Time to Re-Assess Indigenous Knowledge of Agriculture

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By Dr Claude Alvares (Lecture for the National Conference on Innovation in Traditional Practices for Cultivation of Fruit, Vegetable, and Plantation Crops held at ICAR, Goa, on December 11-12, 2014)

The undoubted and perhaps unintended – or unforeseen – ill-effects associated with the conventional green revolution package of practices has compelled both farmers and governments to look more favourably at organic farming, which appears unassociated with any of these deadly impacts.

Similarly, critical evaluation of aspects of “modern” agriculture – particularly its costs and its in- built unsustainability associated with non-renewable resources like fertilisers based on imported petrochemicals – are leading to a felt need to take a re-look at the varied practices associated with indigenous or traditional agriculture which cost little or nothing at all. It is also a fact that prior to 1966, the use of deadly pesticides to deal with problem of insects simply did not exist.

In fact, some features of indigenous agriculture have been taken over by modern agriculture. For instance, no- till farming, which is a practice associated with swidden or kumeri agriculture is now provided a new label as “conservation agriculture technology” or CAT. In this so- called new avatar, supported not by adivasis but by multinational corporations, toxic chemical weedicides are used to kill off weed cover, thus providing a substantial mulch (another feature of organic farming) over the soil. The intention is to not disturb soil structure, which if often profusely damaged by conventional ploughing operations or increase soil density, which is inevitable when one uses tractors.

Masanobu Fukuoka was not the first farmer to introduce no-till agriculture which he reported in his remarkable book, One Straw Revolution. That is a claim only indigenous agriculture can truly make.

For thousands of years, this country has indeed done amazing agriculture. How we so readily and easily forgot a good deal of it is beyond understanding. The inevitable proof of the success of good agriculture is that it enables a significant population to survive. In this place called India, we know the technology was adequate simply because society survived. But survival (restricted only to the business of eating) is not everything. Indigenous agriculture also permitted and maintained many other creative things, including a classical culture that remains very much alive even in our times. It also enabled an alternate industrial mode of production exploiting energy at ambient temperature which supplied the entire world with textiles till the colonial rulers, desperate to find a market for their mill-made cloth, chopped off fingers of weavers of cloth.

The other interesting feature of this older agriculture – still with us in many parts of the country – was its phenomenal diversity, which led in turn to an elaborate and diverse cuisine unrivalled by any other part of the globe, with the possible exception of China. In fact, when one compares the diversity of food and the diversity of recipes for cooking that food, both India and China are without any doubt “developed” nations. Conventionally seen as “developed”, countries like the United Kingdom or the USA with their poor food traditions including more recent, positively unhealthy relatives labelled appropriately as “junk food,” are at the bottom of the ladder of civilisation. The sooner we accept this, the better for all concerned.

It is this diversity and abundance of food that has enabled this country and its society to evolve a food sharing tradition that again finds no parallel in other parts of the world. Even today, gurudwaras and mandirs routinely feed thousands of people who visit these shrines. This generosity could only germinate in the presence of ample quantities of food. Several edicts and norms required the mandatory sharing of “annadana.” In contrast, try getting a European to feed even his neighbour, let alone a stranger! Now an abundance of food can only come with an intimate knowledge of the soil and of plants. Take plants first. I often give the example of our rice varieties to make a point. India produced – hold your breath – 300,000 varieties! This is well documented and not some charming fiction created by the RSS! The Cuttack Rice Research Institute has 60,000 varieties in its germplasm bank. MP Rice Research Institute, founded by Dr R.H. Richharia, grew 19,000 varieties in situ. When I visited IRRI in the Philippines, I found 72,000 varieties in its gene bank, most of which were taken under the garb of “scientific research” from India, but eventually ended up in the US. This is a phenomenal figure of seed diversity and does indicate a very high level of understanding of seed selection and breeding techniques.

