Sustainable Transitions in Farming: Can educational institutions prepare youth for a paradigm shift?
Updated: Feb 14
Recognising education to be an important part of the dissemination of natural farming (NF) practices and processes, the government of India has mandated introduction of NF course content in Agricultural Universities. Will the discussions on curriculum go outside state universities and draw from existing alternatives and innovations, especially from civil society organisations? Learning from a diverse set of practices and embedding them within the broader rubric of agroecological knowledge is what experts agree.
The converging crises of industrial farming systems, as manifested in the problems of excessive fertilizer and pesticide usage, runoff, groundwater depletion and depleting soil fertility is now well recognized by scientists and policy-makers. The imperative to move towards sustainable agricultural practices has taken on a more urgent tone following the Indian government’s decision to allocate a whooping Rs 2.15 Lakh crores in fertilizer subsidies to meet the ever-growing demand of farmers. In a bid to decrease dependence on these inputs, the government has explicitly pushed for the uptake of alternate forms of farming, most notably ‘natural farming’ practices that broadly aim to revive soil health through mulching, adding microbial rich nutrients and maintaining crop diversity. Additionally, the government has also mandated setting up of a committee to formulate a curricula on natural farming, that is supposed to be integrated into all the State Agricultural Universities (SAUs). While the explicit political will is appreciated by grassroots organisations working to promote sustainable farming practices, successful implementation of the desired change also needs to address and engage with the knowledge dimension of sustainable transition.
The formal knowledge architecture of Indian agriculture
The agricultural universities at the state level and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) at the federal level are the two main systems associated with agricultural education and research in India. Agricultural education at state level, post-independence, was part of a mass education system with a rural development focus in the initial decades after India’s independence. A significant expansion of educational institutions happened following the Green Revolution in the late 1960s. The institutional arrangements for agricultural research and extension was focused on the dissemination of knowledge and chemical input driven 'package-of-practices'. The curriculum emphasised increased technological specialisation centred around plant-breeding, genetic modification and a deemphasis of integrated farming systems. Over the years the gap between the knowledge of practicing farming communities and university agricultural graduates widened and there was little space in the curriculum for indigenous knowledge and most innovations from farming communities and civil society organisations were not part of university curriculum. For a profession that requires strong affinity towards the land and rural communities in order to facilitate meaningful and contextual interventions, the training received by the students does not actively promote a positive attitude towards agrarian realities. A preliminary mapping of relevant courses by IRMA of the top 27 State Agricultural Universities across 16 states revealed that they have little emphasis on practical experience for organic farming courses, which in itself just amount to a maximum of 4 credits out of the 161 credits that students need to complete. The live context of technology, policy, rural livelihood and entrepreneurship is thus missing from the curricula.
Learning by doing: A challenge and an opportunity
A key challenge that the entire agriculture ecosystem faces today is the lack of youth participation in agriculture. Tell-tale signs of the intergenerational gaps in knowledge are already visible in our field visits, where most farmers we have spoken to are at least 45 years or above, and rarely speak of any successor. The government of India has launched several initiatives in the recent past, recognising the decline of youth involvement in farming, such as ARYA (Attracting and Retaining Youth in Agriculture) and MAYA (Motivating and Attracting Youth in Agriculture) which started in 2015 and 2018 respectively but have had limited success owing to top-down mechanisms that fail to address ground-level issues of degrading land fertility, lack of sustained field guidance, risky markets and impacts of climate change.
For a majority of the students taking up UG courses, agriculture is not their first preference. The overhauling process of agriculture curriculum offers an opportunity to also generate greater interest amongst the younger generations. Adopting a problem solving approach instead of the present prescriptive approach, in both theory and practice of agriculture university curriculum, could greatly generate interest amongst the younger generation. As Dr A R Vasavi, founder of Punarchith and Dr Ramanjaneyulu, Center for Sustainable Agriculture explained in a discussion panel (Agroecology in University Curriculum: Opportunities and Challenges for sustainable Transition), students need to spend considerable time of their course duration with local farmers, learn agroecological practices from them, understand the local ecology, wisdom and challenges faced by the farmers. This way students not only learn the farming practices but also understand how the different domains of agriculture are interconnected with the local ecology and the extension mechanisms.
Beyond courses: Creating fertile grounds for knowledge exchange
Dr Kandarp Mevada, Director of Research at the Gujarat Organic Agricultural University (GOAU) has high hopes for meaningful inclusion of agroecological practices in universities. During the panel discussion he explained that the PG programme at GOAU has adopted research activities where the students conduct study on the existing organic farming and indigenous farming practices. From these studies they deduce agronomical practices. This helps the students develop deeper understanding and integrate existing curriculum and build evidence-based approaches in agroecology. Similarly, Anshuman Das described how an innovative 6-month course in agroecology offered by the University of Calcutta University in collaboration with Welthungerhilfe allows anyone with a bachelor's degree to learn about farm and food systems through action learning sessions with farmers and experts. Their narratives resonate with our study of Natural Farming Fellows, who are agricultural graduates taken onboard by the Andhra Community Managed Natural Farming initiative (APCNF) to help farmers transition from chemical to natural farming.
Their narratives indicate that practical insights gained through farming and interacting with the community was not part of their undergraduate experience and helped them gain confidence and agency to explore newer practices through on-field collaborations. As part of the discussion panel, one of the discussants suggested that for the UG students curriculum, one of the best ways to initiate the transition process in the present batches is to include organic farming practices are part of their final year Rural Agricultural Work Experience (RAWE) programme. This is an initiative carried out by some institutions such as Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK) Sindhudurg, Maharashtra. Here, the UG students participate in the natural farming training programmes that KVK conducts for the local farmers, and are offered opportunity to practice it on the field for one entire farming season while being mentored by the KVK scientists. Creating such communities for mutual support and learning can also break the disciplinary silos existing in the universities, to instead introduce ecology, soil health and systems perspectives as part of syllabi (as opposed to narrow focus on yields and inputs). Meanwhile, introducing organic farming practices in the school curriculum through support of CSOs and social enterprises such as Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Edible Routes etc offers exposure to the younger generations, thus creating a healthy interest and respect for the practices involved. Despite the manifold adversities, the farming crises also provides an opportunity to empower youth to see themselves as agents of change in the agrarian sector. One can hope that educational institutions play the transformative role of reimagining rural aspirations and livelihood options in India.
Deborah Dutta is a Senior Research Fellow in the Living Farm Incomes project, IRMA.
C Shambu Prasad is a Professor of Strategic Management and Social Sciences at IRMA.