India may be famous for its food, but the way in which it grows its ingredients is notoriously bad. Stories of the nation’s chemical spills, soil contamination, groundwater depletion, and lost biodiversity are depressing, not to mention the high rates of farmer suicides, triggered by suffocating debt.
Amid all this personal and environmental suffering, there is a strong beacon of hope in the form of Amrita Bhoomi, an agroecology training centre located in the southwestern state of Karnataka. Amrita Bhoomi is a refuge of sorts, a place where young farmers, mainly peasants, can go to learn, experiment, and share agricultural knowledge. It takes the pressure off young farmers who cannot afford to take risks on their own land, or may not even have land on which to try different growing methods or seed varieties. The centre is openly anti-castist, as well, employing an untouchable cook, which is still seen as highly radical.
Amrita Bhoomi was a recipient of a 2018 Lush Spring Prize in the Influencer category. A representative, Tilly Gifford, was in the U.K. to collect the prize in May and she sat down for an interview with TreeHugger to explain more about the centre’s important work.
Gifford explained that farming is in decline in India, not least because of the environmental factors, but also the social stigma associated with it. Few families are willing to let their daughter marry a farmer, whose livelihood is seen as unstable.
Farming can also be dangerously expensive, if a farmer practices conventional agricultural methods that require chemical fertilizers and pesticides. I say ‘dangerous’ because countless Indian farmers have committed suicide since the Green Revolution introduced industrial-style agriculture in the 1960s-70s. Gifford estimated that there have been 1 million suicides to date, all triggered by high-chemical-input crops that farmers borrow money to raise, but fail to see returns. Their only out, as they see it, is suicide. The problem has worsened since 2011 when the government, embarrassed by the media attention it was getting, created new requirements for a death to be categorized as suicide. These include needing to own the land they farm (which few peasant farmers do) and being male — female farmer suicides don’t count.
Amrita Bhoomi tries to visit farms following suicides to collect data that paint a truer picture of what’s really going on, and Gifford went along on a few of these trips.
“It was really harrowing. We went to one small area where there’d been 8 suicides in two months, and every one of them was related to a high-input crop that had failed. A lot of them were ginger. Ginger is prone to fungal disease and the farmers put a lot of anti-fungal chemicals on it; but because low prices are protected, there was lots of ginger coming from China, and prices dropped. They’d invested loads and were massively in debt. Some of the loans were from banks, but most of them were informal, so it’s hard to be protected from loan sharks coming to get the money back.”
Amrita Bhoomi offers an alternative to this deadly cycle. The centre’s educational philosophy is based largely on the teachings of Shri Subhash Palekar, the charismatic guru of “zero budget natural farming“, who teaches that a farmer doesn’t need anything other than what s/he has available locally to maximize soil fertility. The method uses home-brewed concoctions made from fresh cow dung (it must be an indigenous cow), cow urine (the older the better), jaggery (coarse palm sugar), and lentil flour to promote microbacterial growth in the soil. In Gifford’s words:
“Zero budget natural farming is amazing because it’s not top down; it’s informal, decentralized; there’s no central organizer, no revenue or paid staff, no bank account, and there are already millions of people practicing it.”
The approach is not all that unusual. Amrita Bhoomi’s director Chukki Nanjundawsamy told FoodTank last year:
“Agroecology isn’t new to Indian agriculture. The Green Revolution technologies that wiped out agroecology happened only 50 years ago. Before that, agroecology was everywhere… I’m proud of how this movement has evolved. Young farmers are joining. They know what’s going on with the agrarian crisis and are choosing agroecology as a way forward.”
Amrita Bhoomi wants to reclaim crops that once were staples in the Indian diet, such as millet, or ragi. Ragi was displaced by white rice, a more chemically responsive crop, when the Green Revolution enabled farmers to practice water-intensive, paddy-style agriculture, but Indians’ health has suffered as a result; there are 50 million cases of type 2 diabetes, the highest rate in the world, that are largely attributed to refined white rice. The centre is pioneering millet production and hoping to get it added to the public distribution system.
It also boasts an impressive seed bank with 100 varieties of rice and 26 varieties of ragi, among others. Because the centre sources many of its rare seeds from a nearby tribal village, Gifford said that the crops look nothing like the ones that are usually grown. “Young farmers say, ‘What is it?'” she laughed. Amrita Bhoomi sees itself “at the frontline of the struggle for biodiversity conservation and against agribusiness’s plans of total dominion through seed patents.”
“[We will] use prize money to mobilize our social networks to join us in a campaign to demand a public policy on zero budget natural farming. The neighbouring state of Andra Pradesh recently implemented such a policy, and we’d like to scale up that policy in other states of India. We will facilitate a body of farmers, leaders, local government officials, and other key members of society — scientists, consumers, academics, youth, women — to join us in a campaign to influence the state government.”
It is not hard to believe they’ll succeed. Amrita Bhoomi sounds like a remarkable place, poised to effect real change in an area that desperately needs it, and it is wonderful to see international companies like Lush recognizing the world-changing potential in its work.