Cultivating ‘gold’: a Nayakrishi approach to renewable future

Farida Akhter | Published: 16:26, Jan 22,2017


In Nayakrishi Andolon (biodiversity-based ecological agriculture movement), one of the key words to grasp the notion and practice of this unique farming is ‘regeneration’. The farming practice must be able to regenerate the elements of the system that include the material, cultural and the spiritual content. The intricate and potential relations between them should also be regenerated since the system is sustained by the relations, flows, connections and appropriations of elements by each other. It should also regenerate the inherent potential that can only be manifested in the future, or in other words regenerating the future.

At the basic and simple level Nayakrishi is ‘organic’ food production, as understood by food safety conscious consumers in contrast to pesticide and chemical based industrial food production. However, Nayakrishi is not merely ‘organic’ food source, but a specific practice that aims to maintain and regenerate living and fertile soil, maintain and regenerate diverse life forms and ecosystemic variability and develop the capacity of the indigenous knowledge system to engage and appropriate the latest advance in biological sciences that could contribute to regenerating our planet, the earth system. To say more simply, Nayakrishi is indeed the Agriculture. In Bangla when we say ‘krishi’, we mean agriculture as farming practices. Pesticide and chemical based food production has drastically eroded the notion of agriculture and farming and established the corporate control of global food production. Nayakrishi Andolon is peasant’s resistance against the corporate takeover of global food chain. Corporations are for profit and not to feed people, it is the farming community that feeds us. For Nayakrishi regenerating the future implies defending the farmers engaged in life affirming agrarian activities because they are the key in our survival in this era of environmental and ecological destruction. 

Agriculture (or krishi in Bangla) by producing food, fiber, medicine, fuel wood and other essentials regenerates us as living elements of nature and in the process regenerates livestocks, poultry and other domesticated and semi-domesticated animals and birds. To achieve these goals, agriculture has to regenerate the relation between various elements of household farming practice; relation between food and life forms, manure and soil fertility, water and life, trees and renewable energy, herbs and cures, etc. The specific relations also demands specific cultural and knowledge practice and its constant improvement. Nature is not a fixed thing, it is constantly changing and transforming, so culture and knowledge practices are not fixed or remained unchanged since antiquity. Agrarian societies are therefore the immense source of cultural variability and manifestations.

With this very rich notion of krishi and its relation to nature, agriculture can bring prosperity, healthy life and joy. In Bangladesh, there are no gold mines; but people see gold cultivated through sowing seeds in the fertile land. A farmer in Bangladesh would look at the crop field and say ‘shona foleche’ — gold is cultivated. The notion of Shonar Bangla comes from a productive agriculture. Cultivation of crops is much more sustainable than mining of gold. Thus agriculture based on local seeds, culture and maintaining of livelihood is much more sustainable for future than the mining.   

Globally there has been a rapid and radical transformation of food production system from farmer-based agricultural practices to an industrialised system based on the use of fossil fuels, chemicals, machines etc. Industrial factory model was imposed on agriculture accelerating its demise in a very short period. Farmers gradually disappeared; along with it agriculture became agro-industry or agro-business. This is not just change of words; it is an entire shift of paradigm of how agriculture functions. Land in traditional agriculture is an identity of a farmer with local seeds and knowledge to produce crops. Land is tilled with care, soil fertility is maintained and nurtured and called ‘ma’ or the regenerative mother figure that feeds them. In the industrialised food production such human relation is absent and land, seed, fossil fuel, big tractors, chemicals — all are merely ‘factors of production’. There is no ‘ma’ in an industrial agriculture, therefore, no one to nurture. With the death of the regenerative figure industrial farming destroys our ability to regenerate a future.  

Since the beginning, agriculture has been changing with innovations and evolving experiences and knowledge and has contributed enormously to the increase of biodiversity. However, no matter what methods are used, agriculture has an impact on the environment because it has human intervention in the natural process. But the shift to a de-humanised industrial agriculture makes it worse by damaging the soil, water and even has impact on climate change through monoculture and intensive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. This has happened rapidly after the World War II and in few decades the changes spread all over the world and imposed upon farmers in the non-industrialised countries.

