Sustainable Farming: Faulty Lessons From America

There isn’t a time when an educated Indian doesn’t search for answers from “America–the dream land” for the problems that crop up time and again back home. Whether it is hunger, sustainable agriculture, kick-starting industrial growth, food habits, music, or of course the successful model of economic growth, India must follow the Americans. No wonder, the intelligentsia, the economists, and the scientists are always desperate for opportunities to travel and return with a bag full of answers to our multitude of problems.

The solutions to India’s raging drought too–some call it the worst in recent memory–which haunts and ravages 12 States, rest in the way America has managed its crop lands. After all, the United States has put together a drought-mitigation strategy, which has been touted as something that India needs to follow immediately. With hi-tech transformation, American agriculture, we all believe, has become insulated from the vagaries of drought. They apply laser, information technology, and huge machines to crop farmland. They use satellite data, electronics, and now genetic engineering for what is popularly called precision farming.

For Indian agriculture, with its fragmented land holdings, subsistence farming methods, poor productivity, and the exploitation of the natural resource base as a consequence have cast serious doubts on the sustainability and viability of the farms. The only escape for the country, we are invariably told by agricultural scientists, is to follow the American model. Such an approach will provide an impeccable drought proofing. And it is primarily for this reason that corporate agriculture is being pushed as the way out from the crisis that afflicts Indian agriculture.

By a strange coincidence, America too is faced at present with its worst drought since the days of the great “dust bowl” of the 1930s. As many as 26 of the 50 American States are reeling under a severe drought, with “exceptional drought” conditions–the worst level of drought measured–prevailing in thirteen states, including New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah. Such is the crop damage that like the drastic reduction expected in rice production this year in India, the U.S. wheat production is anticipated to fall to its lowest levels in nearly 30 years. Therefore there couldn’t have been a better time to study America’s drought coping mechanisms and suggest its replication in a poor, developing country like India–and for that matter in South Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

It comes as a rude shock. The American agriculture that we all studied and appreciated in the universities has crumbled with one year of severe drought. The drought proofing that we heard so much about the American agriculture appears to be a big farce. It is a known fact that Indian agriculture falters because of its complete dependence on monsoons. But with the kind of industrialization that took place in American agriculture, and with the amount of investments made, we were always told that in the U.S., agriculture is not dependent upon rains. Precision farming is the most efficient farming method that needs to be adopted on a mass scale.

At first impression, news reports appearing in the American media look like those emanating from a drought-stricken village in India’s hinterland. Until of course you see the dateline. You continue to read in utter disbelief. About 100 desperate farmers and rural residents praying for rain at the St. Patrick parish church in Grand Rapids, Ohio. With hands clasped and eyes cast downward, they seek divine intervention. “None of us have control over whether it is going to rain or not,” said Sister Christine Pratt, rural life director for the Catholic Diocese of nearby Toledo told Reuters, the wire agency. “But the people are praying for one another and there is some hope.”

Another report in the Washington Post states President George Bush was unwilling to extend any more finances under drought relief than the support that can come from $180 billion farm bill he signed in May. The president, however, underscored his commitment to helping farmers under current programs, including the Agriculture Department’s decision that provides $150 million in surplus milk–”spoiled milk,” as Democrats called it–to be made available for use in animal feed in four drought-stricken states, including South Dakota.

Cattle are dying and crops are shriveling. Fodder has become scarce, and therefore the need to feed surplus “milk” instead. There is a scramble for new water sources as town and city residents are urged to stop watering lawns and washing cars. In heat-baked fields ranchers have sold off herds rather than let them starve for lack of pasture. “I have never seen it like this and I’m 60 years old,” said Richard Traylor, who owns 37,000 acres in Texas and New Mexico but has sold off much of his cattle herd.

Serious hydrological problems with wells and reservoirs have emerged. Streams have gone dry. The groundwater table has fallen drastically. Wildfires have become more rampant, and an estimated 4.6 million acres have been scorched this year–twice the average acreage burnt in the previous decade. “It is pretty dire,” said Mark Svoboda, climatologist for the National Drought Mitigation Center. From southern California to South Carolina and from Montana to New Mexico, individuals and industries are suffering, the news agency reports.

In India, the total drought relief demanded by the affected States is around Rs 30,000 crore. In America, the drought relief being sought is in the range of $5 billion.

In India, the government still hasn’t banned watering of lawns. But in Monticello, Georgia, south of Atlanta, all outside watering has been banned, because creek levels were so low that the area could run out of water in 30 to 45 days. And like the loss estimates being worked out by the Indian Ministry of Agriculture, the national estimates for drought-related losses are also being prepared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture waiting for harvesting of corn and soybean and other key crops to conclude before loss figures are compiled. Where are the genetically modified crops that had been touted as hardy enough to withstand the impact of the acutely dry conditions?

Lack of rain is the obvious factor for the prevailing drought in both India and America. But let us not forget that while India receives almost its entire rain in 100 hours during the monsoon season, it continues to rain intermittently in America. And still, water shortages are prompting battles between upstream and downstream states and between individuals and businesses in Dodge City, Kansas. In Jasper County, South Carolina, a drop in an underground aquifer left households without water. Rural residents, like in India, blamed business operators for using too much water. And as if this is not enough, North and South Carolina are fighting over North Carolina’s refusal to release water from its reservoirs downstream. In Colorado, Denver’s water reservoir has already hit a historic low.

Colorado Gov. Bill Owens has approved a $1 million emergency drought fund so that farmers and ranchers can buy water. “People are battling for water like we’ve never seen before,” said Hope Mizzell, South Carolina’s drought program coordinator. Like Rajasthan in India, which is faced with its fourth consecutive year of drought, some areas in America are also experiencing their fifth consecutive year of drought.

The conditions are near those seen during the country’s most devastating drought in the 1930s–the “dust bowl” years, when some 60% of the United States was affected–according to media reports. Isn’t it the same situation that India is also passing through? After all, if a severe drought some 70 years after the 1930 dust bowl years still results in such a massive devastation, isn’t it time to question the efficacy of the American model of farming? Isn’t it a fact that the hi-tech American agriculture remains as vulnerable to dry weather as the subsistence farming systems that prevail in India? Why then should India follow a faulty agriculture and farming system?

It is time India realizes that it has to develop its own low-cost farming strategies, suited to the needs of the country. It is time Indian agricultural scientists looked inwards for building up a farming system that meets the nation’s requirements and also addresses problems of sustainability. It is time the developing countries realized the mistake of replicating a faulty agricultural system with one that will further exacerbate the economic crisis considering the massive investments required. Blindly aping the industrial farming system would only push developing countries into a hitherto unforeseen crisis, much more severe than the recurring drought.