Bringing people back into the process of food production
By Sumudu ChamaraEven though the current discourse on fertiliser depends mostly on the Government’s plan to go organic, what Sri Lanka truly needs is a novel approach based on agroecology, and not organic farming or the agricultural system the Government proposes. Sri Lanka will be able to benefit greatly from an agricultural model based on the concept of agroecology, which will also ensure food security, food sovereignty, environmental stability, and also a good economy for farmers.This was stated by Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR) Moderator Chinthaka Rajapakse during a webinar titled “Human Rights, Agroecology, and Food Sovereignty” – the last instalment of a four-part webinar series on agroecology, organic farming, and food sovereignty titled “Building a Sri Lankan Organic Farming Model”.The webinar, organised by MONLAR, Renaissance Sri Lanka, and Greenfem, held on Saturday (30) was also joined by Greenfem Co-Founder Chathu Sewwandi, MONLAR LVC ICC Youth South Asia Member Vimukthi de Silva, and MONLAR Gender Advisor Nadeera Kumari, and was moderated by Ishara Danasekara. Rajapakse, elaborating on the ongoing fertiliser crisis, opined that it is, in fact, a crisis of not having any kind of plan to implement the organic agriculture plan, which he said has now morphed into a massive tragedy just several months after the introduction of the Government’s plan. “As part of this crisis, Sri Lanka is also facing the challenge of making the concept of agroecology, about which we have been discussing for some time, a reality,” he said.He also noted that immediate attention needs to be paid to what has happened during the past six months, i.e. after the Government announced its plan to go organic, as far as the agriculture sector is concerned, and that the measures put forward by farmers as well as the Government so far need to be taken into account while also identifying and including in this discussion other stakeholders and experts, which Sri Lanka has not done so far. “We have to understand the fact that the existing agricultural and farmers’ crisis is a part of the neoliberal economic and political agenda Sri Lanka has been putting into action. If we do not understand that, it will not be easy to find solutions to the ongoing crisis, which is also a result of the overall political and economic crisis that was created in the world and in Sri Lanka during the past five to six decades. As the agriculture sector was industrialised, a large number of different aspects of agriculture have been shaped to match this industrialisation process. This is one of the main issues that need to be addressed,” Rajapakse further said.De Silva explained the rights aspect of agroecology, noting: “Food is considered one of humans’ basic rights, but the question is, who decides whether we can enjoy this right and also whether we are aware of our right to take decisions pertaining to the quality of the food we consume? The discussion on food sovereignty and food production, in the current context, inevitably leads to a global-level discussion, as a significant portion of world’s food production is being controlled by a handful of companies; however, we do not have adequate knowledge about this matter. “Essentially, our food consumption habits depend on four crops, namely, wheat, maize, rice, and soya, and more than 50% of the food production depends on these crops. In the current context, our right to be a part of the food production process has not been recognised.”She pointed out the main issues that have caused the existing food crisis in the world, stating: “When it comes to environmental factors, issues such as global warming, soil pollution, water and air pollution, and destruction of biodiversity affect the food crisis, while the agricultural factors that affect this situation include high production cost, farmers migrating (to new areas), unstable market, natural disasters, loss of lands, and large-scale monocropping. As far as market-related factors are concerned, unstable markets, multinational companies’ dominance/influence, irregular post-harvest technologies, and farmers not having the ability to be a part of the decision-making process, can be identified. Consumption-related factors such as unsafe food, heavy metals and polluted food, food that are not nutritious, fast food, and artificial food, also worsen this situation.” Adding that existing agricultural methods need to be improved and altered immediately in order to ensure a better future for the world’s food production system, she presented several crucial factors, or fundamental concepts of agroecology, to achieve that. Among them are, recycling, using minimal inputs, animals’ health, soil’s health, biodiversity, economic diversification, participation, knowledge sharing, social discourse on food, fairness, relationship between farmers and consumers, and land and natural resource management.Noting that food sovereignty is a lifestyle and is a basic right, she explained the key elements of food sovereignty, namely, a local management system that allows producer and consumer to make decisions, people-friendly agricultural reforms, eradicating hunger, a market structure that gives more power to lower levels of that structure, and a system that protects natural resources.Kumari, meanwhile, explained the importance of Sri Lanka paying attention to both food security and food sovereignty, and emphasised that achieving one of them does not necessarily ensure a sustainable solution to the existing issue.She explained: “Food sovereignty is something that goes beyond food security, which merely refers to producing adequate food. Food security has already been ensured in the world to a considerable extent; however, there is a question as to whether food sovereignty, which relates to consumers’ and farmers’ rights and culture as well as quality and quantity of food, has been ensured.” She noted that paying attention to both organic farming