Since we are in Goa, let me tell you I traced the historical existence of sixty varieties of rice: highland, wetland and coastal (salt). Each seed, being a cultivar, is a piece of valid indigenous knowledge. Each seed had different qualities in terms of taste, photo-sensitivity, dormancy, even colour (purple varieties). Bred to different environments, soils and tastes, each seed contained unique knowledge. Please try and see if you can ever compare the vast knowledge encapsulated in 300,000 varieties of rice with the modern knowledge of the few rice varieties that dominates scientific institutions. In fact, the International Rice Research Institute has produced after 50 years of research only two major successes, IR8 and IR36. Modern scientific knowledge thus pales in comparison. By losing the indigenous varieties, we lose pieces of knowledge contributed by this civilisation to the agricultural basket.

The art of breeding rice varieties is a dynamic process. Dr. Richharia – himself a leading rice breeder – found he had to revise his opinion about adivasis’ knowledge of science when he tried out certain seeds which he got from these farmers but which he was able to grow but unable to breed. He discovered later that these were male sterile lines. He had no idea of how the adivasis of MP had come to know about the existence of these varieties (which modern breeders are still struggling with) but they knew how to identify such varieties, what they were meant for and how they ought to be used in their rice fields to create new varieties. None of the so-called “saline” varieties of rice were created by modern science; they were bred by farmers in coastal belts.

Most, if not all, plant varieties used by Indian agricultural universities – particularly the vegetables – are actually farmer- bred selections. They are merely provided a new name and then passed off as a result of scientific research. This is so clear in the case of brinjal, of which this country boasts 2,500 varieties, none of which originated with any modern scientific establishment. It is a dozen of these varieties (including a brinjal variety bred by the farmers of Agassaim, Goa) that were appropriated by agricultural scientists at Hebbal and Coimbatore before being given so-called scientific names, and later handed over to Mahyco for use in the manufacture of Bt brinjal. Now they face a suit for biopiracy filed against them by the National Biodiversity Board.

It is this complex and extremely rich seed tradition which was assaulted by a development paradigm which one finds difficult to understand. The drastic change was heralded in rice and wheat by announcing a label: High Yielding Varieties (HYV). So even though the traditional varieties were equally productive, and better suited to their environments, they were simply ignored in favour of the varieties that were given the name “high yielding”. This piece of information I got through discussion with agricultural officers.

This competence in agriculture was not just found exhibited in the form of seed diversity or the design of ploughs. Agricultural knowledge was also available in texts, many of which have since been lovingly translated and published by the Asian Agri-History Foundation under the pioneering leadership of Dr Y.L. Nene. Parashara’s Krishi- Parashara is to be found in several languages, including Kannada. Other groups like the Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems (CIKS) have also created a new library of these earlier texts dealing with agricultural practice, including the Vrikshayurveda. I have no doubt that some of these practices laid out in these and several other texts which include the Krishi Gita, the Mriga Pakshi Shastra, and the Vishwavallabha will return with a vengeance, when farmers side-step conventional modern green revolution package of practices due to the intractable problems associated with it.

My colleague Prof. C.K. Raju has written a few books in which he shows that the extraordinary focus on agriculture in India engineered the capacity building of predictive skills involved in the elaborate study of the monsoon, crucial to Indian agriculture. This led to the invention of the calculus and a strong mathematical and astronomical tradition.

There are several reports of agricultural specialists sent from England to study India’s agriculture and how to improve it in the period from 1750 to the 1950s. After their study tours and reports, these specialists spurned the very idea of any improvements. Their unanimous conclusion was there was not much to teach, much less anything to improve, since the farmers obviously knew their stuff. The Alexander Walker Report on agriculture in eighteenth century India is available in Dharampal’s Collected Writings.

Substantially the same message, in greater detail, can be found in the Report on the Improvement of Indian Agriculture written by Dr John Augustus Voelcker, the consulting chemist to the Royal Agricultural Society of England. He toured the country extensively from 1889 to 1891. Forty years later, Albert Howard arrived. He frankly confessed that though he had come to teach the Indian peasant, he had ended up learning many things instead. It is Howard’s work that led to the formation of the Soil Association of Great Britain and is today consider as the progenitor of organic farming as we know it today. The historian Dharampal’s Chinglepet data, carefully assembled from British records and reports, indicates that output of field crops in that region was higher than that associated with the best of the so-called green revolution package of practices used today.

