The World Must Detoxify Its Toxic Farmlands: Devinder Sharma

Plenary address at the 19th Organic World Congress, New Delhi, Nov 19-11, 2017

“Any harm we inflict on nature will eventually return to haunt us… this is a reality we have to face.”  Xi Jinping, President of China

The evidence is all there. With soil fertility declining to almost zero in intensively farmed regions; excessive mining of groundwater sucking aquifers dry; and chemical inputs, including pesticides, becoming extremely pervasive in environment, the entire food chain has been contaminated. Further, as soils become sick, forests are logged for expanding industrial farming, erosion takes a heavy toll[1] leading to more desertification. With crop productivity stagnating thereby resulting in more chemicals being pumped to produce the same harvest, the farmlands have turned toxic. Modern agriculture has become a major contributor to Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHGs) leading to climate aberrations.

As the population of bees continues to decline, the alarm bells had been ringing for quite some time. A recent study pointing to a 75 per cent drop in flying insects and that too inside a nature reserve, raises the warning of an ‘ecological Armageddon’ [2].

While Green Revolution has already run out of steam[3], leaving behind a trail of misery, the catastrophic consequences manifest in the form of farm suicides[4] [5]. With input costs growing, and farm gate prices remaining almost stagnant, if not declining, farmer’s income is swiftly on the downward slide. In Europe, many farms would be unprofitable if European subsidies were to be removed[6]. In France, farmers’ mutual insurance association (MSA) believes that in 2016 “a majority of farmers may earn less than Euro 350 a month”[7]. In India, as per the government’s own Economic Survey 2016, the average income of a farming family in 17 states, which means nearly half the country, has been computed at a paltry Rs 20,000 ($ 307) a year. No wonder, while agribusinesses corporations rake in profits, a majority of the nearly a billion people globally who go to bed hungry every night comprise small and marginal farmers.

There is something terribly going wrong.

To paraphrase President Xi Jinping, the harm industrial agriculture inflicted on the planet is eventually returning to haunt us ..

And yet more of the same is being pushed as the solution. Every high-level Summit ends up with a call to remove poverty. World Food Summits have called for an urgent need to remove hunger, and Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) has often called for promoting sustainable farming. ‘Business as usual’ is not the right way forward, we are repeatedly told. The International Assessment for Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report[8], which was ratified during an intergovernmental plenary in Johannesburg, April 7-12, 2008, has been lying in limbo ever since.

Every disaster is an opportunity. But it invariably has ended as an opportunity for business. The rhetoric has been the same and the solutions have remained the same too: more aggressive push for industrial agriculture. Just to illustrate. To ensure that the world does not witness a repeat of the 2008 food crisis — when 37 countries faced food riots — the international community has been swift in proposing a roadmap (not one, but a plethora of similar privates-sector driven blueprints). Business leaders from 17 private companies had announced at the 2009 World Economic Forum the launch of a global initiative — New Vision for Agriculture — that sets ambitious targets for increasing food production by 20 percent, decreasing greenhouse gas emissions per ton by 20 percent, and reducing rural poverty by 20 percent every decade[9].

The 17 agribusiness giants include Archer Daniels Midland, BASF, Bunge Limited, Cargill, Coca-Cola, DuPont, General Mills, Kraft Foods, Metro AG, Monsanto Company, Nestlé, PepsiCo, SABMiller, Syngenta, Unilever, Wal-Mart, and Yara International.

It is therefore quite apparent that at the global level both the political as well as the business leadership is looking at the business opportunities that the crisis offers. In reality, the more the world tries to change, the more the world ends up doing the same.

But there is hope. As we get ready to enter 2018, the script for an ecologically sustainable agriculture, which brings back the smile on the face of farmers, without leaving any scar on the environment, is being rewritten. Over the years, an emerging consensus has developed around agro-ecology, which alone has the potential of an inclusive approach, and has emerged as an alternative paradigm[10]. Among others, an ActionAid report points to the solution to the global food requirement in 2050 not in the ‘rush to increase industrial food products’ but in shifting the focus to ‘supporting sustainable farming practices among small scale farmers – particularly women in developing countries’[11]. Since 80 per cent of the food is produced and consumed locally, turning agriculture sustainable and economically viable holds the strings to detoxifying the farmlands and thereby ushering in sustainable and healthy living.

Again, the evidence is all there. All it needs is a global effort to upscale what is already known in sustainable farming, to mainstream the principles of organic or non-chemical agriculture or agro-ecology in measuring economic growth. It has to move from a mere glib talk to a more specific action-oriented programme at the local, national and the international levels.

Six-point Charter:

Phasing out Chemical Pesticides: It took the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) three decades to realise the gravest mistake of Green Revolution – pesticides are unnecessary. Gary John, an ecologist with IRRI at that time had said: “The simple fact is that, in the rest of Asia, most insecticide use on rice is a waste of the farmers’ time and money.” That was in 2003[12]. But the finding didn’t make any difference in the application of pesticides on rice. None of the National Agricultural Research Programmes took up the advice seriously. If only rice growing areas across the globe, the staple food crop, had followed the IRRI prescription, the pesticides load would have come down drastically. For example, in India alone, more than 42 chemical pesticides are still used on rice[13].

