Back to the Land: The New Green Revolution
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Anyone walking through Prashant Thakare's freshly planted cotton field in the central Indian village of Takarakhede Shambhu could easily mistake a 65-ft.-wide (20 m) pool of murky water for, well, a pool of murky water. Yet that simple pond has transformed Thakare's 22-acre (9 hectare) farm and, indeed, his life.
Thakare, like nearly all the farmers in this arid region of Vidarbha in the state of Maharashtra, is dependent on India's annual monsoon to provide the water necessary to grow his cotton and soybeans. A failed monsoon meant disaster. Without the rain, the crops withered, and so did his primary source of income. Every year, all Thakare could do as the midyear planting season approached was wait and hope that the monsoon would deliver enough rain so he could support his family. (Read "Hungry? How About Some Protein-Rich Cotton...")
Then came the pond. The local government sent a construction team to Thakare's farm last year to dig the 10-ft.-deep (3 m) pond, financing the $600 investment with funds from a new program to support local agriculture. Strategically located in the path of runoff rainwater, the pond — a common feature of rural-resource management — collects water from the monsoon rains that would otherwise have just been wasted. By capturing and storing rainwater, the pond helps to fill the farm's wells. With a more reliable supply of water, Thakare's productivity soared. Not only did he plant his usual summer cotton crop last year, but he also had enough water to grow an entirely new crop of sunflowers during the winter. The pond, he says, helped double his usual output of lentils as well. The added sales put an extra $1,000 in his pocket, which he saved as a nest egg for his two children. "I feel that my life is secure," says Thakare, 36. "You don't worry about what will happen in the future."
With so much yield for so few bucks, it might seem surprising that Indian authorities hadn't dug Thakare a pond long before now. But small farmers like Thakare have been neglected for much of the past three decades — and not only in India. Throughout the developing world, agriculture was the also-ran of the global economy. Governments equated economic progress with steel mills and shoe factories. While urban centers thrived and city dwellers got rich, hundreds of millions of farmers remained mired in poverty. Agriculture in many developing nations stagnated.
Now the farm is back. Fears of food shortages, a rethinking of antipoverty priorities and the crushing recession are causing a dramatic shift in world economic policy in favor of greater support for agriculture. Farmers like Thakare are being showered with more aid and investment by governments and development agencies than they have in decades in a renewed global quest for food security and rural development. The effort is still in its early stages, and some promises made have yet to be translated into real results. Some programs already in place may prove to be flawed. But a new commitment to agriculture by the global community is clearly emerging. The latest G-8 summit of the world's largest economies, held in Italy in July, declared "there is an urgent need for decisive action to free humankind from hunger" and, citing the sector's perennial neglect, pledged $20 billion for agriculture. "Since 2007, we have seen greater attention from world leaders on food security, in developed and developing countries alike," says Kostas Stamoulis, director of agricultural-development economics at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome. The resources being committed to farming "is putting-your-money-where-your-mouth-is kind of money."
Seeds of Disaster
The world's farmers haven't felt such love since the 1970s. Then, as food prices spiked, there was real concern that the world was facing a Malthusian crisis in which the planet was simply unable to produce enough grain and meat for an expanding population. Governments across the developing world and international aid organizations plowed investment into agriculture in the 1960s and 1970s, while technological breakthroughs, like high-yield strains of important food crops, boosted production. The result was the Green Revolution. Food production exploded. In India, for example, grain output more than doubled between the late 1960s and the mid-1980s.
But the Green Revolution became a victim of its own success. Food prices plunged by some 60% (when adjusted for inflation) by the late 1980s from their peak in the mid-1970s. Policymakers and aid workers turned their attention to the poor's other pressing needs, such as health care and education. Farming got starved of resources and investment. In 1979, 18% of official development aid worldwide was directed at agriculture; by 2004, that amount sank to 3.5%. "Agriculture lost its glitter," says the FAO's Stamoulis. "The world didn't think that food was a major issue. There was plenty of food, at low prices."
The years of neglect took their toll on the world's farmers, laying the groundwork for a crisis. During the Green Revolution in India, for example, crop yields routinely grew at 4% to 6% a year; by the late 1980s, the annual increase had fallen to 2% or less. At the same time, demand for food increased. As consumers in high-growth giants such as China and India became wealthier, they began eating more meat, so grain once used for human consumption got diverted to beef up livestock. Making matters worse, land and resources also got reallocated to produce biofuels. Once voluminous reserves of grain evaporated; this year, they are at the lowest levels since the mid-1970s. By early 2008, panicked buying by importing countries and restrictions slapped on grain exports by some big producers helped drive prices up to heights not seen for three decades. Protests broke out across the emerging world; in Haiti, fierce food riots toppled the government. NEW LIMITS TO GROWTH REVIVE MALTHUSIAN FEARS, a Wall Street Journal headline screamed in March 2008.