The industrial food production has been supplying only limited number of food crops in the form of monoculture production with heavy applications of chemicals, fertilisers, pesticides etc. The Union of Concerned Scientists says, ‘Back then, industrial agriculture was hailed as a technological triumph that would enable a skyrocketing world population to feed itself. Today, a growing chorus of agricultural experts — including farmers as well as scientists and policymakers — sees industrial agriculture as a dead end, a mistaken application to living systems of approaches better suited for making jet fighters and refrigerators’. In Bangladesh we are following this dead end of industrial countries (Industrial Agriculture: The outdated, unsustainable system that dominates U.S. food production, Union of Concerned Scientists). Industrial agriculture, started as ‘modern agriculture’ is based on non-renewable energy not only to produce the crops but to produce the inputs (fertilisers, pesticides), storing, transportation and marketing.  Chemical fertiliser is key to the ‘increased’ productivity. Fertiliser manufacture is an energy-intensive industry and accounts for approximately 1.2 per cent of the world’s energy, of which about 93 per cent is consumed by nitrogen-based fertilisers (The Fertiliser Industry, World Food Supplies and the Environment, International Fertiliser Industry Association, December 1998; S. Wood and A. Cowie, A Review of Greenhouse Gas Emission Factors for Fertiliser Production, IEA Bioenergy, June 2004).

In the same way chemical pesticides, hybrid seeds and special feed supplements for livestock are also indirect energy consumers. Modern agriculture is not possible without the use of tractors, irrigation pumps and other mechanical equipments. Once the chemical fertilisers, pesticides and monocropping with laboratory seeds are applied for few years, the natural capacity of land to nourish itself is lost and becomes dependent on external inputs. No one cares for the land degradation as long as it can produce according to industrial methods.

Unfortunately, Bangladesh followed the path of modern agriculture ‘prescribed’ by multilateral development organisations such as World Bank for over 50 years.  Although it started as farmer based approach, the modern agriculture has caused reduction of farming as a major occupation from 86 per cent in 1961 Census to 50.9 per cent in 2001 Census.  So, modern agriculture was not sustainable as an occupation. Poorer farmers could not afford increased pressure of input costs and moved to non-farming occupations in the cities as rickshaw pullers, wage workers and for small businesses.

Modern Agriculture did not have any natural connection to the land for increased productivity. It talked about intensive cultivation for few mono-crops, which meant depletion of the nutrients that the plant relies on. It talked about food self-sufficiency but gave only increased grain production at the cost of other food sources such as lentils, pulses, fish and livestock. It depended on synthetic fertilisers for rice, wheat and vegetables and also on pesticides because laboratory seeds (HYV and Hybrid) grown as mono-culture, are highly attractive to weeds, insects and pests. 

The demand for fertilisers increased with expansion of modern agricultural practices together with intensified cultivation. Environmental research shows that imbalanced use of chemical fertilisers is causing land degradation and excessive mining of plant nutrients resulting in the decline of soil fertility and reduction in the potential yield and also threatening soil and human health and degrading of agricultural environment.

Modern agriculture changed the crop pattern with cropping intensity of 190 per cent. Paddy is the major crop cultivated by farmers in three seasons Aus — the pre-monsoon season rice, Aman; the monsoon rain fed rice; and Boro, the dry season irrigated rice. Aus, Aman and Boro rice account for 7 per cent, 38 per cent, and 55 per cent, respectively, of the total rice production in Bangladesh. That means, rice production is more dependent on irrigation-based rather than rain fed. This is causing droughts and other environmental degradation. Globally, 70 per cent of the world’s available freshwater is being diverted to irrigation-intensive agriculture.    