More recently, a new report[14] presented to the UN Human Rights Council states that pesticides have “catastrophic impacts on the environment, human health and society as a whole.” At the local level, the introduction on Non-Pesticides Management (NPM) under the Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture (CMSA) in Andhra Pradesh, India, had led to 3.6 million acres being presently under cultivation without the use of pesticides[15]. Strangely, the World Bank, which has funded this programme, does not promote it. Incorporating the local experiences to the global policy framework, the challenge is to ensure that chemical pesticides are dropped from the crop cultivation menu.

Towards Organic Crop Breeding: The photo-insensitive semi-dwarf high yielding varieties of wheat and rice were initially developed in response to the application of higher doses of nitrogen, phosphorous and potash (NPK) fertilisers. The higher plant population per square meter produced a higher biomass attracting a large percentage of insects and therefore the need to spray more chemical pesticides. Consequently, these varieties were adapted to a wide range of agro-climatic conditions with a higher input usage. The flip side was that the higher the yield, the higher was the drop in nutrients. Productivity was inversely correlated with nutrition.

With the crop yields stagnating[16] and the fertiliser response declining sharply, the research focus should now move to developing improved crop varieties in response to organic manure. While such a crop breeding programme will bring back the focus on restoring the plant nutrition, so crucial for nutritional security, it will also spearhead transformation towards integrated agro-ecological farming systems. Perfecting biological solutions to controlling pests, restoring soil fertility and moving away from water guzzling crops are required to achieve agro-ecological transition.

Rediscovering Traditional Knowledge: Learning, education and knowledge are central to transforming agriculture towards sustainability.  As much of this knowledge is produced outside academia[17], it will largely depend on a participatory process of knowledge creation, or in other words learning from the communities. In effect, it will be like reversing the Lab to Land approach, which had led to deskilling of the farming communities. The Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) for instance vetted some of the traditional knowledge it could collate, in four volumes[18], but gathering dust on the shelves.

Although documenting traditional knowledge and its ownership (drawing proprietary control over it) has been a hot trade issue in international negotiations, the need to rediscover the wealth of knowledge, wisdom and innovation in the public domain remains central. It will remain a continuous process. Although a number of such ethical frameworks are available, a draft policy framework for traditional knowledge systems in India, with the underlying objective of rewriting the existing regime and formulating a culturally appropriate, ecologically benign, socially sensitive people’s policy provides a unique roadmap for assessing the wealth of knowledge available, and keeping it in public domain[19].

Rediscovering traditional knowledge, and putting it in a framework, which will bridge different knowledge systems and horizontally spread agro-ecological innovations is the need.

Redesigning Public Procurement: While India, China have jointly opposed the trade-distorting farm subsidies doled out by the developed countries under the World Trade Organisation (WTO), protecting the policy space for public procurement for foodgrains remains the primary objective. This is crucial for ensuring food security, so assiduously built over the decades on achieving food self-sufficiency. The same principles need to be extended to procurement of organic produce, which will help ensure an assured price to growers.

Procurement protocols need to be redesigned to meet the domestic requirement for food produced from agro-ecological farming systems. In India, for instance, as the demand for organic food grows, including that for wheat and rice, the need is to provide a high procurement price for the non-chemical produce. Punjab, the food bowl of the country, is also the biggest importer of wheat flour (atta) much of it coming in from Madhya Pradesh, in central India. The atta imports are considered to be organic (but there is no organic certificate available). If only Punjab was to provide a higher procurement price for organic wheat, the production of non-chemical wheat will see an upswing. Similarly, the north-east regions of the country have been declared as an organic hub, agriculture investment should come in the form of regulated public procurement for organics.

Green Direct Payments is another route to provide an assured higher income for specific roles a farmer must undertake. EU member states, for instance, should allocate 30 per cent of their direct payment budget to Green Direct Payments[20]. Similarly, farmers bringing organic produce in the regulated markets in the developing countries must receive an additional 30 per cent by way of price.

Evaluating Ecosystem Services: All these years, soil for instance was always taken for granted. In the sense that the economic value of the functions and services it provided was never considered. It was entirely overlooked in economic and financial transactions[21]. From this perspective, a logical solution consisted of clearly identifying and ranking the services provided by natural resources, estimating their values, and translating them into monetary amounts, which could ultimately be used by the financial sector to set up payment or compensation schemes.

China launched the “Grain for Green” and “Grain for Blue” programmes in 1991, and 1998, respectively. Similar proposals were floated in Europe too. In the US Midwest, similar mechanisms for payment for ecosystem services so as to reorient farming practices towards sustainable agriculture were initiated. More recently, Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) approach was suggested to work out the promise of a guaranteed income to farmers while prompting them to adopt sustainable farming practices[22]. It observed: “there are farmers who are contributing more ecosystem services than the average farmer because of farming practices such as organic farming. They should receive a higher payment than others who are not following natural capital asset enhancement through their farming practices.” Payment for ecosystem services should now become an essential part of economic research, as well as the public policy.

