A notable announcement would have been made yesterday at this year's Indian Science Congress at Bhubaneswar, Orissa. The rural, tribal belt of Koraput, Orissa which is rich in floral and faunal diversity would have been formally declared as the eleventh “Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System” (GIAHS) by the FAO-UNDP-GEF group.
Each GIAHS is a remarkable land use system or a landscape, rich in globally significant biological diversity. It ranges from the Andean mountain agriculture of Peru, the Ifugao rice Terraces of the Philippines, the Rice-Fish intercropping or co-culture system of inland central China to the Maghrab landscape of Algeria/Tunisia. And, while Koraput is recognized now, the Seppina Bettas system of the use of foliage and leaf-litter system of the Western Ghats in India is waiting to join the GIAHS family.
The key feature in each GIAHS is the people living there. The community has, over the centuries understood, appreciated, respected and preserved the surrounding biodiversity of plants and animals. The gentle wisdom that the people, “the tribals,” have gathered over the centuries can be captured in the motto “everything depends on everything else.”
How is what they do better than current practice of monoculture of the same plant over tens or hundreds of hectares, where yields are pushed to high levels through the use of fertilizers, pesticides and weed killer chemicals? Is it the scale of the thing? Each tribal person farms over a couple of hectares at best, while agriculture companies do so over hundreds.
For tribals, farming is for livelihood while for companies farming is an industry. Thus, what the tribal does in Koraput will not feed billions. To do so, we have to use manufacturing methods — so goes the argument.
Can the twain never meet? Is GIAHS a romantic, feel-good notion, or can we learn from the tribals and attempt to scale their practices, yet in a Green way? Would that not help in cutting down the use of chemicals that on one hand help production but harm the environment on the other? Can there be a “dialogue of wisdoms” between the experiential knowledge of local farmers and the technological expertise of external innovators?
In order to do so, we need hard scientific evidence of the advantages of tribal practice, say of one of the GIAHS. Happily enough one such analysis has just been published in the December 13, 2011 issue of PNAS (U.S.). Dr. Xin Chen and associates from the Zhejiang University, Hangzhou, China have compared the effect on the ecology and environment of two farming practices.
One is the traditional Chinese practice of introducing and breeding fish in rice fields — essentially rice-fish intercropping or co-culturing (RF). The others are the usual rice monoculture (RM) that we have become used to on one hand, and fish breeding or fish monoculture (FM) the current way.
The group conducted a 6-year field survey to assess and compare the ecosystem stability of RM versus RF, using 31 sampling units. They found that RF maintained the same rice yield and constancy (over the 6 years) as RM, but required 68 per cent less pesticide and 24 per cent less fertilizer; clearly more eco-friendly.
In parallel, they compared three treatments without pesticide application: RM, RF and FM. First, they found the yield in RF was better than RM when no pesticide was used. In addition to measuring rice yields (in RM and RF) and fish yield in FM, they also focused on the occurrence of rice pests in RM and RF, and on the interaction between rice and fish in RF.
First, they found that the yield of rice to be higher in RF than in RM in the absence of pesticide application.
Next, they found positive interactions between the rice plant and the fish; the latter benefited rice by reducing insect posts, weeds and disease.
As they bumped against the rice plant stems, they caused plant-hopper insects to fall from the plant, which they ate off.
Manure from fish
And the fish refuse acted as manure and fertilizer for the rice plant. The rice on its part, helped fish grow by offering shade and reducing the water temperature during the hot season anointer-cropping loop of rice breeds fish breeds rice.
I recommend the reader to access the easy-to-read author summary part of this paper through www.pnas.org/ cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas. 1111043108.
Chen concludes saying that their study of the rice-fish co-culture system indicates that modern agricultural systems might be improved by adding species to monocultures through such complementary features.
Here is one example of the possibility of a dialogue of wisdoms. Dr. M S Swaminathan, in his recent Pinnamaneni Lecture in Vijayawada emphasized the three E's in agriculture: economy, ecology and empowerment.
With the Koraput GIAHS, such a fusion of the E's appears possible.
And on a different note, the noted rice scientist E A Siddiq tells me that the Central Rice Research Institute at Cuttack is already experimenting with the rice-fish co-culture method under Indian conditions. Happily the dialogue has begun.
Intercropping has been a time-honoured method where the two crops benefit each other; farmers in many countries practice it with benefits.
Right here in India, intercropping of pigeonpea with sorghum, or pearl millet with groundnut has been successful (thanks to ICRISAT), and coffee with pepper has been successful in Karnataka and at the Araku Valley in Andhra Pradesh.
How does one translate this on a large scale, across tens and hundreds of hectares?
If we succeed in intercropping plants with plants, or plants with animals, modern large scale agriculture could turn greener. Here is a challenge for the coming years.