Sep 1, 2011 – “People seldom do what they believe in. They do what is convenient and then repent”. – Bob Dylan

That India has 17 per cent of the world population and no more than two per cent of its arable land mass is well known. What is also talked about is the pressure of population on the soil, especially because 60 per cent of Indian agriculture is rain-fed, leaving little scope for substantial production increases. The climate change implications for the tropical regions around the world too are dawning upon the nation because they will hamper existing levels of production in the business-as-usual scenario. The obvious worry is around the task to feed this nation and do so sustainably. It is imperative to grow enough of the right produce to feed the nation without being dependent on imports.

What is probably not realised is the significance of these critical issues for Indian biodiversity and its potential role in ameliorating the problems facing Indian agriculture. What has, therefore, not received enough attention is the criticality of retaining biodiversity and the possibility of enhancing farm produce while protecting biodiversity. These are not easy questions to deal with. In a hypothetical world, makind can survive on roots, barks, planktons and algae but that is not what can be contemplated for the real world. Mankind – and India – will go its own way; never mind the consequences.

Jared Diamond’s celebrated ‘Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies’ (and other writers before him) explains the history of global agriculture and the impact of environment on societies. Modern agriculture began not more than 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, when man started to select, collect and use bigger and better seeds in the Fertile Crescent. It would be safe to suggest that, that was also when the destruction of biodiversity began; upsetting the balance of things ordained or existing. Helped by the invention of the water wheel and the plough, monoculture cropping sustained mankind till the last century, when population started to increase by leaps and bounds.

Over thousands of years, mankind has managed to keep production ahead of the rising population by applying new technology but there is global acknowledgment that a plateau is being reached in crop yields. Worse, in India, the demand for food is increasing faster than the rate of population increase and there is no arguing against the belief that traditional practices alone cannot satisfy its increasing demand. Consider this along with the harsh truth that agriculture is possibly the activity that causes the most widespread destruction of nature and yet it is the instrument that must be deployed more and more to feed a hungry populace. The quandary then is around the need to destroy what needs to be preserved (biodiversity and other forms of life) to survive!

At a scientific and philosophical level, mankind is living and developing in a manner that is at variance with every other living form on this planet; it is slowly destroying species completely; driving them to extinction at an increasing pace. Truth to tell, there is no agriculture practice that is perfect, other than possibly gathering food. Where does that leave India?

Much of the Indian biodiversity has been retained in its rain-fed areas and not because people want to do this out choice. That is farthest from their minds. They do this because better-yielding seeds are expensive and prone to the risk of inconsistent rainfall. Where there is rainfall dependence, not more than a single crop can be grown and there is little hope of improved living standards based on agriculture alone. The living is usually around or below the poverty line and the holdings small for such farmers. Unable to afford or take the risk of purchasing better seeds, they prefer to use their own seeds for every sowing. If farming were to become lucrative for these small holder farmers, they would probably first buy seeds that gave better yield and, thus, actually embark on a journey that is counter-productive for biodiversity. Nevertheless, agriculture has to become remunerative for all farmers, especially small holder producers in the rainfed areas. These are complex issues and deserve the attention of the best minds in the country if a sustainable solution is to be found. Thus far, sustainable solutions for agriculture have not exercised Indian planners and administrators to the extent that they should have.

What could the possible solutions be? Of course, the government must use the land available with it to maintain biodiversity, maintain seed banks and collect knowledge. It must also find a way to transfer cash or compensate these farmers to continue to grow what they are growing. Unfortunately, the well-intentioned minimum support price programme has, over the years, become a tool for guaranteeing a minimum price to the farmer (which always falls short of expectations). Yet a general increase in the MSP is surely not the right answer. The government has to create a market for farming’s varied output that, again, is easier said than done. There is also need for schemes to be tailor-made for different produce for different regions so as to incentivise farmers to grow what is required while they are compensated by cash transfers.

A lot of hard decisions need to be taken. Fortunately, there is considerable land that is not under intensive agriculture practices and it is important to prevent it from being forced under the plough or tractors to increase production. What is needed instead is better technology to increase yields from existing land to reduce the pressure to plough new tracts. Special attention needs to be paid to delicate ecosystems and the need to retain large areas as natural reserves across different regions. Maintaining the local habitat for the flora and fauna deserves priority on the government agenda and must be supported by suitable legislation that is enforced with grim determination. This is entirely feasible in India, which still has large areas free from intensive cultivation. Human opposition can be avoided if social and economic needs of the people are kept in mind and attended to.

Agriculture includes animal husbandry and aquaculture. Indigenous breeds of domesticated animal like cows are being lost in the quest for higher earnings across India. Every animal or agriculture research centre, government state farm or Krishi Vigyan Kendra could be tasked to save, maintain and indeed serve as the caretaker for a particular breed or variety, depending on the location of the institute. Only with focused responsibility can one achieve set goals. There are also the threatened marine ecosystems that must be preserved.

As far as agriculture is concerned, there is no option but to adopt practices that do not destroy biodiversity; can still satisfy the requirements of the Indian population; and also make economic sense for all the stakeholders to adhere to and, indeed, support sustainable practices. The solution lies in an enlightened agriculture policy that will support scientific research. Unfortunately, India has had the singular shame of being served by only half-baked policies with good components eroded by illinformed ones. The call of the hour is to generate the political will and courage to take decisions that will serve India and not just pockets of vested interest; to have informed policies that are not destroyed by poor governance. The call of the hour is for harmony with nature; creating unity through biodiversity.