Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Common sense

My former boss and good friend, Shawn Cripps, had a wonderful saying. He’d say, “You know Tony, the funny thing about common sense is it’s not all that common.” I have certainly come across my share of boneheads in my life, or those booksmart kids that don’t have a shed of common sense. But when the absence of such a fundamental attribute in an entire society reaches epidemic proportions, one can only wonder.

Recent reading material has coalesced into a common theme on which I must comment. I recently finished the brilliant Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Yesterday I came across a great article on the Freakonomics Blog. And today I read a fascinating article by Doug Saunders, the greatest columnist at the Globe and Mail, on the sky high suicide rates among Indian farmers. How do these all come together?

In the Saunders article, the reasons for increased suicides among India’s cotton farmers are laid out. And it really comes down the loss of even a thread of common sense in Western agricultural policy. How do Western agricultural policymakers make decisions that cause absurd numbers of Indian farmers to off themselves by drinking bottles of pesticide? The Green Revolution occurred between 1940-1960 leading to huge increases in agricultural production. This was particularly important in developing countries where farmers could not produce enough food for their people. The problem with the whole concept behind the revolution is only now apparent.

In assuming not only that every successive generation of humans is smarter than those who came before them but that we, through the scientific method, can sufficiently reduce all complex natural processes into simplistic ones open to external manipulation, we open ourselves up to failure.

In order to achieve massive increases in agricultural yields, simplistic, but not holistic, farming practices were introduced. Farmers began purchasing hybrid cotton from Monsanto, one of the largest companies in the world. The beauty of hybrid cash crops from the companies standpoint is that they are genetically programmed to NOT reproduce. Now if that is not profit motive getting in the way of common sense, I don’t know what is. So yes, Indian farmers increased their yields. But now instead of keeping aside a portion of their previous year’s harvest to plant the next year, they have to buy new seed from an American agricultural corporation every single year. In order to cover the cost of this added expense they need to increase their yields further which means less labor intensive farming that ignores all natural processes and leads to soil destruction.

Not only have they bled the land for 40 years to push yields higher and higher, they are now producing more cotton than the market wants. It is similar to the situation described in Pollan’s book whereby the American corn farmer is producing more corn than the world needs. So the Americans have basically found a way to put corn in almost everything we consume to use up the excess and have encouraged further excess by subsidizing the costs of growing corn. A similar absurd situation exists in cotton production. Indian farmers can only compete with the highly subsidized American cotton industry if they continue to squeeze every last ounce of productivity out of their soil.

Where has this all led? A highly productive Indian textiles industry that creates thousands of jobs? Hardly. In fact, after forty years of artificial farming, and concurrent climatic catastrophes, the bad times have returned for the Indian cotton farmer. And now they are drinking themselves to death on bottles of pesticide, likely produced by the same companies that caused the problem in the first place.

Along comes Subhash Kuttall Sharma, a man who once took up the call of the Green Revolution and almost paid for it with his life. Saunders writes that Sharma nearly committed suicide during the Green Revolution after his crop yields tanked and he went bankrupt. This man was no idiot. He won awards for his superior crop production. But his practicing of overly simplistic agricultural practices eventually caught up to him.

Not to be defeated, he eschewed all this Western “knowledge” and went back to basics, back to common sense. As the owner of Polyface Farms does in Pollan’s book, Mr. Sharma now operates a labor-intensive but highly successful farm based on sustainable and sensible practices. Crop rotations; preserving monsoon rains in pits for use during droughts; animal waste as fertilizer. All traditional agricultural practices. The result: Mr. Sharma employs 45 labourers at his 20-hectare farm and made enough from this modestly sized farm that he is considered well-to-do in his town. So not only does he stimulate employment in the local economy, but he makes enough money to build a big house. That is a long way from almost offing himself.

And the secret to producing relative wealth off of only 50 acres of land (that is 20 hectares for those like me who find this a foreign unit of measurement)? “I’ve realized that sustainability and diversity are much more important than yield”. Go figure. Just like the people at the All England tennis club discovered the benefits of falconry, an ancient practice to keep pesky pigeons away, the ancient wisdom passed down by generations of farmers remains pertinent to this day.

Innovation is great, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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