Missing neither the forest, nor the trees: Co-creating knowledge for sustainable food systems
Agroecology has not garnered serious academic interest in India, despite interesting practices on the field. The absence of collaboration between civil society organisations practicing agroecology and state agencies keen on promoting natural farming is hindering the wider acceptance and scaling of agroecology. A workshop that presented farmers perceptions on agroecology in 13 districts of Gujarat indicated reskilling by farmers and a reduction in usage of chemical inputs and water but a significant lack of local capacities for community-based extension and farmer field schools in the state.
Co-creating knowledge with civil society and rural youth
In October, 2021 the Small Farm Incomes team held its first workshop on the challenges and opportunities for scaling agroecology in Gujarat. It was followed by a national workshop, where participants from across the country shared their experience of implementing interventions for promoting agroecology. The state and national level discussions brought together multiple stakeholders, and their diverse perspectives to the table.
There are individual initiatives of farmers, entrepreneurs, who have had success in practicing sustainable agriculture in Gujarat. Successful farmers like Sarvdaman Patel or Bhaskar Save are known across the world. Civil Society organizations and activists had also created an organic movement in the state. Gujarat’s government agencies like Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs), the Agricultural Technology Management Agencies, and the agricultural line departments have been involved in the process of promoting agroecological. Nevertheless, the collaboration across institutions to scale up agroecology had been limited.
Following field visits, interactions with stakeholders and based on the interest of the coalition it was felt that a joint survey with the National Coalition for Natural Farming and Aga Khan Rural support Program-India (AKRSP-I) could help us understand how the farmers were engaging with these initiatives, and what kind of practices are prevalent across Gujarat. As this could provide a common agenda for collaboration across sectors.
We decided to work with students of B.Voc Organic Farming from Lokbharti Gramvidyapith in Sanosara. Most of these students are from rural backgrounds from various regions of Gujarat, and through their education, understand the local agriculture well. Six students interned with us to implement the survey. To select the regions to study and reach out to the farmers, we leveraged NCNF’s network of civil society organisations (CSOs).
CSOs work with small farmers, those from remote regions, especially women, who often fail to be included in the government extension system. These organisations nurture their capabilities and improve their access to knowledge and techniques. We were interested in understanding the specific role of these organisations in promotion of agroecological practices. Twelve CSOs, which are part of the alliance, helped us reach 288 farmers across 13 districts in the state of Gujarat. The CSOs not only identified farmers, but also supported in designing the questionnaire, mentoring and training the Lokbharti students in conducting surveys and field studies. The process also helped the students from get exposed to a wide array of practices and institutional structures which determine the choice of agricultural practices of farmers. Further the students also got an opportunity to exchange some of their knowledge and experiences with the farmers they met during this survey.
Farmers in transition: Opportunities for out-scaling
The survey highlighted that, there are disparities based on gender and geography in the levels of experience. Nearly 84% pioneer farmers, with more than 10 years of experience come from Kutch, and only 2 women had similar years of experience in the whole sample. Similarly, these farmers also had larger land holdings.
The survey pointed out how certain practices have had greater uptake among the farmers, while practices which require greater physical labour and/or expertise like preparation of Jeevamrut and Ghan-jeevamrut, remain marginal. In terms of marketing practices, the survey highlights that very few farmers could invest in value addition activities. Although, all the farmers sell their products in the market, but only 36% get premium price in the market.
Nevertheless, the findings point out there are several perceived benefits of all different agroecological practices like health benefits, reduction in water conservation and decrease in input costs. The farmers also mentioned improvement in soil biodiversity after transitioning.
The findings also provide insights on how the extension systems can be improved further. Peer-to-peer learning among the farmers emerged as one of the most important channels for access to information (with about 33% farmers first hearing about agroecological practices from other farmers and with about 30% depending on other farmers for regular information on practices) apart from CSOs who act as the primary source of information for more than 50% of the farmers. Extension systems should work on leveraging these. Many CSOs have established community institutions like FPOs, which can cater to the most marginal sections within the agrarian communities. Moreover, the farmers interviewed, have very little access to government schemes and other kinds of trainings. Creating linkages within the government extensions system, agricultural research system, CSOs can provide the farmers a more supportive institutional setup.
Recognizing the need for collaborative knowledge
On 29th September 2022, the results of the study were presented at a multi-stakeholder workshop. The aim of the workshop was to promote a dialogue among various stakeholders and identify future goals for engagement between the multiple stakeholders.
The workshop was attended by 26 participants representing 9 civil society organizations, 3 academic institutions, and 1 government agency. Such a platform for open dialogue, helped us with critical feedback of the study, while also underscoring the need for greater academic involvement. Veteran social activist Kapil Shah noted that, -
"No other academic institution, I know, has done a study on this topic in Gujarat"
The discussions brought out several contentious issues within the practitioners. For instance, some of them commented on how various terminologies related to agroecology is confusing for farmers and researchers alike. While some wanted to use the principle of exclusion, to arrive at a category of farming – like “non-chemical, non-GMO”, others looked for established definitions from institutions like FAO. The survey created newer questions that participants felt would help foreground issues of small and marginal farmers, as well as women farmers who are often the least likely to receive benefits from government schemes and non-profit interventions. The representative from the Gujarat Organic and Natural Farming University pointed out the need for greater focus on the technical aspects of agriculture. Interestingly, the discussions also helped CSOs highlight their individual contributions and ideas, such as designing game-based instruction manual for farmers, or a catalogue of farm work done exclusively by women.
The dialogue brought out the lack of common grounds for collaboration among the stakeholders, fueled by contesting interests, and absence of definitive evidence. A process of collective knowledge generation can help in bringing together the divergent interests. Documenting and synthesizing the outcomes of such dialogues can help create sustainable institutions for capacity building of the farmers.
From conversations with different stakeholders, we realized that, although there are many disparate initiatives, the farmers of Gujarat are caught between competing streams of information vis-à-vis sustainable agricultural practices. Initiatives mentioned above create spaces for collaboration between these groups can help build local institutions, which is crucial for the scaling of agroecology-based practices through empowering transitioning farmers.
Arnab Chakraborty is a Research Associate with Living Farm Incomes Project at IRMA
C Shambu Prasad is a Professor of Strategic Management and Social Sciences at IRMA