India’s ‘Green Revolution’ Heading For Collapse

NPR reports that 'Green Revolution' Trapping India's Farmers In Debt.

(emphasis mine) [my comment]

'Green Revolution' Trapping India's Farmers In Debt
by Daniel Zwerdling

Morning Edition, April 14, 2009 · As the world's population surges, the international community faces a pressing problem: How will it feed everybody?

Until recently, people thought India had an answer.

Farmers in the state of Punjab abandoned traditional farming methods in the 1960s and 1970s as part of the national program called the "Green Revolution," backed by advisers from the U.S. and other countries.

Indian farmers started growing crops the American way — with chemicals, high-yield seeds and irrigation.

Since then, India has gone from importing grain like a beggar, to often exporting it.

But studies show the Green Revolution is heading for collapse.

A Thirst For Water

On a recent morning, a drilling rig is pounding away in the middle of a wheat field near the village of Chotia Khurd. The sound, part jackhammer and part pile driver, is becoming increasingly common in the farm fields of northern India's Punjab region.

The farmer, Sandeep Singh, is supervising and looking unhappy as the rig hammers away, driving deeper and deeper under his field in search of water.

When India's government launched the Green Revolution more than 40 years ago, it pressured farmers to grow only high-yield wheat, rice and cotton instead of their traditional mix of crops.

The new miracle seeds could produce far bigger yields than farmers had ever seen, but they came with a catch: The thirsty crops needed much more water than natural rainfall could provide, so farmers had to dig wells and irrigate with groundwater.

The system worked well for years, but government studies show that farmers have pumped so much groundwater to irrigate their crops that the water table is dropping dramatically, as much as 3 feet every year.

So farmers like Sandeep keep hiring the drilling company to come back to their fields, to bore the wells ever deeper — on this day, to more than 200 feet.

Farmers In Debt

The groundwater problem has touched off an economic chain reaction. As the farmers dig deeper to find groundwater, they have to install ever more powerful and more expensive pumps to send it gushing up to their fields.

Sandeep says his new pump costs more than $4,000. He and most other farmers have to borrow that kind of cash, but they are already so deep in debt that conventional banks often turn them away.

So Sandeep and his neighbors have turned to "unofficial" lenders — local businessmen who charge at least double the banks' interest rate. The district agriculture director, Palwinder Singh, says farmers can end up paying a whopping 24 percent.

Another side effect of the groundwater crisis is evident at the edge of the fields — thin straggly rows of wheat and a whitish powder scattered across the soil.

The white substance is salt residue. Drilling deep wells to find fresh water often taps brackish underground pools, and the salty water poisons the crops.

"The salt causes root injuries," Palwinder says. "The root cannot take the nutrients from the soil."

Destroying The Soil

In the village of Chotia Khurd, farmers agree that the Green Revolution used to work miracles for many of them. But now, it's like financial quicksand.

Studies show that their intensive farming methods, which government policies subsidize, are destroying the soil. The high-yield crops gobble up nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous, iron and manganese, making the soil anemic.

The farmers say they must use three times as much fertilizer as they used to, to produce the same amount of crops — yet another drain on their finances.

A farmer named Suba Singh has seen the good and bad effects of the Green Revolution.

Clad in a bright blue turban and his face furrowed like a field, he opens a squeaky wooden gate to his compound. He points to a small building made of mud and straw, with faded green doors.

"That's where my family used to live," he says.

During the profitable years of the Green Revolution, he saw that everyone else in the village was building brick houses.

"So I took out a loan," he says, "and built a brick house for my family, too."

He turned the old mud house into his cattle shed. But now he is in debt.

A study by the Punjab State Council for Science and Technology calls it a "vicious cycle of debt."

Suba and the other farmers say they've had to borrow money to buy just about everything that makes them look prosperous — their brick homes, tractors, cattle, even their plastic chairs.

The farmers have also built their Green Revolution farms and lifestyle on another unstable source of money: Family members have moved overseas to find jobs, because they couldn't make a living farming, and now they send part of their income back to Chotia Khurd to support their relatives.

"It's like a disease that is catching on in the world," says Suba, "building a life that is like a house of cards."

A System About To Collapse?

Some leading officials in the farming industry wonder when this house of cards might collapse.

"The state and farmers are now faced with a crisis," warns a report by the Punjab State Farme rs Commission.

India's population is growing faster than any country on Earth, and domestic food production is vital.

But the commission's director, G.S. Kalkat, says Punjab's farmers are committing ecological and economic "suicide."

If he is correct, suicide is coming through national policies that reward farmers for the very practices that destroy the environment and trap them in debt.

Kalkat says only one thing can save Punjab: India has to launch a brand new Green Revolution. But he says this one has to be sustainable.

The problem is, nobody has yet perfected a farming system that produces high yields, makes a good living for farm families, protects and enhances the environment — and still produces good, affordable food.

My reaction: India's "Green Revolution" is heading for collapse.

1) When the Green Revolution was launched 40 years ago, India's farmers were pressured to grow only high-yield wheat, rice and cotton instead of their traditional mix of crops.

