‘We Are What We Eat’: An Interview With Agricultural Scientist And Activist Dr GV Ramanjaneyulu
December 24th, 2017
“I owe my understanding of the Indian agricultural economy to all the months that I spent preparing for the Indian Civil Services. When I cleared the examination in 1994, I had two choices before me: either to work with the Indian Revenue Services or to pursue a career working with farmers. I chose to work as an agricultural research scientist and help the cause of Indian farmers.” – Dr GV Ramanjaneyulu.
As a scientist who has transformed the landscape of Indian agriculture, Dr GV Ramanjaneyulu and his organisation Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) has worked with the Andhra Pradesh government in designing and implementing community managed sustainable agriculture from 2005-08, which spread to over 1500 villages covering 35 lakh hectares of land in 18 districts.
He has a PhD in Agricultural Extension from the Indian Agricultural Research Institution, New Delhi. After working with Indian Council of Agriculture Research for eight years, Dr Ramanjaneyulu started CSA which currently works in eight states across India.
The Logical Indian interviewed Dr Ramanjaneyulu about his journey and his inspiration behind taking Indian agriculture on the road to sustainability.
Is the food that we eat safe?
Food is as healthy as it is grown. Today, the indiscriminate use of chemicals in production leaves residues to come back into the food that we consume. A number of studies show that the food grown in India has high amounts of pesticide residues, even as many of the pesticides sold in India are banned in other countries.
Recently, a committee that was appointed by the government of India recommended at least 13 pesticides be removed from sale. But the recommendations were not paid heed to and the sale of pesticides continued. More than 60 pesticides sold in India are banned elsewhere. Pesticides are promoted as if there is no alternative. One of the main reasons behind the increased use of chemicals in production is the failure of extension services. (Extension services are provided by state/central governments to advise farmers on agriculture technologies).
Similarly, if you look at the livestock – a lot of growth hormones and antibiotics are used in chicken, both in the dairy and the poultry sector. Growth hormones and antibiotics come back in the milk, eggs, and meat we consume. All of these practices are because of the high intensive monocultural agriculture models we are following. We keep chickens in a cramped up space in order to increase production, but as diseases spread, we use antibiotics. It’s a vicious circle.
So the problem begins with models of production. Furthermore, there are serious issues in processing as well. Highly polished rice to bleached sugar, refined solvent extracted oils – all pose serious problems. Food regulatory system in India is dysfunctional and often tries to regulate weaker leaving the stronger players. Many of the imported food sold in India are not properly labelled and are sold without disclosing how, where and when they are grown.
Consumers, as well as government, look for end-of-pipe solutions like labelling. Unless the backend production system is cleaned up, food safety is not going to increase and nothing is going to change.
Despite its advantages, why is sustainable agriculture not being promoted?
It’s all about priority in terms of the investments made and promoted by the governments. The chemical fertiliser lobby is stronger than the organic lobby. So it’s obvious who gets the say. Millions of rupees are spent on subsidising chemical fertilisers while farmers adopting organic/sustainable/natural farming models have to spend from their pockets. Similarly, more than 99% of the investments made in agriculture research only promote chemicals and hardly any investments are made on developing, refining or promoting more eco-friendly organic farming practices.
Agriculture scientists and extension staff gets into theoretical debates that food production will suffer without the use of chemical fertilisers/pesticides. Across the country, experiences show that pesticide use can be reduced by over 50% and fertiliser use over 60-70%. Even such efforts are not being made by the mainstream institutions. Andhra Pradesh has recorded 50% reduction in pesticide use between 2005-10, according to the government’s own data after the implementation of a program called ‘Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture’ (CMSA). All it needs is the support and handholding of the governments. Expecting that governments will continue to promote chemicals and individual farmers will learn and change on their own doesn’t happen. Farmers need proper support systems.
Why do consumers remain unaware of how unhealthy their food is?
Somehow, in this consumerist world, we get carried away by advertisements, packaging and by the place we buy our food. We feel that if the supermarket is clean, every product is clean, forgetting that food is only as safe as it is grown. But we never care about the kind of footprints the food has left before coming to our plate or what it carries into the plate.
As consumers we are neither worried about what happens to the product before it comes to the shelf nor after it is consumed.
