France And India: The Beautiful Farms Are All But Dying


The cover story of the latest issue of the Time magazine "The French Farms: Beautiful but in Danger" had a blurb which says it all: Hit by a shrinking agricultural sector, falling prices and diminishing European Union aid, French farms have learned to adapt -- or die." The more I gleaned through the pages of the cover story, the more I realised how true it is for agriculture in India or for that matter in other parts of the world.

The scale and size of farming may differ but agriculture across the globe is shrinking, and farmers are being pushed out of farming.

Several years back, one of the stalwarts of Indian agriculture, the late Dr M S Randhawa, had told me: "The real culture of Punjab, is agriculture." Why am I telling you about Punjab is because it is the food bowl of India, with a lot of creative writing centering around the romance of agriculture. That romance has certainly disappeared over the years, and today Punjab agriculture is on a death-bed. So when the Time article states: "La France profonde, an almost untranslatable term, conjures up the idea that the 'real' France is rural France," I can understand what it portrays to convey.

The beautiful farms of Punjab are also dying.

As the article says: "François Purseigle, an expert in rural sociology and an agriculture professor at the National Polytechnic Institute of Toulouse, says that fully half of France's active population worked in agriculture at the turn of the 20th century. But the sector has shed 4 million jobs in the past 40 years, and now accounts for less than 3% of the national workforce. Purseigle says the number of farms in France has plunged from 2 million in 1960 to around 657,000 now, and only 346,500 of those are classified as professional operations under cultivation."

This is true for India too. Over the years agriculture has been shrinking. Its share in country's GDP has also been on a steep decline. Roughly 57 per cent workforce is still engaged in farming as per official estimates, down from 70 per cent some four decades back. There are still 600 million people directly engaged in agriculture, and the mainline economic thinking is to cut it drastically. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh feels that India needs to offload about 70 per cent of the workforce engaged in agriculture.

What is happening in France is also happening in India, and in fact in a much more worrisome way. The continuing apathy and neglect of agriculture has led to a massive increase in farmer suicides (which I find is a tragedy that also confronts rural France) and the marginalisation of the farming communities. Following the World Bank prescription of land rentals, India is on a fast forward approach to acquire farm lands for industry and real estate.

A third of India is faced with an unprecedented social unrest, a direct outcome of the destruction of agriculture and forestry, which I strongly feel is the first line of defence against Maoism. And yet, economic policies are aimed at reducing the dependence on agriculture, and shifting the focus to industry, manufacturing and services. Those who will stay back in agriculture will conform to 'an industrial mind-set to agriculture by relying on massive production, using dwindling numbers of farmers to cultivate multiple holdings that were abandoned by retiring neighbors, and raising crops for wholesalers who supply food-processing companies.'

So for many, as the authors say, 'the choice is now a stark one: find some new way to make ends meet, or risk being a victim to a farm sector that's predicted to shrink.'

I recall former Agricultural Commissioner and Vice-Chancellor Dr D R Bhumbla used to say that although everyone says that life in rural areas is healthy and uncontaminated, but no one actually wants to migrate to the countryside. "Even my grandchildren do not want to visit me during their summer holidays. They expect me to join them in the city instead. One reason is that at least for 12 hours a day, they have to do without electricity on my farm, which is intolerable for those who have got used to this luxury or necessity as you deem it fit." I was reminded of what Dr Bhumbla used to say when I read in the Time article: "A vacation in the country 'is something that appeals to people with memories of childhood summers spent on their grandparents' farm, or who want their children to see what farms are like,' says Marie-ThÉrÈse Lacroix. But as a business, she continues, it is 'too small to turn back the trends we've seen in recent decades. No one wants to inherit family farms because it's too much work for too little money, and that's emptying the countryside.'

There are so many parallels that one can draw from the analysis, but one thing is crystal clear -- there is a deliberate effort to kill agriculture. Globalisation is designed primarily to push farmers out of farming, and to replace food farming with the concept of 'farm to fork' kind of agribusiness. The fundamental fault lies with the way economists compute the gross domestic product (GDP). It does not factor in the cost and benefit of the prevailing farming systems, the food cultures, and the cost of protection and preservation of the environment by farmers who tend the farms.

For any progressive society, the erosion of the farms should come as a loud warning. We are fast moving towards a future where the romance of food is all set to disappear. Food choices are becoming increasingly narrow, and the entire food chain -- right from the farm to the fork -- is coming under the yoke of agribusiness. This is a frightful future, and I fail to understand why our political leaders remain blind to the food disaster that awaits the world.

Probably this is because people have become indifferent to the food crisis. As long as they can stuff themselves with cheaper food products nicely packed and wrapped, they believe all is well. This is what the food industry has managed to convince the masses with. Again, as I said earlier, it is linked to GDP growth. The more the harmful processed foods you eat, the more is the sale of pharmaceuticals; and the more is the sale of medicines and hospital treatments, the more is the need for insurance cover. No wonder, the insurance industry has pumped in $ 2 billion in food stocks.

We are becoming a victim of GDP.

Devinder Sharma is an Indian journalist. This article first appeared on CounterCurrents  The photo is by Jankie