Interview with Dr. Seshagiri RAO
07 / 2009
Pluralism is often touted as a desired goal. However, more and more we see mono-culture dominating every aspect of our lives– be it economic, social, educational or cultural.
In keeping with this trend of mono-culture, public policy perspectives, scientific research and development schemes relating to agriculture view it as a uni-dimensional occupation, rather than a way of life which it is, for a majority of the people who are engaged in it.
To appreciate this, Centre for Education and Documentation met Dr. Seshagiri Rao, who is an agricultural scientist and a farmer rolled into one. He was involved in mainstream university research and yet at the same time managed and worked on his traditional farm. He studied agriculture and specialized in Plant-breeding and Genetics and then studied Ecology in Indian Institute of Science (IISc). Even when he was in IISc, he stayed 175 kilometres away in Pavagoda, a remote area bordering two southern states of India, border between Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. It was a five hour bus ride from the Institute. His house and village became the field research station of IISc from 1992 onwards.
When we asked about farm systems, Dr Seshagiri Rao spoke about how they had spent five years in research on groundnut which was the dominant crop in the entire Rayalseema region (1), and realised how they were on the wrong track. They then broadened their research into the entire livelihood. They found that the most profitable option which never fails is sheep rearing & goat keeping.
Another important aspect of farm livelihood is trees. Trees in semi-arid areas provide insurance against crop failure, biomass and more. The next important livelihood is craft. There are some specialist tribes like Lambadas who do a lot of craft. They also process Non Timber Forest Produce. Thus gathering & processing is an important part of the survival economy in semi-arid areas.
Thus, a small farmer in a semi-arid area is involved in a whole range of activities, all of which cannot be measured by one dominant crop. And, therefore diversity is the key to the survival strategy of the small farmer. Unfortunately all our development programmes tend to work against maintaining this diversity as they tend to target and consume the resources like land and bio-mass, and generate waste. We are asked to see this as co-lateral damage for “growth” and development. And activities like mulching, re-cycling of bio-mass, or even kitchen garden, chicken rearing, mat making seen as wasteful, as they “do not generate” money value equivalent to the minimum wage, or cant be quantified as products.
More importantly, notions of risk cover are limited to financial recovery, and thus tend to encourage insurance systems. In actuality, there is also a clear correlation between diversity of livelihood support and equity as mixed farming systems help diversifying the sources of income and employment for resource-poor farmers and landless laborers and thus offers considerable potential for poverty alleviation.
Livestock in the Economy of Agriculture
In conventional farming systems, the major focus is on maximising output be it of grain, meat or milk. This is done through adding external inputs, and research on the seed or animal breed. Thus grain production and livestock production have become increasingly specialized and separated from each other. The grain is grown with inorganic fertilizer and the livestock are fed on this grain. In this way, livestock production has lost its role as a complement and support to agriculture and has become a competitor for grain which could otherwise be consumed by humans.
However, small farms particularly combine livestock and crops use the land relatively sustainably: crop residues are fed to animals; manure provides good fertiliser and fuel; and animal draught power reduces the need for fossil fuels.
The keeping of livestock is a part of most farming systems and an integrated component in intensified agriculture. The importance of livestock keeping lies primarily in its ability to convert biomass that is not directly useful for humans (grass, leaves, twigs, agricultural waste-products) into animal products. Livestock provides not only highly nutritious milk, eggs and meat, but also feathers, fibre (wool) and hides. In addition, they provide nutrient- rich manure which can be used in the growing of crops.
Till today in India small- scale mixed crop-livestock farming is the most common and dominant form of animal husbandry. For small and marginal farmers animal husbandry based on family labour and residues and by- products of crops grown on their own land continue to be a substantial source of income and employment. Livestock in these systems are more equitably distributed compared to land. Small and marginal farms account for only 32% of the total land but own 59% of total bovines and 64% of total ovines.
The animal land intensity in India is high with an average land holding size of 1.57 ha supporting nearly 2.94 bovines and 1.14 ovine. Smallholder livestock production makes a substantial contribution to the economy. In India, livestock contributes about 30% of the total farm output, and 80% of livestock products come from small farmers with 3-5 animals and less than 2 ha of land.
It is estimated that one-quarter of the world’s total land area is being used for grazing livestock, including extensive grazing systems. A further one-fifth of the world’s arable land is used for growing cereals to feed livestock. This makes livestock production the largest user of land in the world. The global demand for meat is expected to more than double over the next twenty years, creating an increased demand for cereal feed. Southern countries are expected to become the main producers of meat and animal products for the rest of the world, with increasing dependency on imported grain. It is expected that there will be a shift from livestock being kept for multiple purposes and local food supply to animals being raised under factory conditions for export. Many small-scale farms will be out-competed and replaced by large-scale industrial farms.