2) These new high-yield crops needed much more water than natural rainfall could provide, so farmers had to dig wells and irrigate with groundwater.

3) So much groundwater has been pumped to irrigate crops that water tables have been dropping dramatically over the last three decades, as much as 3 feet every year.

4) Farmers have had to deepen their wells every few years — from 10 feet to 20 feet to 40 feet, and now to more than 200 feet — because the precious water table keeps dropping below their reach.

5) Intensive farming methods subsidized by government policies are destroying the soil.

6) Since the high-yield crops gobble up nutrients, farmers must use three times as much fertilizer to produce the same amount of crops as they used to.

7) India's population is growing faster than any country on Earth.

8) India's farmers are being pushed towards ecological and economic "suicide" by national policies which reward farmers for destroying the environment and trapping themselves in debt.

Conclusion: India's farmers are reaching the point where they must now pump water from 200 feet below ground, which is scary because it obviously is not sustainable. While peak oil may or may not have arrived, peak water has already come and gone.

I wonder which will cause more social unrest: the collapsing US financial system/dollar or skyrocketing global food prices?

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10 Responses to India’s ‘Green Revolution’ Heading For Collapse

  1. Anonymous says:

    It might be time to dismantle the doom and gloom stuff. Marc Faber is calling a possible bottom. End of story.

  2. Anonymous says:

    That is a general problem, not as much in the rain-plenty north as in the warmer equator regions. The soil gets basically destroyed by the chemical- and fertilizer based high output agriculture revolution. To an additional part the fertilizers also compensate and/or supersede the former present microorganisms within the soil - at least so far as I know.

    The problem India faces might be, that the diet is not very heavy meat based, so even when shifting to non-meat food only, there are not much reserves. In the US and the EU, we need the high-input, less-outcome meat business to get rid of all the surplus grains - so we have a quite large "buffer" in case the current agriculture business is not sustainable.

  3. 9robert says:

    This is why I question your support of investing in Monsanto. Monsanto makes everything worse.

  4. Martijn says:

    @Eric (et al.)

    Here's an interesting movie titled "the future of food".

  5. Anonymous says:

    the future of food is great, so is The World According to Monsanto, below. Additionally, not linked, is the movie The Corporation.

  6. Anonymous says:

    btw, there is a system of "farming" that accomplishes all that the writer of the article failed to note.

    It's called PERMACULTURE. and it's spreading world-wide and is spreading even more quickly as people realize that our agricultural system is a sham. we have all the resources to feed ourselves, but we rely on big businesses to have our best interests at heart. it's about decentralization, intermediate technologies, learning from nature (biomimicry), ecological diversity, adn sharing.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I have lived in California's central valley for over 20 years. My wife's family farms over 500 acers in this valley - so I know first hand the changes here. The water table here is also sinking fast - and what little water remains is becoming very expensive for farmers to access.
    Our valley has been know for its 'Tule Fog' - considered the worst in the world. I remember driving to work back in the late 1980's and having to slowly creep up to the 'stop line' at intersections with a light, to be able to see if it was red or green. I could never drive over 30 mph back then without risking everything. Our water table now is so low that I rarely drive under the speed limit - even on our most 'foggy' days which, by my estimates, has also declined over 75% in just the last 10 years. This is directly due to the lack of water, needed to make fog, anywhere near the surface.
    The handwriting on the wall for one of our nations greatest farming areas is deteriorating so fast that I have made immediate plans to move my family to the state of Washington.

  8. EPC says:

    Although I don't know which exact version of "permaculture" Anonymous was referring to, in general I agree with him. What some of the articles that Eric has been posting here -- about food shortages, crop failures, weather damage, etc. -- all tend to reveal is that contemporary industrial agriculture is an unsustainable system that rests on three fragile legs:

    1) Excessive specialization,
    2) Excessive mechanization, (and excessive chemical use), and
    3) Excessive marketing distances facilitated by artificially low petroleum prices (e.g., Libya in 2006 exporting potatoes to Australia while Australia was plowing under potatoes due to overproduction).
    (and maybe 4) Excessive pursuit of maximum production)

    The results are all around us: declining nutrient levels in foods, and ever-more-formidable diseases and crop failures, starting with the Irish potato famine, and then a few years ago mad cow disease, a couple of years ago colony collapse disorder (bees), and now the falling of water tables worldwide with resulting pollution of the soil.

    The solution would seem to be smaller, family-run farms with a variety of crops and livestock, featuring natural fertilizer (cow and chicken dung), open grazing, and frequent crop rotation.

    Granted you will never grow rich on such a farm, but likewise you will probably never go broke. Those who will go broke are the bankers who want to lend you money for unnecessary equipment, chemical fertilizer, special seed (Monsanto), and transportation. Keep up the good work, Eric.

  9. Anonymous says:

    thanks for the comment, anton. I am referring to the myriad versions of permaculture, which is just bringing human living back into DECENTRALIZED sustainability (vs the newer popular prescriptive depression oriented corporate green movt, as in the same ones who offered the world the dismal "Green revolution."). But permaculture is interpreted in so many ways the world over, but has at its heart to make permanent agriculture or permanent culture.

    Thanks for making all the other fabulous points.

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