation system with diesel or power in the name of achieving higher yields and thereby attaining food self-sufficiency. This approach was called the Green Revolution. While cereal production increased in Bangladesh, oil seeds, lentils, forest products and in general the biomass -- a major source of energy in the rural areas have decreased. Misconception of 'agriculture' is scandalously obvious here. Agriculture does not only produce food, but also fuel woods, fibres, medicines, construction materials, etc. Another misconception about agriculture is that it is not merely a space for ‘cultivated’ food, but space for uncultivated food as well. Polluting environment, both terrestrial and aquatic, the modern agriculture through use of chemicals destroyed and toxicated food that are produced and other food sources that people could easily collect without cultivating. In Bangladesh, the fish and aquatic resources have been destroyed by chemicals, pesticides and unsustainable urbanization -- dumping waste into rivers and agricultural lands. This has proved disastrous for Bangladesh. Food insufficiency still remains an acute problem, but now food safety has become a major concern. The rural environment is destroyed due to excessive use of chemicals. Such disasters are added upon the already environmental and ecological erosion of the land, rivers and water bodies. To make the situation worse the biotechnology industry, in the absence of biosafety laws and public awareness, is promoting and facilitating the proliferation of genetically modified organisms in food and agriculture, creating the imminent danger of biological pollution. They are feeding on the technological disaster of Green Revolution’ and is already proposing a ‘Second Green Revolution’ rather than amending the damage. Such step will simply accelerate the biological pollution in countries that is still rich in biodiversity and genetic resources.

Pesticide spraying in paddy field

The Green Revolution was from the beginning dependent on the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. At the recommendation of the donors fertilizer and pesticides were distributed for free upto 1974, followed by 50% subsidy till 1979. The donors came up with recommendations later that, the subsidy was completely lifted. However because of the increased dependence on the use of the products, the use was not reduced (PROBE news Magazine, May 18 – May 24, 2012 Vol. 10 Issue 47).

Despite the critique of Green Revolution and concerns about loss of biodiversity and environmental degradation the fertilizer-pesticide based agricultural production continued. According to the records of the Department of Agricultural Extension, use of chemical fertilizers has almost doubled in a decade. About 4.5 million tons of chemical fertilizers that include 2.9 million tons of urea, 0.5 million tones of triple super phosphate and 0.4 million tons of di-ammonium phosphate were estimated to be used in the country in 2010 - 2011 (NewAge October 21, 2010).

According to the Department of Agricultural Extension the target for the use of TSP has been set at 700 metric tons, MOP 740 metric tons and DAP 650 metric tons. The use of urea fertilizer is targeted at 3 million metric tons for 2012, compared to 2.8 million of 2011. It is estimated that over the past 10 years about 30 million metric tons of urea has been poured into our soil (PROBE news Magazine, May 18 – May 24, 2012 Vol. 10 Issue 47).

Farmers these days need to use more fertilizer to produce crops as the land is losing fertility, mainly because of deficiency in organic elements. About 40 per cent of the country’s land area has become deficient in organic elements and other soil nutrients over a decade, according to experts at the Soil Research and Development Institute (SRDI). Statistics indicate that areas deficient in zinc and boron have increased by 40 and 18 per cent respectively compared with the ratio in 1998. Moreover, areas deficient in sulphur, potassium, and phosphorus have increased by 50, 45 and 17 per cent respectively compared with the ratio in 1998. SRDI records show that more than 1,200,000 hectares of land have become deficient in organic matter since 1998 (NewAge October 21, 2010).

According to Dhaka University Soil Science department , intensive and unplanned cropping was the main reason behind the loss of soil nutrients in Bangladesh. The government needed to encourage the farmers to use more organic fertilizers than chemical fertilizers and work out a soil-friendly cropping pattern instead of promoting monoculture (NewAge October 21, 2010).

From 1992 to 2005, the pesticide use (including insecticide, fungicide, herbicide, rodenticide etc) has been 25,466 metric tons according to BBS, (2007). Pesticide-based agriculture goes against poultry and livestock keeping by the small farmers. They are forced to keep the hen, ducks, cows, goats to keep inside when the large or middle scale commercial farmers are spraying pesticides in their fields or in the mango and litchi orchard.

According to Xinhua News Agency (Sep. 22, 2010 ) the use of toxic pesticides by Bangladeshi farmers increased by 328 percent during the past 10 years, posing a serious health hazards on human health due to its long-term residual effect, quoting a study released by Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI).