and ecological farming are equally important, and that organic farming involves organic inputs, mono-cropping or multi-cropping, consumption or sale, profit targeting and certification, ecological farming-involved conservation, reproduction, as well as biodiversity. With regard to conservation, she explained that biodiversity conservation, soil conservation, water conservation, and seeds conservation are of extreme importance.She added: “In this context, the world's food requirement can no longer be fulfilled merely through organic farming. Therefore, what is necessary is an eco-friendly organic farming system, and it can be done through a culture of living that is led by women (in the agriculture sector).”According to Sewwandi, who expressed her opinion about how agroecology helps protect people’s lives and what the rights-based approach towards agroecology is, food security has become a topic that concerns everyone because whether the world likes it or not, the existing food system is collapsing.“Today, around 720-800 million people go to bed with an empty stomach, and a majority of them are from the countries we identify as third world countries. It includes some countries from the South Asian, East Asian, African, and South American regions. Right off the bat, we can see a certain imbalance in the existing food system as far as distribution of food and opportunities people receive to consume food are concerned. Identifying the reasons behind this situation is one of the most important aspects of this discussion, and among the main reasons are, existing agricultural methodologies that focus more on feeding a few rather than eradicating hunger among the general community, overexploitation of resources such as land and water, and letting greenhouse gas emission and biodiversity degradation take place. At the recently held World Food Summit, it was suggested to hand over the food production process to private companies over giving the same to small farmers. In this context, there are concerns related to rights and rights-based approaches, especially with regard to lands.“Despite the fact that land is the most crucial resource in terms of agriculture, in Sri Lanka, over 80% of lands are owned by the State, and only around 20% of lands are privately owned. The Government has paid more attention to giving lands for various purposes pertaining to urbanisation and land development, and this situation affects both privately owned lands and state-owned lands.“Moreover, during the process of distribution of lands and when one generation passes lands on to the next generation, we can see that a certain reduction in lands has occurred. This has affected the lands that can be used for agricultural purposes, or food production, and we have to look at how these limited land resources can be utilised to obtain maximum yield. In such situations, in order to get more harvest, we have to put in more inputs, and a higher yield can be obtained through the use of chemical inputs rather than ecological inputs. However, the question that arises when evaluating the long-term impacts of this practice is how long we can do so (without causing damage to the land). In fact, the United Nations’ Convention to Combat Desertification’s (UNCCD’s) 2012 reports have shown that around 20% of the world’s lands have been degraded (owing to practices mentioned above), and another report predicts that by 2050, 50% of world’s lands, especially those receiving water through irrigation systems, could face salinisation. In a context where lands keep facing degradation, we have to find answers to the question as to how to use lands for agricultural activities in an effective manner.”She noted that there is also a question as to whether Sri Lanka’s food security can be ensured in a context where the use of state and privately owned lands for commercial agricultural activities is on the rise.Adding that farmers are also facing an issue relating to their right to lands, she said: “In agroecology, we propose an approach aimed at protecting soil fertility, which in turn protects farmers’ ownership of the lands as well. When it comes to food production, the existing market influences farmers to choose mono-cropping, and also, consumption of the food produced at the regional level within the same region has been limited.“In the current market, rights of several parties including farmers and women are being violated (within the food production process). In a context where farmers remain the last stakeholder of this process, middlemen and traders usually make more profits than farmers do. Sustainable agroecological practices can break this cycle, and raise farmers’ status within this supply system. Market depends on uninterrupted supply and diversification, among other factors, but within the existing system, farmers merely produce food to cater to the needs of the market. We have to give more priority to ensuring that farmers are in a position to ensure their family-level food security and economy, before releasing produce to the market.”Despite countless unforeseen challenges and developments, the Government remains determined to go ahead with the plan to stop the use of chemical fertiliser and establish an organic farming culture in the country. The situation, however, does not appear promising, as importing the necessary fertilisers to facilitate the transition process is also posing much more intricate challenges. Dealing with the rising opposition against the Government’s hasty plan and farmers’ demands for fertiliser to commence Maha season cultivation has now escalated to an international-level issue with Sri Lanka banning China-manufactured organic fertiliser and China’s strong opposition against Sri Lankan expert bodies that have rejected the said fertiliser.However, as has been noted by many parties since the beginning, including farmers and independent experts in the planning and implementation process of the Government’s plan to go organic would perhaps turn the situation for the better.