- Why is a buyer of last resort important and how does their existence impact the agronomy or agroecology ?
Corporate buyers are typically more concerned with the quality of produce they buy and in private marketplaces there are strict rules regarding quality—anything below a certain grade is rejected. It is only private traders (both outside and inside the mandi) who buy such produce and improve its quality before re-selling it, or channel it towards consumers who are willing to accept it. These activities are financially viable because private traders are also buying good quality produce at the same time. If private marketplaces are able to corner all the good quality produce, it will mean poor quality produce will not find buyers anymore.
What is important to understand here is that ‘poor’ quality produce may not always be ‘bad’. Nature does not produce standardized quality and tomatoes can be of different sizes, shapes, colours and textures. Yet, in our minds a ‘good’ quality tomato is round, red and just the right hardness. This, despite the fact that the tomatoes used for rasam are different from the tomatoes used for salad which are different from the tomatoes used for chutney or for sabzi. The same thing is true for most other products. But as consumers we have been shaped by corporate advertising or even by our own notions of what is ‘good’ quality. Our grandmothers had very different notions of quality from us today.
Thus, if ‘poor’ quality produce does not find a buyer, only those farmers who are able to produce the ‘good’ quality product will survive. But that may mean that the diversity of tomatoes, or rice or brinjals, that exist today may not be there in the future, if our supply chains are transformed according to specific ideas of ‘standardised’ and ‘good’ quality. Even worse, in the quest to produce ‘standardised’ quality, farmers will be pushed to continue to grow monocultures, which require more chemicals and cause more damage to the soil and to our health. The story of standardization of products is an unfortunate story of remaking consumers, remaking farmers and remaking the land—to the detriment of everyone.
- There has been a renewed interest in the role of MSP due to the silence on it in the new bill. What exactly do you think has been the role of MSP in the Indian agrarian system?
The minimum support price (MSP) has been the backbone of the green revolution. Farmers in the irrigated tracts of the country switched to high yielding varieties of wheat and rice in the 1960s and 70s because the government guaranteed that it would purchase the crop at a minimum price. However, while this has provided India with large foodgrain stocks and supplied the public distribution system, there has been a huge ecological, social and nutritional cost that we have paid in return. MSP purchases have been done only for rice and wheat (and in sugarcane) so farmers shifted away from growing a multitude of crops including pulses, millets and oilseeds, to the growing monocultures of the ones with a guaranteed market. This skewed the nutrition basket of the country as we ended up with excess of wheat and rice that began rotting in our godowns, while at the same time, we had to import pulses and oilseeds which are essential for a balanced diet.
Moreover, the disbursement of subsidies was primarily restricted to historically irrigated regions in the country and benefited farmers who were from the more privileged social groups, thus increasing inequality in the country. Not to mention the ecological damage resulting from growing monoculture crops (see here).
Moreover, purchases at the minimum support price that have predominantly supported the wheat and rice farmers of Punjab and Haryana were routed through the traders / commission agents in the mandi system. But unlike other states where the Food Corporation of India or TRIFED or NAFED directly organized the purchase and money was deposited directly into the bank accounts of farmers, here the commission agents were the ones who organized the government purchase and paid farmers in cash (sometimes even below MSP). Their political power has been on display in the opposition to the new Act. Of course, farmers are also worried that the guaranteed purchase at MSP may eventually disappear if private marketplaces become more dominant in future. That would mean a death knell for the wheat and rice economy of Punjab because, given the rising costs of cultivation, it is only being sustained by guaranteed government purchase at increasing MSP year after year.
There has been a demand from farmer organisations for the government to procure other crops at MSP and states like Odisha, Telengana and Karnataka have been procuring millets and pulses in this way. This has promoted millet farming, especially in rainfed tracts, which is good for nutrition and good for the local ecology (soil and water). But a major worry is that millets have historically been grown as part of mixed cropping systems and the MSP incentive may end up perversely promoting monoculture millet farming (just like the case of rice and wheat). This would be detrimental for the local natural resource base and for farm livelihoods in the long run.
- In 2019, a FAO report flagged the growing threat of monoculture around the world. In your opinion, is monoculture really a threat for Indian agrarian society and ecology or are there any redeeming factors about monoculture?
Monoculture is the death knell of agriculture. While it may have provided huge amounts of wheat and rice in the short term, it has eaten away our nutrition security / food security in the long term. Variability in nature is the biggest reason for the survival of species. Monoculture has reduced the available biodiversity across all major crops in the world to the point where our food supply is dependent on a handful of cultivars. The technological and chemical treadmill that farmers are running on to keep ahead of pests and diseases, declining soil fertility, falling groundwater levels and rising input costs, is eventually going to push them off. Without external support of scientists and corporations to produce newer seed varieties and newer agrochemicals, farmers will not survive on the monoculture treadmill (see here). With the climate crisis, we are already in serious trouble. Scientists have been trying to play catch up but if the very base of agriculture, our biodiversity, is lost, what will we conduct research upon? Of course, we have the seeds stored in gene banks so that their DNA can be used for research. But how many of them are viable as seeds, which will germinate and can be grown? That option, in most cases, is lost. The knowledge of cultivation surrounding those seeds is also lost forever because that knowledge was in the heads and hands of farmers, who have today become supplicants in front of scientists (see here).
- What is the way ahead for Indian agriculture? What sort of reforms in policy and practice are needed in your opinion to ensure a better future for both the farm and the market?
There is a serious need for policymakers and especially prominent economists to realise that agriculture is embedded in the environmental system of the earth and that we cannot expect to continue to extract things from the earth without bearing the consequences of those actions. The climate crisis is here and our models of agriculture and of evaluating our economy and well-being continue to centre around measures like economic growth and Gross Domestic Product that are measuring the wrong things. What is needed is to revalue circular economies and a framework of degrowth. Agriculture must be based on agroecology by combining insights from knowledge systems and practices of local communities with insights from the sciences. More importantly, we need to reach out to urban consumers to help them reconnect with the earth and to urge them to recognize their ecological footprint and change their lifestyles to more ecologically sustainable and livelihood generating choices—produce and consume local. Agriculture cannot be transformed by farmers alone. We are all implicated in this through the choices that we make.