How many of us know that every single polyethene cover used since its invention is still around us as a pollutant? While we can easily cut down more than 60% of such single-use plastic, how many of us are really doing that? The casual approach towards environmental hazardous substances and apathy towards the problems they cause are serious issues which need to be addressed.
Apart from the ecological crisis, consumers are also not worried about the farmers who grow food for them. We feel as long as more supermarkets are growing, there is food security. But food security depends on the farmers and on the production processes; not the supermarkets.
Our country is amidst a deep farmers’ crisis. More than three lakh farmers have committed suicides, but as consumers, we are not agitated. Even if the producers are dying in the process of production or are becoming bankrupt to feed us, we remain apathetic.
As consumers what can we do to ensure that the food we are buying is healthy?
First, know your food – how it is grown, who have grown it, and where. You should know what your food did to the environment before coming into your plate and what it carries along with it. Food is only as safe as it is produced.
Secondly, we need to be more sympathetic toward the people who are producing the food – find out how much of the consumers’ price is going to the farmer. Today, conventional markets give less than 25% of the consumer price to the farmers. So I suggest that consumers buy directly from the farmers or farmer cooperatives.
Could you tell us a little about your work in sustainable agriculture?
I am an agricultural scientist and I also used to work with the government. Some of us who were worried about the rising farmer suicides in Andhra Pradesh around the 2000s thought we should build an institution which works towards bringing in ecological sustainability in agriculture. Thus Centre for Sustainable Agriculture was initiated in 2004.
We explored best experiments and models across the country on alternatives in agriculture. We figured that we need significant changes in the production systems, market systems and policy support systems. We began working with farmers on promoting models which reduce their Costs of Production (COP) and risks of crop failure. Initially, we worked to reduce the use of pesticides and fertilisers, as they form about 30% the COP. We had good success on our Non-Pesticidal Management work with the government of AP and could scale up to a larger area. Then we started working on organic farming, open source seed system, food processing, farmers cooperatives and direct marketing. Our model was about proper problem diagnosis, exploring alternatives, experimenting and establishing a proof of concept and collaborating with the governments for scaling up.
Today, we are working across eight states (Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Punjab, Sikkim, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha). We are going to be part of another major initiative by Andhra Pradesh government on promoting natural farming across the state.
We work with small and marginal farmers on shifting them towards sustainable agriculture and organising them into cooperatives. Today, 30 such cooperatives which are into organic farming have formed a federation ‘Sahaja Aharam’ Producer Company and directly market to consumers through exclusive retail stores and an online portal. Today Sahaja Aharam stores are operational in Hyderabad, Vishakapatnam and direct deliveries are available in Mumbai and Nagpur. Soon we are starting in other cities too. The farmers’ price realisation has increased from less than 25% to more than 50% in the consumers’ price. Therefore, it is possible to build a profitable market system if proper support is provided.
We are also working with National Institute for Agricultural Marketing in running ‘Kisan Business School’ which systematically builds capacities of the farmers to deal with markets.
CSA works in collaboration with the farmers and the state governments as we feel that the government’s role is significant. The kind of investments that need to be brought in and the regulatory systems that need to be established – these decisions lie with the government.
What are your learnings in working with farmer cooperatives, farmer producer companies and food markets?
While Farmers Producer Organisations, either as cooperatives of producer companies holds a promise and are the way to go forward, the current policy environment is not very conducive. There is a mad rush to establish Farmer Producer Organisations by various agencies proper support systems are not provided by the governments.
Even today, it is extremely difficult for the FPOs to access credit for working capital. Banks ask for 150% collateral that too non-agricultural assets. The government should come up with better loan models for FPOs and take the agricultural lands as collateral. A credit guarantee fund can be set up.
The producer companies are taxed on par with the industry right from the inception which highly dis-incentivise them. They attract 30% income tax. When individual farmers are exempted from income tax and their aggregations are taxed why should farmers come together? What is the incentive?
Taxation on sales is another major issue. Today, food attracts more tax than gold. There is no incentive for FPOs for getting into value addition. There should be tax holiday on both income tax and sales tax (GST) at least for 10 years for FPOs which have more than 80% of members and shareholding with small and marginal farmers.