At the G-20: And finally, at a time when the world is literally feeling the heat from climate change; when the world is staring at a jobless growth; and when the world is faced with an ‘ecological Armageddon’, will the G-20 leadership wake up to the urgent need to detoxify its farmlands? Unless the farmlands are detoxified, and the focus of economic growth shifts to organic agriculture, I don’t see much hope in either the climate crisis being addressed to the core nor an everlasting solution found for job creation.

It is only sustainable agriculture that can create and strengthen livelihoods; it is only the return to agro-ecological farming that can detoxify the farmlands, underground water and rivers; it is only healthy nutritious food that can pull the world out of the disease epidemic it is in grip of. It’s only agriculture that can reboot the global economy. Will the G-20 leadership ever wake up to the only silver-lining? #


*Devinder Sharma is an Indian author, writer and a well-known food and trade policy analyst.  His blog: Ground Reality ( is read in 196 countries.

Contact Email:; Twitter: @Devinder_Sharma



[1] Nearly 75 billion tonnes of soil is lost to erosion every year, with damages costing $ 400 billion per annum. An ETC (2017) report “Who will feed us?” brings this out very lucidly. In another report, published in Scientific American, a UN official was quoted as saying that if the current rate of degradation continues, the world’s top soil would be gone in 60 years.

[2] Three quarters of flying insects in a nature reserve in Germany have vanished in past 25 years, says a University of Sussex study published in the journal Plos One (Oct 18, 2017)

[3]“In 1980s, farmers used to produce 50Kg of wheat by using 1 kg of NPK fertilisers. Now farmers are producing only 8 Kg by using 1 kg of NPK fertiliser”, Dr Mangla Rai, a former Director General of Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) stated. ‘Agriculture in a crisis. Let’s be clear, farmer’s won’t keep still’.  The Tribune, Sept 21, 2017.

[4] In France, a farmer commits suicide every two days, Australia reports one suicide every four days, in UK the farm suicide rate is double than the country’s average, and India yearly reports 17,627 farmer suicides every year, Terezia Farkas (2014) had said in an article “Why farmer suicide rates are highest in any profession” in the Huffington Post, quoting a Newsweek 2014 report.

[5] Falling incomes and increased vulnerability to financial risks is forcing French farmers into the suicide trap. Paola Tamma (2017) analyses a French study in her article “Suicides plagues French farmers, study shows” published  in

[6] Michel Pimbert (Coventry University, UK) has been quoted in a FAO report of the Regional Symposium on Agroecology for Sustainable agriculture and Food Systems for Europe and Central Asia, Budapest, Nob 23-25, 2016.

[7] See Paola Tamma’s article above.

[8] This three year international collaborative effort (2002-2005) was initiated by the World Bank, and joined by a host of international organisation, including UN. This was the outcome of a major initiative involving 900 scientists from 110 countries.

[9] The ‘New Vision for Agriculture’ uses the same language and approach. It promises to involve almost 600 and at a global level, it has partnered with the G7 and G20, facilitating informal leadership dialogue and collaboration. At the regional and country level, it has catalysed multi-stakeholder partnerships in 21 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, including Grow Africa and Grow Asia, states WEF

[10] FAO Report of the Regional Symposium on Agroecology and Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems, for Europe and Central Asia, Nov 23-25, 2016.

[11] ActionAid report: Rising to the Challenge: Changing Course to Feed the World in 2050’

[12] In an article ‘Pest, Pesticides, and Modern Science’, published in Indiatogether web site, I had analysed this based on an IRRI press release. The same combination of corporate interest and agricultural science that led to mindless use of insecticides is now turning to genetic engineering.

[13] Personal correspondence with Jayakumar, Country Director, PAN India.

[14] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food. Jan 24, 2017

[15] A farming model to sustain the world. (2010). That’s how I called the success of the non-pesticides management (NPM) programme in Andhra Pradesh, India.

[16] In China, rice yields have stagnated on 50% of the rice area over 1980 and 2010. Study published in the journal Plos One (July 12, 2016) .

[17] See 10

[18] Farm Innovators-2010, a publication of Indian Council of Agricultural Research, New Delhi.

[19] A draft policy framework for Traditional Knowledge Systems India, 2009, was prepared by a group of civil society actors, which was at one time considered to being formalised as rules under the Biodiversity Act. This draft is available at:

[20] Cross-compliance and Green Direct Payments (Box:6) in the Chapter on Public Policies to develop agro-ecology and promote transition, FAO report of the Regional Symposium on Agro-ecology for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems for Europe and Central Asia, 2016.

[21] A review article published in Frontiers in Environmental Sciences (June 7, 2016) provides a critical appraisal of soil ‘ecosystem’ services and natural capital. The flurry of literature and the growing interest in the subject has led to a “Soil Directive” proposal which remained in negotiations between EU members in 2006 and 2014.

[22] Guaranteed Farm Incomes and Sustainable Agriculture, (EPW, April 29, 2017) wherein the authors suggest payment for ecosystem services as a novel way to incentivise sustainable farming practices.