The cost of India’s Green Revolution

31 July 2013

This June the G8 took another step towards creating the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. This private sector driven development implies it will solve hunger by rolling out fertilizers, GM seeds and other non organic inputs. Whilst the talk around the New Alliance is glossed over with rhetoric about ending hunger it is worth remembering the impacts of the last big global push to create food security. The ‘Green Revolution’ in India was first undertaken by the state of Punjab in the 1960’s. Then as today the announced plan was supposed to overcome the famine crisis and enable the country to be able to provide enough food to feed its citizens. However, the revolution involved moving away from natural pesticides and conventional grains and towards chemical pesticides, hybrid seeds, and later on GM seeds. As promised, agricultural output did increase in some Indian states, with national wheat production increasing from 10 million tonnes in 1960, to almost 95 million tonnes in 2012. However the Green Revolution is largely criticised for not tackling the root causes of hunger; indeed, these gains came at a price.

The use of GM crops has intensified the situation of water scarcity in the region, as the high-intensity nature of the crops require increasing amounts of water over time, leading desperate farmers to dig deeper and deeper underground in search of water. Farming with GM crops also led to a reduction in the genetic diversity amongst crops, which in turn led to crops being more susceptible to pests and diseases. GM crops have also led to an increase in the use of pesticides; this is mainly due to the crop itself becoming increasingly vulnerable to disease, as well as pests becoming resistant to the original levels of pesticide, with higher levels of pesticide being used to tackle both these issues. Another contributor to pesticide use is the terminology being used in the Punjab. Using the word “pesticide” provides us in the English speaking world with a negative association with chemical pesticides, as the word sounds harmful and maybe even toxic. Yet in Punjab, farmers refer to pesticides as “dava”, which when translated means medicine, providing them with a positive association with the chemical inputs, and encouraging them to use pesticides when farming.

Photo credit: Antoine Collet

This increasing use of pesticides has placed an increasing financial burden on farmers, but since the micronutrients in the soil are being depleted by the use of GM crops and chemicals, farmers have begun to see reduced crop yields, resulting in lower incomes. Farmers are also faced with higher costs due to hybrid and GM seeds needing to be repurchased every year; whereas with conventional seeds they were able to save seeds and reuse them the following harvest.  These factors place the farmer under financial strain, and since there are few legitimate finance lenders, many typically turn to loan sharks. The inability of farmers to pay off their loan leads to the tragic act of suicide, with statistics from 2011 revealing that the rate of suicide for farmers was 47% higher than the overall Indian population.

Photo credit: CGIAR Climate

There has also been weak regulation of the pesticide industry in India, with pesticides that have been banned for health reasons in many other countries widely available in the nation. Some chemicals are also available in dangerously high concentrations such as Organophosphorous. This chemical has been blamed for the recent deaths of school children in India after high quantities of the chemical were found in the children’s free school meals. In Punjab, the home of the Green Revolution, scientists have found that the villages using higher amounts of pesticides are also the ones with higher rates of cancer. The problem has become so severe that there is now even a “cancer train” which takes citizens from the Punjab to the town of Bikaner, where the government’s centre for cancer treatment is located. Passengers on board the train say that they don’t doubt that pesticides are behind the rise of cancer in Punjab.

Photo: Joe Athialy

The success of southern states in India that have already moved towards organic farming has begun to inspire Punjabi farmers to move away from chemical inputs and GM crops. The state of Sikkim is now largely using organic inputs and soil nutrients and aims to be an entirely organic state by 2015. Within Sikkim farmer field schools are being organised to provide farmers with practical training on sustainable methods of farming, such as how to identify which insects are good for agriculture and which are pests; as well as how to deal with pests if they are found without the use of chemicals. Organic farmers in Sikkim have begun to achieve a higher quantity of crop as well as a better quality, and these results are proving an attractive draw for non-organic farmers to make the switch. The success of Sikkim has been aided by the high level of support received from the state government. The government of Punjab has made statements of its support for organic farming, but until it backs those statements up with funding and technical assistance, Punjab will have a tough time of leaving pesticides and GM crops behind as well as the problems that come with them.

Top photo credit: Neil Palmer


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