by Dr. Vandana Shiva – The Asian Age, 19 February 2015

Photo source: (Screenshot)


The paradigm shift to ecological agriculture requires new measures. Agro-ecology is a systems paradigm. It looks at the agriculture system as a whole, with all its complex relationships.

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, physicist and philosopher, Thomas Kuhn revolutionised the history of science by showing that science does not evolve linearly on the basis of objective, theory-neutral facts, instead it is characterised by periodic paradigm shifts, which open up new approaches to understanding, creating new value frameworks. The notion of “scientific truth” is shaped by the paradigm within which “facts” are measured.

Such a paradigm shift is currently taking place in the field of food and agriculture as we move from the industrial paradigm to the emerging paradigm of agro-ecology, or ecological agriculture. The old paradigm is ecologically and socially, broken. It has devastated 75 per cent of the biodiversity, soil, water. Industrial agriculture contributes 40 per cent of the greenhouse gases that are destabilising the climate and is promoted as an answer to hunger and poverty. The opposite is true. Industrial agriculture has failed as a food system that should nourish us. Industrial farms produce commodities not food.

One billion people are permanently hungry, and two billion people are suffering from food related diseases. Industrial agriculture has led to the uprooting of millions of small farmers, who are more efficient and productive than large-scale industrial farms.

Industrial agriculture has been the dominant paradigm over the past century in the Western world, and half a century in India, since the introduction of the Green Revolution. This paradigm has its roots in war. The technology of synthetic fertilisers comes from the technology used during the war for producing explosives. Pesticides such as nerve gases were first used in concentration camps and later as war chemicals. The disappearance of bees and pollinators is a consequence of this war against the bugs. The disappearance of nutritious biodiversity such as amaranth greens and chenopodium is the consequence of the war against weeds with weedicides and herbicides. Genetic engineering is the latest technology offered in the old paradigm of agriculture as war against the earth. And instead of controlling pests and weeds, it has led to the emergence of superpests and superweeds.

This industrial system goes hand in hand with monocultures, and the output of a monoculture is measured in terms of yield per acre. What is never specified is yield of what and at what cost.

The Green Revolution is based on the “high yielding varieties (HYVs)”, as if the yield was independent of inputs, soil and climate. When adequate water and chemical fertilisers are not available, the HYVs do not have high yields. The UN had cautioned that these industrially bred varieties should be defined as high-response varieties since they are bred for responding to intensive chemical inputs, and are not high yielding in and of themselves.

Similarly, farmers’ varieties are not intrinsically low yielding. In any case, a farming system involves more than the production of one commodity crop. Focusing only on the yield reduces diverse outputs of products and ecological services of an agro-ecosystem to the yield of one commodity that leaves the farm.

Neither is the biodiversity in the soil, of pollinators, of diverse foods counted nor the fact that the industrial system uses 10 times more energy inputs than it produces as food is taken into consideration. Also, the externalities of environmental and health hazards arising from the use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides are not counted. The health costs of producing nutritionally-empty commodities loaded with toxics is not counted. The social cost of displacement of small farmers and peasants is not counted.

The paradigm shift to ecological agriculture requires new measures. Agro-ecology is a systems paradigm. It looks at the agriculture system as a whole, with all its complex relationships.

The ecological measures we have evolved in Navdanya reflect health per acre and wealth per acre, instead of the reductionist category of yield per acre.

The study shows that when we grow a richer diversity of crops, nutrition per acre increases. And on the basis of real experience with real farmers, we could produce two times more nutrition than is needed while maintaining current acreage by ecological intensification instead of chemical intensification.

Not only can we grow more nutrition than we need, we can overcome the multiple deficiencies of iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin A etc., that result from industrial monocultures.

For this, the next step being offered by the industrial paradigm are false promises like golden rice and GMO bananas.

Wealth per acre measures the social and ecological externalities that are excluded when only the “yield” of commodities is measured in. Some of these hidden costs add up to more than $1.26 trillion in the Indian context.

And include the economic and social burden on farmers when they become dependent on purchased seeds and chemicals.

External inputs lead to debt, and in the case of Indian farmers, the debt trap has pushed more than 2,90,000 farmers to suicide since 1995 when globalisation “opened” up markets for costly, non-renewable seeds.

Small farmers produce 70 per cent of the food we eat. They help conserve land, water and biodiversity and sustain the climate by recycling carbon.

The reductionist measure of yield is to agriculture systems, what GDP is to economic systems. It is time to move from measuring yield of commodities, to health and wellbeing of ecosystems and communities.

Industrial agriculture has its roots in war. Ecological agriculture allows us to make peace with the earth, soil and the society.

2015 is the year of soil. It offers us an opportunity to make a paradigm shift in the way we think about and the way we grow our food.

The writer is the executive director of the Navdanya Trust