They don’t get any support from Startup India initiatives as well. The government should establish incubation centres for FPOs and extend all the support to them.
What are the other things you do to support farmers?
We run a helpline for farmers called ‘Kisan Mitra’ and any farmer can call to get support on any issue from anywhere. To the extent possible we try to connect to the right source which can help them on production or market-related issues or with regards to support the government institutions in terms of land records, loans or subsidies. We are running a pilot in partnership with Vikarabad district administration where the requests are immediately passed on to the concerned officials. The last few months data shows that there is significant progress in solving the problems raised by the farmers.
We are running a campaign for raising 10 million rupees to establish an Academy which supports farmers by running courses on production, building FPOs, marketing and public policy related issue and running helplines. People can support this initiative on the CSA website.
eKrishi is our initiative on building ICT tools for supporting farmers. We already released an application for problem diagnosis and advisory in English and it would be translated into various Indian languages. It can be accessed through an online portal.
We run an online web channel called Krishi tv to aggregate all video based learning material and documentaries on agriculture and other development issues. CSA also brings out several publications and and runs a website to bring in various perspectives related to the development and particularly which effect on agriculture and rural development.
We also enrol large numbers of volunteers from across the world who work as ‘Rytu Swarajya Vedhika’.
We are also doing a crowdfunded film ‘Mitti – back to roots’ a film which captures the multidimensional analysis of the ongoing crisis in agriculture along with alternative experiences of dealing with it.
We are working with various agriculture scientists across the world working on agroecological approaches to building a Society for Agroecology. Currently, we are running a course on agroecology which anchored by Calcutta University.
We are also working with farmers and breeders to build in an ‘Open Source Seed System’ across the country. The idea is to create a system which ensues free and fair access to good quality seeds to farmers at affordable prices. The access is through a non-exclusive Material and Knowledge transfer agreement with a benefit-sharing model. We are working with various groups across the world on building similar thinking.
There is an ongoing debate about GM Mustard. What are your thoughts on it?
Firstly, as technology, GM Mustard is very outdated and completely useless one from farmers need. It starts with a wrong assumption that a hybrid mustard will increase yield and it will help farmers to get better returns and reduce dependency on imports. Today the crisis oilseeds farmers and particularly mustard farmers are facing is the lack of remunerative prices. Seeing the resistance from farmers and consumers towards GM crops, the government trying to push GM Mustard as a public sector technology as if opposition to GM crops is only because of the multinational companies involved in the technology development and marketing, completely ignoring the biosafety concerns. If this can get approval, the path becomes clearer for the other private sector GM crops. My understanding is that the GM Mustard is being used as a surrogate. If you go by all the data submitted for the approval by the developer, it shows that GM Mustard is not viable. On top of that, there are biosafety issues as well. Herbicide Tolerance is used as part of the technology. All the committees appointed by the government of the India said that the country should not opt for Herbicide Tolerant (HT) crops.
Secondly, there are a number of traditional and improved varieties of mustard which are doing better than the GM Mustard hybrid which is slated for approval.
In 2003, the similar mustard hybrid came for approval from ProAgro – a private company – and several objections were raised by the regulatory body the GEAC. But now, when the same technology with minor modifications is introduced by a government institution. The questions that were raised in 2003, should be answered now and how it suddenly became safer.
When Bt Brinjal was approved by GEAC in 2009, the Central Government opted for a Public Consultation and a moratorium was imposed by the then Minister for Environment Jairam Ramesh. Why is the current government not taking a similar path? Another point to be noted here is that when Bt Brinjal was brought in, the government said that it is not only an issue of technology but of socio-economics and political factors are to be considered and there should be public participation in decision making. Where are the public hearings that were organised then? Already five state governments have said that GM Mustard should not be permitted. Is government going to honour and listen to their opinion at least?
The main problem with the GM Mustard is that the technology used is the deployment of a herbicide Glufosinate tolerant gene. The Glufosinate is a non-selective herbicide and is a known carcinogenic the more the environment will suffer. There would be a significant effect on the pollinators like honey bee too.
Moreover, the difference in the yield of this GM Mustard and regular Mustard varieties is small so why take the risk? There are better alternative agronomic practices like System of Mustard Intensification which can improve the yields significantly.