Knowing the importance of bringing back the diversity in farm operations, Dr Seshagiri Rao decided to develop a specific project with a network of NGOs in the entire bio-region.
“When we looked for those who had made money, we found out that the sheep keepers have made money. We also found that growing trees is a very viable option in this bio-region. We also found that those who specialise in one thing, loose out. In fact people who have diversified in crops, people who have diversified in enterprises, have always prospered. Then we found that those who consciously or unconsciously have a strategy to use the good years when there are good rains, were successful.”
Explaining this, Seshagiri pointed out that we normally think of semi-arid zones like Rayalseema, as being rain deficient. In reality however, there are some episodes and some years of good rain. The shepherd for example knows this, whenever there is good rain, he increases the size of his herd, and he feeds the herd on the grass that is now plentiful.
“Using these four or five principles that we learnt from the people, we tested them out scientifically. We had an advantage having 100 years of daily rainfall data. We also had crop simulation models, which we could run on computers to give us yield profiles. We could see the patterns of how groundnut would have done over the hundred years. The same also applies for ragi. We also checked the results for ten different varieties of groundnut, with different fertiliser levels. We used the simulation models and found out that combining two crops namely pigeon pea and groundnut, we got better results.
We used our scientific understanding to accommodate the uncertainly of rainfall, to select crops of different root depths, different maturity periods, different growth phases, and different pest resistances, different nutrient requirements.
And then we mix crops with trees. Tree gives a lot of biomass, so for that we bring the livestock component. So once you have the livestock, we don’t have to compost. The livestock does it automatically.
There is another thing that we used science. We designed the system such that it was dependent more on vegetative growth, rather than reproductive growth. Usually crops like groundnut have a fifteen day critical period, while it is pod-filling. In those 15 days if you don’t have soil moisture the groundnut crop is gone. All your rain before or all your rain later is useless. It is the same with pigeon pea & sunflower. So it makes sense in uncertain rainfall and soils of low moisture holding capacity, like the one we have in Rayalseema where moisture stays hardly for 10 days that you don’t rely on reproductive growth which is time sensitive.
On the other hand vegetative growth is opportunistic. Vegetative growth takes place as and when it rains. Thus the system should rely for its basic money from vegetative growth, and this means tress. But then farmers want money in about six months and tress usually give you money returns on in five year. Also most farmers see tree as a competitor to the groundnut. His thinking is that if he plants 10 trees he would loose 2 rows of groundnuts. So not only would he not plant the trees, he would cut the trees which are there. So how do you make the farmer tree planter from tree cutters?
The Deccani sheep does the trick. If people grow sheep then there is a demand for fodder. No small farmer is going to put fodder crop. So there is a demand for trees. In the current project on the Deccani breed of sheep we hope to integrate trees into the rain fed farming. For e.g., if you feed well a 3 month old lamb in 6 months it can give you a profit to your investment of almost double. If you buy a lamb for 1300/- (Indian Rupees) you feed it very well then you can sell for 3000/- in 6 months. If you do for 5 lambs or 10 lambs you have 30000/- which is more than 10 acres of groundnut.
Trees should be located on trench-cum-bunds, which is also the place where you put excess biomass so they really become the compost pits. All the water that is run off is harvested there. It is important that you have water harvesting structures, otherwise trees will never survive in our environment. There is a lot of root action because trees are planted in high density. By having root action you change the soil, change the soil microbes, and therefore the balance of soil nutrients. This is the agro-forestry model.”
International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IA-AKST), agrees that the main challenge is to increase the productivity of agriculture in a sustainable manner. It speaks of multifunctional agricultural systems which involve “the inescapable interconnectedness of agriculture’s different roles and functions. The concept of multi-functionality recognizes agriculture as a multi-output activity producing not only commodities (food, feed, fibers, agro-fuels, medicinal products and ornamentals), but also non-commodity outputs such as environmental services, landscape amenities and cultural heritages. It says AKST must address the needs of small-scale farms in diverse ecosystems and create realistic opportunities for their development where the potential for improved area productivity is low and where climate change may have its most adverse consequences.
This sheet is available in French: Pour la diversité de la petite agriculture en Inde
Dr. P.R.Seshagiri RAO was interviewed by CED in 2009.
See also the following website: International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, an international effort including governmental and non-governmental organizations that will evaluate the relevance, quality and effectiveness of agricultural knowledge, science, and technology (AKST).
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