The food crisis spurred global leaders into action. "There seems to be an awareness that [food security] is one of the fundamental issues in the world that has to be dealt with," says Christopher Delgado, policy adviser on agriculture and rural development at the World Bank in Washington. In a July report, a committee of British parliamentarians called on their government to invest in agricultural research and encourage local farmers to grow more fruit and other produce. The U.S., which traditionally provisioned food aid from American grain surpluses to help needy nations, is moving toward investing in farm sectors around the globe to boost productivity. "If we can help countries become more productive for themselves, then they will be in a better position to feed their own people," U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in June.
The New Green Revolution
Africa, which missed out on the first Green Revolution due to poor policy and limited resources, is also witnessing the beginnings of real change. In Senegal, 2008 protests sparked by rising food prices scared the government into instituting a program to make the country of 12 million people less dependent on imported grain. Grandly named the Great Agricultural Offensive for Food and Abundance, or GOANA, policymakers aimed to boost local agricultural production by subsidizing seeds, doling out farm implements and speeding up irrigation investments. The program convinced Ngor Sarr, a subsistence farmer in the region of Fatick in western Senegal, and the other members of his agricultural cooperative to expand their paddy fields last year. Though the seeds he received through GOANA weren't of top quality, leading to mediocre yields — a common problem with the program, critics contend — Sarr's rice output increased enough to encourage him to join GOANA again this planting season. The new government scheme "gives us the chance to do something extra, to try and expand our fields, and that's very good," Sarr says. (See pictures of a global food crisis.)
The renewed focus on the farm is being driven by more than fear. Development experts believe a new approach to farming is crucial in order to lift up the world's remaining poor, 75% of whom live in rural areas. Swayed by the success of East Asia, the primary poverty-fighting method favored by many policymakers was to get farmers off their farms and into modern jobs in factories and urban centers. But that strategy has proven insufficient. Income levels in the countryside badly trail those in cities in many countries, while the FAO estimates that the number of poor going hungry in 2009 reached an all-time high at more than 1 billion. "The bottom of the pyramid really depends on agriculture," says Suresh Babu, senior fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington. "There is no other way to bring them out of poverty except with agriculture."
India is a salutary case study for its renewed commitment to agriculture — Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called for "another Green Revolution" in his Aug. 15 Independence Day speech — as well as for how much still needs to be done. In 2004 politicians in New Delhi got a wake-up call on the plight of the country's farmers. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ran for re-election in 2004 with a campaign slogan of INDIA SHINING, aimed at capitalizing on the country's astounding record of rapid growth. But India's struggling farmers didn't see much shining in their own lives, and voted the BJP out. The unacknowledged reality was that the farms hadn't yet joined in India's economic boom. While GDP grew on average 5.7% a year between the launch of India's market reforms in 1991 and 2004, agriculture slumped along at just 2.9%. Indian farming had also become miserably inefficient. Each hectare of cultivated land in India produces half that grown in Thailand. "The government thought that after liberalization, agriculture would grow automatically, that money would go from industry" to the farms, says Shreenivas Khandewale, director of the R.S. Ruikar Institute of Labor and Socio-Cultural Studies in Nagpur. "But it didn't come."
When the indian national congress took power in 2004, Singh changed course and began an intensive effort to improve the lot of the nation's farmers. Between the 2003-04 and 2008-09 fiscal years, the central government's budget for agriculture quadrupled. Government schemes built rural roads to help farmers get their produce to market, forgave some of their debts and raised minimum purchase prices on cotton, rice and other crops. In 2005, policymakers launched the Bharat Nirman program, aimed at providing electricity, housing and irrigation systems to the country's farmers, and, a year later, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which promised at least 100 days of work each year for poor farming households, often on public-works projects to develop infrastructure in the countryside. In the latest federal budget, announced in July, funds allocated for the rural jobs scheme jumped 144% from the previous year to more than $8 billion — making it the largest social-welfare program in the budget — while funding for Bharat Nirman was boosted by 45%. "It was very clear to us that if you want inclusive growth, it is going to require a significant increase in the productivity of land," says Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of India's Planning Commission in New Delhi.
Perhaps no single region of India's vast hinterland has received more concentrated government attention than Vidarbha. One of India's more distressed farming regions, Vidarbha became infamous for its high rate of farmer suicides. The problem became so severe in 2006, when more than 1,250 took their lives, that Singh toured Vidarbha and announced a special $780 million development program for the area, which the locals refer to simply as "the package."
Three years later, K.S. Mulay, a state agricultural officer based in the Vidarbha town of Amravati, proudly reads off a long list of the progress the government has made so far. Nearly $39 million has been spent subsidizing high-yield seeds, Mulay says, plus $24 million on developing fruit orchards and other pricey produce, and another $24 million on building micro-irrigation projects. As Mulay drives down narrow roads through Vidarbha's cotton fields, he stops his jeep every few miles to show off the government's handiwork. First, he marches up a muddy hillside to a small dam the government built to help farmers preserve monsoon rainwater — one of more than 9,000 constructed in the region over the past three years. Next he visits the farm of Bhiamrao Mahore, who received free orange-tree saplings from a state-funded nursery. Mahore hopes his oranges will bring more money than the cotton he had planted before. Next stop is a state-sponsored training session where scores of local farmers collect for a PowerPoint presentation on how best to protect crops during a drought. "We are trying to increase the income and productivity of the farmers," Mulay says. "All the work cannot be done in three years. But it is a beginning."