Large-scale, meticulously planned irrigation systems were erected to sustain agricultural production. These not only enabled people to transport and store water in very large quantities (examples: Rajasthan, Pune) but the system of tank irrigation (for example, in Karnataka) was so well designed that when engineers proposed to increase the number of tanks, they discovered there were no more locations available since the existing ones had adequate arrangements to collect all the rainfall that fell on the ground in the areas. Indian water harvesting systems were designed to deal with the monsoon, that is, to collect rain where it fell, precisely like the Mumbai housewife who finds she must collect as much water from her tap within an hour every morning when the public water supply starts and then shuts. Modern irrigation systems, in contrast, are built on the technology of radical intervention, like large dams. For this reason, they are never sustainable, since they dam the runoff instead of harvesting it. In fact, the forests that harvest and store the water and then help release it gradually are slaughtered and drowned in the dam reservoirs. Since catchment areas are denuded, the life of the dam is considerably reduced, due to sedimentation. In the tank system, the silt accumulated in tanks was removed and used to fertilise agricultural lands as a normal practice.

There are many other indicators which I will not discuss in too much detail but those working in botany and plants know that Garcia de Orta faithfully recorded local knowledge of a huge variety of plants that were being used in India for medicinal purposes and which was thereafter transmitted by him to Europe. The knowledge he collected was circulated in the form of the Colóquios dos simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da Índia (“Conversations on the simples, drugs and medicinal substances of India”), published at Goa in 1563. His understanding and systematic collection of this vast indigenous knowledge of plants is sometimes misunderstood to suggest or even claim that it was he who discovered the various medical uses of these plants himself!

The amazing thing is we simply dumped all this valid and priceless knowledge on the grounds that it was out of date, to be replaced for the better by Western science which we felt at that time was superior, some sort of new toy which we felt should replace our own toys. We were told that by subscribing to imported agricultural technology, we would be adopting entirely new knowledge and production levels which would give us better yields and therefore we were invited to discard our indigenous knowledge as no longer required, like some old typewriter.

However, we know now that the introduction of new varieties which did not have the benefit of close adaptation to the environment and were also grown as monocultures, required the use of pesticides, and eventually led to the contamination of food. No one would ever claim that foods grown by the older methods contained poisons! That is a claim, however, it is difficult to refute with the crops raised by modern agriculture, especially the latest gadgets we call GMOs.

Worse, the effects of unloading salts like urea on a massive scale in the soil led to soil sterility, as the conditions for the survival of soil microbes, earthworms and other soil fauna became impossible. In the older system, the soil had been replenished with infusions of microbial matter from composts. In the systems organic farmers follow today, there is much reliance on precisely the same method, basically through the use of panchgavya and jeevamrut. These liquids contain consortia of beneficial microbes which restore the soil’s inherent fertility. Scientific studies have confirmed the availability of soil microbes through the use of such traditional media.

I am confident that if we consider the green revolution period of Indian agriculture as a period of transition, giving us grace time so to speak, to move into a sustainable agriculture phase, that would be the best possible interpretation we could place on it. We need to return to an agriculture that is completely devoid of the use of poisons and poisonous and poisoned plants, which is something we did for thousands of years. We must move into an agriculture that does not destroy the soil. We must return to an agriculture in which we do not unnecessarily replace the inherent potentialities of nature herself, provided in the power of the soil fauna and biodiversity.

There are two ways to retrieve knowledge we have all but forgotten. One is by studying the texts of Indian agriculture of the past. An equally helpful way is to closely study the experience of the organic farming community. Many of these have worked now for more than thirty years. People like Dr Anil Gupta from IIM, Ahmedabad, have been documenting the indigenous innovations of our farmers now for several years. That capacity to innovate has not died. In fact, it is flourishing, as I have tried to show in the pages of the Organic Farming Sourcebook.

So we have a good base to work out from. I consider the holding of this conference an important step in that direction.

Dr Claude Alvares is a renowned environmentalist and activist from Goa and has written many research papers and articles on Environment and sustainability. He has authoured many books including "Decolonising history: technology and culture in India, China and the West --1492 to the present day"(1991) and "Organic Farming Source Book"(1996). He blogs at: http://www. typewriterguerilla.com/