The survey, studying the use of toxic pesticides in farmland during 1997 to 2008, showed that in 1997 the use of pesticides in Bangladesh was more than 8,000 tons; it doubled to 16,000 tons in 2000; in 2005-06, it increased to nearly 20,000 tons and in 2008 it rose up to 48,690 tons.

The insecticides, being the dominant item, account for 76 percent of the pesticides, and per hectare use of pesticides increase around 598.8 percent and its annual import cost stands nearly at 171.43 million U.S. dollars. According to the study, the intensity of pesticide use was found especially higher in vegetables in Bangladesh, compared to other countries in the world. The study said the residual effects of these toxic chemicals on vegetables are likely to create different diseases in human bodies including cancer, skin diseases, hypertension and kidney diseases as its long term effect.

The use of pesticides in vegetables is likely to grow further in the future unless appropriate alternatives, based on integrated pest management approaches, are developed.

Toxic Green 2: Aggressive Tobacco

Tobacco is a nicotine (Nicotiana tabacum) plant. The N. tabacum varieties are used for cigarette, cigar, cheroot, biri, hookah, chewing and snuff tobacco and the varieties of rustica are used only for hookah, chewing and snuff. Nicotine is an alkaloid found in the nightshade family of plants (Solanaceae); biosynthesis takes place in the roots and accumulation occurs in the leaves. The substance acts as a stimulant, which is the main factor responsible for the dependence-forming properties of tobacco smoking.

Tobacco toxic green

Tobacco is grown in agricultural land, but it is not an agricultural crop. In the context of Bangladesh, agriculture means where farmers are involved in the decision for choosing the crops and its consumption and marketing. It is a non-food plant. It is only a raw material for products such as cigarette, biri and other smokeless tobacco that is proved to be harmful for health, environment and society. It is one of the very few products entering the world trade, entirely as leaf. It is green from the planting time to the harvesting time, with no change in its green color. The company uses the slogan “Sobujer Somaroho” - (the abundance of green) in order to deceive people as if it is environmental friendly. But such a green plant like tobacco has absolutely no ecological value and has questionable economic gains for the farmers. It is a product that has only one market, i.e. the tobacco companies and their agents and they are interested in the leaves which they grade for quality and therefore decide the price. It has no biomass that feeds back to the soil. The company purchases only the leaves that are grown. The rest of the plant remains on the ground and does more harm to the soil.

It cannot be termed even as a “cash agricultural crop” because it does not fit into the criteria of cash crop that benefits the farmers and the community. By calling it an agricultural crop it gets the legitimacy of occupying the land where food and other useful agricultural crops could have been grown. If it gets the status of agricultural crop, it can claim over the subsidized inputs such as fertilizer, pesticides, irrigation water which is the right of the farmers producing food crops and not those who are producing a harmful product.

Tobacco is not food, nor an agricultural crop that is chosen by farmers for any other reason such as increasing soil fertility, fuel wood, fibres, housing material or any other means to meet the necessities. It simply produces a very harmful product for which over 57,000 people die and causing disability to 3,82,000 persons every year.

The effects of tobacco cultivation on soil are very much visible. The physical structure and chemical properties of soil has been changed with continuous cultivation of monoculture of tobacco. The organic matter content of soil has drastically been reduced. So is the water holding capacity of the soil. Some other unusual character of the soil include: 1) soil has become hard, 2) Soil dried up quickly, 3) In some places the water does not drain out easily, 4) The natural smell of soil has been impaired and 5) The soil color has changed.

The chemical fertilizer and pesticides used indiscriminately and large doses and logging of trees for curing of leaves cause erosion of genetic resources. Fertilizers are applied in tobacco field from land preparation to different stages of growth of plants. The major fertilizers include urea, phosphate, zinc, MoP, manganese, potassium, DAP, sulphate , and TSP. The chemical fertilizers in high concentration become toxic for the bottom line of food chain of the biological diversity including algae, fungi, bacteria, Phyto-plankton and zoo-plankton and trigger genetic erosion.

Farmers apply pesticides in tobacco at different stages of production. The farmers apply five types of pesticide before sowing seed in the seed bed, 22 types after transplanting seedlings in the main field and 27 types during growing stage and one type after de-heading. These include destructive pesticides like Ripcord, Furadon, Sumithion, Thiovit, etc. The pesticides have killing impacts on biological diversity. Indiscriminate use of pesticides for tobacco production has been poisoning environment including soil, water and air. Fish diversity has been reduced in the open water bodies. Consequently the bird population and variability have been declining.

