Saturday, March 5, 2011

Hard times ahead? Fertilizer, famine and the future of our farms

Is the sun setting on the "green revolution"?
In which I explain what my father-in-law and Karl Marx forgot to tell us about the source of wealth and food...

Last week The Hindu ran two pieces which, when taken together, serve to remind us how very vulnerable our whole system of food production is to forces beyond our control. First, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh takes on the whole issue of fertilizer subsidy, explaining that our reliance on chemical fertilizers is really a reliance on foreign petrochemical companies and fertilizer producers:
There have been concerns raised by several policy experts and others that the fertilizer policy of the country is only helping to move out the Indian tax payers' money to foreign petroleum companies and fertilizer producers. It is to be noted here that fertilizer production is highly dependent on fossil fuels, and that most fertilizers are imported.
Even more interesting, is the whole question of what the farmers think about soil degradation. What farmers know--and don't know--about that topic is striking. Here's Singh again:
In the mad rush to balance the chemical fertilizer kitty with global prices, policy makers are forgetting a huge problem that is staring us in the face — the deteriorating soil in the country and the resultant threat to food security. However farmers are aware of the crisis, but are helpless in the absence of support systems from the government. A recent Greenpeace India report, “Of Soils, Subsidies and Survival,” based on social audits conducted in five Indian States, has revealed that 96 per cent out of the 1,000 farmers surveyed were of the opinion that the use of chemical fertilisers led to soil degradation but they continue to use them as there was no other option. Ninety-four per cent of the surveyed farmers believed that only organic fertilisers can maintain soil health. However, only one per cent of the farmers received any kind of support for production and the use of organic fertilisers. Ninety-eight per cent of the surveyed farmers were ready to use organic fertilisers if they are subsidised and made easily available...Further, only 34 per cent of them knew that chemical fertilisers are subsidised. Of those who knew, only seven per cent knew that a new subsidy system (NBS) was introduced by the government for chemical fertilizers. Even at the subsidised rate, 94 per cent of them thought that chemical fertilisers are unaffordable and not economical.
Later in the week, Andrew Simms gave us "Our addiction to oil is draining every drop." Simms reminds of two sobering facts: first, most of our economy depends on cheap fossil fuel, and second, we are running out of that cheap fossil fuel. Here's a taste:
We all became, and remain, hooked on its convenience. Today's energy supplies provide the equivalent of the work of 22 billion slaves, according to former oil industry man Colin Campbell. But now the wave of oil looks set to leave us high and dry. At well over $100 per barrel, prices are climbing again to the level last reached in 2008. Since then, however, the tone of commentary has changed.
That comment about slavery, by the way, reminded me of my university days, when many of my red friends were fond of announcing, "labour creates all wealth, comrade!" Come to think of it, I think I even announced that a few times. Today, I don't really feel up to a full discussion of c+L=W or other aspects of the Labour Theory of Value... or the opening paragraph of Marx's Critique of the Gotha Progamme...or even my father-in-law's take on all that in an Indian context: FARMS+ the Labour of Farmers=Wealth. 

Anyway, if I really did go and try to write a full on critique of Marxist economics, I'm sure someone from SARAI would take me to task for lack of intellectual rigour and the rest of you would stop reading. 

But permit me this much at least: wealth cannot be generated and food cannot be grown over the long run if it is not done so sustainably. And our current systems of industrial and agricultural production depend on us using fossil fuels (which is really ancient solar energy) and what is left of the organic content of the soil (which is more recent solar energy) in a way that is unsustainable. See, that's the thing neither Marx, nor my father-in-law ever completely got their large minds around.

And if that was too confusing, I think these three simple statements may be a bit more clear:
1) Over-farmed Indian soil increasingly requires fertilizer in order to give food.
2) Fertilizer requires a lot of fossil fuel to produce.
3) Oil supplies are falling and prices are rising--in the short and long term.

Add those up, and you can see we are in trouble, even without taking into account falling water tables and climate change. The problems are easy to understand, but the solutions are much more complex. And the price of failure is high indeed: lacking a real solution to these problems, the best we can hope for is that hunger will continue to stalk the land; at worse, we will see famine and the widespread breakdown of social order. 
For more on food, check out our Food Security page. Also, Mira Kamdar's series in Slate: On the front lines of the global food crisis.


  1. In Maharashtra I've seen farmers literally emptying gunny bags of fertilizers onto their sugarcane fields!
    The rich farmers can even afford to do this. The switch to organic farming requires a complete overhaul of our agricultural policies which is replete with a dangerous nexus of top politicians and top companies.
    The sight I saw at an RCF in my state was horrific. A freight train pulled up on the tracks within the factory every two hours. Within an hour, workers loaded bags of urea enough to fill the compartments top to bottom!
    That was when I realized that organic farming in our country is easier said than done!

  2. @Meenal, It's very difficult, I agree. And organic farming itself isn't guaranteed to solve the problems we are facing. But the cost of inaction is also extraordinarily high. Glad you stopped by.


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