I attended an Ashoka conference in New Delhi yesterday on rural innovation and farming. There were so many new things I realized about agriculture’s deep rooted connections with culture, society and the economy that I decided to immediately write about it before the memories fade. Plus. I watched Avatar later in the evening, which was perfect icing on the cake!

Agriculture and Women

Agriculture can be looked upon from many perspectives. Food can be seen as a commodity, where farmers are considered akin to factory workers and we talk about increasing their productivity though machines, technology, etc. Or agriculture can be seen as an economic activity with linkages into the global market. This means it becomes important to streamline supply chains, improve irrigation, and prevent price fluctuations. You can also consider agriculture from an ecological perspective, in terms of organic farming, local supply chains, and keeping a small footprint. Finally, it can be looked upon from a cultural and humanist perspective by putting a face on the farmer — and this face is often that of a woman. As you read on, try to keep this context in mind by linking back the people in agriculture with the bigger landscape of the economic and ecological settings in which all of us are living.

It is well known that women in India and elsewhere have always played a huge role in post-harvest processing of food grains. What is probably less well known about India is that, because of poorer economic rates of return in agriculture, men are moving into the cities for various unskilled jobs. They are leaving their wives to manage the farms. At times, villages are only left with women, kids, and old people. The men have gone off to work in factories in the cities or to pull a rickshaw. This is even more common during the off-season of farming because the lack of proper irrigation prevents any farming from happening at all during those months. So you can see how policies for proper irrigation, increasing incomes in agriculture, market linkages, and other economic and political factors can influence the culture of farming communities.

A second arena where women have come into prominence in agriculture is development activities. Microfinance institutions and various not-profit organizations often like to work more closely with women than with men. In Satara, India, over 3,500 loans have been taken by women to buy mobile phone-based remote starters for tube wells and water pumps in their farms! Similarly, when a community radio station was set up in the area, one of the first advertisements go out on air was from a woman calling others to aggregate their little amounts of farm produce; now they have rented a truck that goes back and forth each week to the city markets!

A third example came from Karnataka, where a not-for-profit organization helped set up a network of retail and produce collection points. Once again, it is run by women. And here the women requested a local self-help group organization to train them on selling mobile SIM cards through the same retail points! Cellphones, as many would know, are gaining tremendous penetration in rural areas. Companies therefore need a distribution network in rural areas to sell value-added services, prepaid recharges, and such. And women are again the preferred ones to do it. What could be better than to leverage the existing agriculture distribution networks that are already in place.

Agriculture and Productivity

If we think about agriculture as a food-producing activity, many issues arise related to operational scale and efficiency. There is a question of proper education and training in disease control, for example. Over 98 percent of a potato crop under contract with PepsiCo was once completely wiped out because of blight. And here we are talking about small farmers for whom one crop can make a difference between sustenance and falling into deep poverty.

PepsiCo has since engaged a large army of extension workers who make sure that farmers know about the correct methods to control pests and crop diseases. They also provide weather insurance to their contract farmers. The sharing of correct methods is very important. Paddy seeds can either be sown in a flooded field, or first sown and then flooded with water. It turns out that in the former approach over half the water is lost in puddling. There is no new technology here, no new seeds — only a different method of cultivation. And if we add that over 80 percent of water in India is consumed for agriculture, you can imagine the impact that good methods can have here!

GM seeds are seen as another method to increase agricultural productivity. I will not go into the details of this hotly contested topic, but one problematic issue is the tradeoff between price and innovation. Companies such as Monsanto are innovating and developing new seed lines and they want to earn back the investments they have made. Exercising IP rights by putting in a stopper gene for re-planting seeds is one way; higher prices is another. But these methods do increase costs for the farmers in the short term.

Can new methods be developed to help companies capitalize on their investments without raising prices? Governments can provide subsidies, for one. Alternately, the government of India chose to instead invent their own seed lines that could be sold at lower prices. To add a footnote here, the Central Drug Research Institute in Lucknow did this successfully with cotton seeds. But these genes have not seen the light of day as yet because government-run institutes are completely lost in getting regulatory approval and passing food safety tests!

Society and Agriculture

But productivity is not the only goal. It is inextricably linked with society and ecology. Here’s one example.

Contract farming normally comes with strict regulations about crop rotation patterns, seed varieties, etc. But this has often resulted in farmers losing touch with their land, and prevents them from passing their age-old wisdom onto their next generation. In Uttaranchal, there are 12 anaja (seeds) that are supposed to be sown in rotation to preserve the soil health and the water table. (The water table is in rapid decline in the Gangetic plains of north India.) Highly optimized contract farming often neglects these rotation principles because even if the soil deteriorates in one part, companies can always relocate their operations to other areas. The losers are actually the communities in these areas because they are losing the wealth of their lands, and likely at a price which does not take the soil and water table decline into accoun. To make matters worse, they are losing agricultural wisdom.

Another interesting example, again from the hills of Uttaranchal, was the destruction of local supply chains because of increasing capitalization of agriculture. A village on one side of a hill could be producing rice, while the other side could be barren. However, rather than sustain local supply chains, the pricing and infrastructure are rigged in such a way that food travels all the way to Delhi and then back. Not only is this ecologically nonsensical, but it also damages the cultural fabric that may have united the two villages in the past.

GRINS Box

These examples underscored the importance of seeing agriculture in a more holistic way. Economics, policies, technology, ecology, and culture all come together. To drive the point home, I coincidentally happened to watch Avatar around the same time, and I realized the important link we have with nature. We cannot think in terms of us and nature; it’s all one — we are a part of nature, and so are the technologies we develop and the policies we follow to live.

Can Gram Vaani help here? I definitely think so, because we are building a vehicle to spread this message and help everybody realize how rural areas are fundamentally interconnected to our lives. This is something that the mainstream media completely neglects. Stay tuned in for a formal announcement about the release of our GRINS box for community radio stations. We are almost there, and I personally cannot wait because I’ve waited for almost three years now! We are also in conversation with Video Volunteers, a fellow Knight awardee, to see how we can extend our radio-based setup to video, and together build what we call a YouTube for the Next Billions.

Credits: All these examples and insights were drawn from the panelists and attendees of the Ashoka conference. In particular, Kalyani Menon-Sen, Anita Paul (Community Initiatives), Chetna Gala Sinha (Mann Deshi), Uma Swaminathan (RUDI-SEWA), Prema Gopalan (Swayam Shiksha Prayog), Bharat Ramaswamy (ISI), and Vivek Bharati (PepsiCo).

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