One kilogram of tobacco production requires 12kg of fire wood for curing of tobacco leaves. Fire wood from different sources, irrespective of species is logged for curing of tobacco. Consequently food and shelter of many birds and animals have been reduced. Moreover, the monoculture plantation of fast growing plants for production of firewood like akashmoni (Acacia moniliformis), eucalyptus (Eucalyptus spp.), rain tree (Albezia lucida), mahogany (Switenia mahagoni) and debdaru (Polyalthia lorgifolia) lead to loss of PGR for competition of space.

De-toxicating Green: Ecological Agriculture

In the context of where Green Revolution has brought us, as described above, the primary and immediate national task for Bangladesh is to detoxicate agriculture. Nayakrishi Andolon has already demonstrated how it could be achieved without compromising the productivity in agriculture or economic return from farming. The primary focus in Nayakrishi practice is to immediately restore the health of the soil, efficient use and management of surface water, shift from monoculture to biodiversity and integrating live stocks into the agro-ecological system to maximize the output from the farming household.

Nayakrishi is a practice of agriculture that does not presuppose the separation between the agro-ecosystem and the farming community, thus is capable to resists interventionist and destructive knowledge practices in the name of science and technology that disregard the historical and local wisdom of the community. Industrial food production aims to replace farmers in order to install corporations as food producer instead of farming community. Such interventions are essentially corporate interventions and what they practice has nothing to do with science as a procedural truth consistent with the real outcome in practice. Agriculture by definition presupposes the necessity of the farming community, in contrast to industrial food production presupposing Corporations and marginalization of the community.

Nayakrishi farmer woman

Two systems of knowledge; one formal and another informal, do not exist. The farming practices, following procedural rules to generate a result, are equally formal as science in the laboratory. From the perspective of farming community, Nayakrishi stands positively to science and technology as long as they affirm life, livelihood and complex web of ecology and environment. Nayakrishi is not a return to ‘traditional’ agricultural understood as romanticized fixed past, but the ceaseless effort to re-turn and discover the fundamental relations between human communities and nature without which existence of life and its regeneration is impossible.

That the future of farming must be ecological can also be discerned from the imminent vulnerability of Bangladesh from climate change. Nayakrishi increases the resilience within the farming system specific to its specific agro-ecological nature such as, broadly speaking, flood plain, drought prone or coastal area. As a result the farming system increases its ability to continue functioning when faced with unexpected events such as climate change. Nayakrishi achieves this resilience to climate disasters by incorporating the nature’s natural designs and ecological processes into the very practice of farming such as mixed cropping, rotational crop selection in order to better respond to change and reduce risk. Thus, farmers who increase species and variety diversity suffer less damage compared to conventional farmers planting monocultures. Moreover, the use of intra-specific diversity (different cultivars of the same crop) is insurance against future environmental change. The ecological design of the Nayakrishi farming is also grounded on the principle of reducing its role as green house gas emitter and by increasing the greens in the field enhancing its role as carbon sinks. Nayakrishi practices enhance the sequestration of carbon dioxide through the use of techniques that build up soil organic matter, as well as diminish nitrous oxide emissions since the system use no external mineral nitrogen input and more efficient in nitrogen use. Ecological systems have been found to sequester more carbon dioxide than conventional farms, while techniques that reduce soil erosion convert carbon losses into gains. Nayakrishi is self-sufficient in nitrogen due to recycling of manures from livestock and crop residues via composting, as well as planting of leguminous crops.

To deal with the drought, Nayakrishi Andolon is protecting and where necessary, reintroducing local drought resistant varieties and species. But the approach to drought caused by climatic variability is not limited to this only. The approach is comprehensive that includes creating appropriate environment and agro-ecologial systems that are resilient enough to stand drought. In this regard restoring the health of the soil is paramount going hand in hand with the efforts to increase organic matter in soil, efficient use of water and the use of cover crops to retain soil-moisture.

To address the problems in the coastal area Nayakrishi is actively engaged in regenerating mangroves and developed agro-ecological practices with local salt resistant species and varieties. There is absolutely no alternative but to regenerate mangrove species and create ecological conditions for the restoration of forests in the coastal area. Instead corporations are introducing genetically modified salt resistant varieties in the name of ‘adaptation’ to climate change.

Historical and local knowledge (with focus on women’s knowledge and experiences of seed keeping and natural resource management) are the primary resources upon which the knowledge practice and strategy is drawn to adapt or mitigate the negative consequences of climate change. The adaptive capacities of the farmers are functions of their selective, experimental and resilient capabilities. There can be common principles but no single or generalized ‘model’ to adaptation since each farming household is unique in its ecological designs.


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