India is the home, centre of origin and centre of diversity of mustard. If you bring in Herbicide Tolerance and male sterility into mustard, it can outcross and contaminate several other varieties of mustard. The health issues with herbicide tolerant GM crops are well-documented, but the necessary steps for ensuring biosafety are not being taken.
What are your thoughts on the recent farmer protests?
This distress has been building up for the last 20 years. Small and marginal farmers were the first victims. If you look at the data from 1995 onwards, more than 3 lakh farmers have committed suicide. This is mainly because of the increasing costs of production while the prices for farmers hardly risen. So if you look at year by year price increase, there is not even a 5% rise.
In a situation where the COP is increasing by 15-20% per year and the cost of living is increasing by 10-15% a year, but the farmer prices don’t even go up by 5%, the farmers end up in losses and becoming indebted. That is what is happening in the last 20 years.
There is another significant socio-economic change happening in farming – Landowners have moved away from farming and those who cultivate are not owners. The tenant farmers are increasing. The support systems that the government provides – loans, insurance, crop compensation – all these go the land owners not to the actual cultivators, the tenant farmers. Today, across the country, 7 lakh crore is given as agricultural credit, but actual cultivators do not get even half of that. Moreover, only 20% of the farmers get access to institutional credit. Rest depend on the private moneylenders at high-interest rates. So when the government declares loan waivers, who benefits when only 20% of the farmers get institutional credit? The remaining 80% who take credit from private money lenders are the ones who are suffering and committing suicides, but the loan waivers are only beneficial to big and Benami farmers. What is the point of waiving loans when the farmers are not getting loans in the first place?
Out of the 80% of the small and marginal farmers, not even 10% of them get institutional credit. What needs to be done here is that the government should invest in a credit guarantee scheme as tenant farmers are denied loans because there is no collateral that they can offer.
Additionally, the government need to expand its focus from not only managing the consumption price, but also the production price. Whenever there is an increase the consumption price, the government purchases the product and sells it to the consumers at a lower cost. But the same method is not followed when the prices for farmers fall in the market. The government always intervenes when the consumer prices are up. Last year when the price of red gram (dal) went up, all the state governments started purchasing dal and selling it at a lower price. But when the same red gram price for farmers has fallen by more than half this year, the government didn’t intervene. When it comes to the commercial crops like tomatoes, chillies etc situation is much worse.
So the protests are a cumulative effect of all the negligence by the governments over years. And unfortunately, most of the farmer organisations are affiliated to the political parties and never addressed these concerns when their party is in power and use the issues for the advantage of their party when they are in opposition. All the promises made to farmers before coming to power are never implemented. We need more of independent farmer organisations which voice the concerns in terms of public policy change.
What is the way forward?
Around 1985, the share of the agricultural budget in the total budget was around 20%. Now, it is less than 3% even through more than half of the Indian population depend on agriculture for their livelihood. All that is done in the name of farmers is investment in private companies that provide the inputs. The government announces Minimum Purchase Prices (MSP) but they are never honoured. Today only 6% of the farmers get MSP. Buying at a price below the MSP should be made a criminal offence, there should be some protection to the farmers – either make MSP mandatory or the government itself buys from the farmers. Subsidies and incentives for farmers should increase and these should drive a shift towards more sustainable models.
Today, significant numbers of women are into farming. Governments have no focus on developing technologies which are women friendly to reduce their drudgery or provide any additional support to them. Many of women farmers do not have land titles so on government records they don’t exist. Governments should have a special policy and create support systems for women farmers.
One of our major demands is that a Farmer Income Commission should be set up which looks into all these issues – and suggest how governments can use various instruments to balance between the growing costs of cultivation and costs of living and the prices and subsidies received by the farmers.
I also feel that there should be a significant change in the consumer’s mindset. Why should tomatoes be available at Rs 2-3 for the last 20 years while their incomes and costs of every other item they buy in the market have gone over 20 times? They should think of farmers too. They should also worry of the ecological footprints of the food they consume. Their purchasing behaviour will certainly change the farming models and farmers live. Shift towards organic food and directly buy from farmers.