And, for now, just that. Some Indian economists criticize the government for spending too much on welfare programs, such as the job-guarantee scheme, and not enough on irrigation systems and other investments that could make farms more productive. "Giving a cow won't help a farmer long-term," says Paurnima Sawai, 42, a farmer in Takarakhede Shambhu village. "But money to build a dam is a long-term investment. For years, you get benefits from it." With only 40% of its farmland irrigated, India's entire economic boom is held hostage by the unpredictable monsoon. With much of India's farming areas suffering from drought this year, the government will have a tough time meeting its economic-growth targets. In an August report, Goldman Sachs predicted that this year's weak rains could cause agriculture to contract 2% this fiscal year, making the government's 7% GDP-growth target look "a bit rich." Even Thakare, with his pond, may not have enough water to plant his extra crops this year. Abusaleh Shariff, a senior fellow at IFPRI's New Delhi office, argues that allocating money is only part of the government's task. The farmers also need better training, technology and marketing opportunities. "Do we have any of these? Almost none," Shariff says. "The government program needs to be improved, and we need to devote a lot more resources." (See pictures of urban farming around the world.)
Nature vs. Nurture
Tulasidas mandase of bivara barsa village in Vidarbha couldn't agree more. Though he has received aid from the government, Mandase, 38, complains that it hasn't been the right kind. The state donated a metal plow and a pesticide sprayer, but neither worked. To get subsidized soybean seeds, he spends a full day traveling by bus to a nearby town. It often takes two or three trips, and, with bus fares costing him 60� per roundtrip, he wonders if the cheaper seeds are worth the effort. What he really requires, he says, is better infrastructure to make him less dependent on the monsoon. Mandase believes that he might need a deeper well and electricity to run a pump — investments he could never afford on this own. In lieu of that, Mandase, with the local monsoon spotty, can only pin his hopes on divine intervention. In late July, Mandase visited a Hindu temple near his village and offered a coconut to the gods. He then split it, left half on the altar and took the other home to eat. The puja, or religious rite, is meant to bring rain. "All I need is water," Mandase says.
Kishor Tiwari believes the farmers require much more than that. The Nagpur-based activist, whose organization, the Vidarbha People's Protest Forum, has championed the region's cotton growers, says that the package has alleviated some of the farmers' distress. But Tiwari says that more government intervention is needed to solve the real underlying problem: a global agricultural market rigged against the small tiller. While the costs of crucial inputs, like fertilizer, have been rising, global prices for cotton are being depressed to an artificially low level by U.S.-government subsidies for its cotton farmers — a one-two punch, he says, that makes profitable farming in Vidarbha practically impossible. "The input prices are set by someone else while the purchase prices are set by someone else," Tiwari says. "That's why the farmers are killing themselves." He wants the Indian government to better defend its own farmers by providing heavier subsidies for cotton production, protection from imports, easier access to finance and price supports. "If the government forces the farmers to have better productivity, it should have an integrated approach that is devised to have more profitability," he says.
Yet Tiwari's protectionist approach could actually hurt farmers. The World Bank's Delgado says that most projections show trade liberalization in agriculture would create significant increases in prices — as much as 20% for cotton and 7% for food grains. Not only would those gains increase the incentive for farmers to grow greater quantities of food, but they would also put more money in farmers' pockets, creating a new source of global demand. But with World Trade Organization negotiations on agricultural trade stalled on the issue of subsidies, it seems unlikely that farmers in Vidarbha and elsewhere will see these benefits anytime soon.
Policymakers can't afford to wait. The FAO forecasts that food production will need to double by 2050 in order to keep up with rising demand, a task that will require $30 billion of investment annually. "Governments are scrambling to fix some of the problems, but it will take time," says Akmal Siddiq, a natural-resources economist at the Asian Development Bank in Manila. Farmers like Namdeo Sidam, 48, know that all too well. He, his wife and three sons live in a mud-walled shack in the fly-infested village of Marathwakadi in Vidarbha, and aside from a free plow, the government's ample funds have yet to trickle his way. Sidam gets no subsidies for his seeds, no guaranteed rural work has been available in the area and no new water resources have been developed near his farm, nor did he get state help with his $350 debt. Government agricultural officials hardly ever visit the village, he says, and he appears uninformed about the new initiatives that might help him. He is still dependent on the cotton crop he grows on his small farm, supplemented by the wages his sons can earn in part-time jobs. "Not much has changed," he laments. To make the new Green Revolution a reality, the global community still has much backbreaking farm work to do.
— with reporting by Nilanjana Bhowmick / New Delhi, Chengcheng Jiang / Beijing, Yuki Oda / Tokyo, Shashikant Sawant / Nagpur and Joost Van Egmond / Dakar