Nayakrishi is a forward looking approach to farming practices. It looks deeply into the question of how to survive in future with all life forms, not only human beings. This is a basic difference between Nayakrishi as well as other ecological agricultural practices with industrial agriculture. While the former wants to ensure survival opportunities for all, including the micro-organisms, the industrial agriculture literally ‘kills’ everything else except those needed for human food. Even in a plant, industrial agriculture gives importance to the portion with grain or the fruit, the rest is ‘garbage’. Special technologies are there to mechanically harvest the grains of the crop and the rest is burnt. In Nayakrishi, every part of the plant is a food for humans or feed for livestock and poultry and biomass that is soil nutrient. Rice varieties are cultivated not only on the basis of higher grain productivity but also for higher straw productivity that becomes fodder for livestock. The productivity of the varieties is calculated not only for the grains but also of the straws that each variety produces. A farmer may choose to grow Ashail Lemburu with 6.2 tons of grain and 18.3 tons of straw per hectare, compared to Chandmoni with 6.4 tons of grain and 8.4 tons of straw per hectare. In livestock keeping they select the cows with feed preferences, rather than only higher milk or meat production. In the same way, diverse varieties of chickens are reared for diverse yield of eggs, meat, chicks etc. Crop cultivation must be associated with its ability to feed the livestock and poultry. Each Nayakrishi household is an integrated system that regenerates the lives and livelihood. The holistic approach of crop-livestock-poultry-fish and horticulture are interdependent and supplement each other’s needs.

For fertilising the land, Nayakrishi farmers do not need to depend on the chemical fertilisers. They select the seeds according to the type of soil and also grow a combination of crops that can nourish the soil. They cultivate crops not as a monocrop, but a mix of crops that gives yield as well as nourishes the soil. The small scale farmers with land holding of less than a hectare contribute to the diversity of crop production and ensure nourishment of the soil. They combine lentil as a legume with different combination of crops such as onion, garlic, tomato, carrot, radish, brinjal, chili, sesame, cauliflower etc. According to different areas, the legumes vary such as Mungbean, gram, groundnut, black gram with combinations of different winter crops. This is simple knowledge and experience based that helps soil as well as helps with the pest management. In other seasons, Nayakrishi farmers use combination of paddy and fish. Overall environment of the land is kept safe for all forms of living organisms to survive. Nayakrishi ensures that earthworms are seen in the soil, an indication of fertility and safety.  

Use of chemical fertilisers makes the soil harder requiring diesel-based tractors and power tillers. Nayakrishi principle is to keep the soil soft with organic manures and with crops that nourishes the soil.

Livestock keeping is done in an interdependent system of crop cultivation. Farmers in a village can share among each other the cow dung in exchange get straws for feeding the cows. Hens and cocks also get their feed from the by-products of crops and also help in manuring the soil.

Another important characteristic of Nayakrishi and biodiversity based farming is that it encourages the growth of various plants and herbs that are uncultivated but are good as food sources for humans and animals. The more environment is free from chemicals, the more the uncultivated foods are found in the surroundings. In Bangladesh, such assessment is done through cultural practices of celebrating Chaitra Sangkranti, last day of the Bengali Calendar year having food with at least 14 different kinds of leafy greens (Shak). This is a natural auditing that ensures renewable food sources for future. Modern agriculture fails to ensure the uncultivated food because of use of fertilisers and herbicides. The availability of uncultivated food is an indication of future possibilities of food and healthy life.      

It is very unfortunate that in Bangladesh where soil can cultivate resources that are more valuable than gold, in the name of science we are getting the genetically modified crops like Bt Brinjal and RB Potato. Genetically modified crops promoted by corporate giants like Monsanto make the crops reliant on herbicide glyphosate (marketed as Roundup) that spawns a burgeoning population of Roundup-resistant ‘super weeds’. GMOs are not an answer to future food production but a serious threat to our future agriculture.

Let Bangladeshi soil cultivate its own gold for a renewable future.


Farida Akhter is the executive director of UBINIG and organiser of Nayakrishi Andolon.

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