Reviving Traditional Agricultural Practices is the New Farming Revolution We Need
C+S 2021 students are blogging about topics that interest them for Applications in Climate and Society, a core spring class.
My maternal family belongs to a small rural village in Maharashtra, India, the state where a majority of small farmers depend on rainfed and well-irrigated agriculture.
It has been 10 years since I visited my mother’s ancestral village.
Growing up, I would visit the farm every year, where I learned the value of conservation from my great-grandmother, Thorli Aaji (Eldest Grandmother). Lately, I can’t stop thinking about the vast fields and my time there as a kid. Watching the farmers gather in villages across India last year to protest the new farm bills brought back memories of my summers on the village farm.
I have flashes of memories from my childhood, helping her tend the cows, carrying produce, and running through the fields under the hot sun. She was almost 80 when I was 15.
Farmers are a resilient bunch. They hold extensive Indigenous knowledge and practicing these techniques through generations transfers that wisdom. Older generations would pass on the techniques to the younger ones through word of mouth or through communal farmer-to-farmer trainings across villages. In recent years, traditional knowledge has taken a back seat to maximizing crop yield. Using a high yield variety of crop seeds that are water- and pesticide-intensive has damaged ecological biodiversity and promoted unsustainable utilization of natural resources. Climate change will exacerbate the extreme impacts of droughts and water shortages in India. Thus, there is an increasing need to shift away from Green Revolution practices and encourage using Indigenous knowledge to ensure resilient food systems—and it needs to happen soon.
Lessons Learned From Aaji
My Aaji’s way of life was an embodiment of living without being wasteful. She taught me to conserve water, conserve food, conserve resources, conserve seeds, and cherish nature. Back in the day, local practices were driven by preserving the ecosystem and biodiversity. Every species and organism had a purpose.
Hybrid seeds were introduced in the 1950s and 1960s as part of the Green Revolution to increase crop yields on less land. An extreme famine in the country pushed large commercial farmers to adopt Green Revolution technologies to overcome food insecurity. Crop production for rice and wheat tripled between 1960 to 2000, dominating the agrarian markets, further pushing small farmers to grow them.
However, after years of using hybrid seeds, farmers realized that biodiversity loss was causing long-term damage to soil fertility. For example, uncontrolled growth of single pest species or fewer species of healthy bacteria in the soil stunted future soil replenishment and growth. Moreover, the volume of pesticides and chemical fertilizers required to grow hybrid seeds was not profitable. Tribes and communities of farmers started saving seeds of the Indigenous varieties of crops to plant them for the next growing season and sharing them with other communities. This practice ensured the re-use of Indigenous crop varieties that required less water and fertilizers without depending on government agencies and private companies that sell seeds at a higher price.
Even though rice is the most water-intensive crop in India, local genotypes of Basmati developed as landraces are great for seed saving. A landrace crop is well adapted to the local climate and is resilient to extreme conditions. Similarly, growing and re-using bhuimug shenga (groundnut), jowar (sorghum), and ragi (finger millet) has enabled farmers to save money. Not only do these crops use less water, but some Indigenous varieties are also drought resilient.
The protests of 2019-20 brought global attention to the Indian agricultural sector once again. This time, it is imperative to realize that copy-pasting solutions from the Global North to the Global South, while seemingly beneficial in the short term, are not resilient in the long-term. Instead, an inclusive climate action plan requires adapting these solutions to the local context and empowering communities by advocating for Indigenous knowledge.