Research can make or break rainfed farming

Food Security02 Dec 2008Ellen Lammers

What are the problems facing smallholder farmers in drought-prone areas in India? And how can research contribute to solutions? Dr. Y.V. Malla Reddy of Accion Fraterna (AF) Ecology Centre argues that agricultural research should change its vantage point towards the livelihoods of farmers. Research and policy today focus on high-tech solutions for irrigated cash crops. This bias threatens the survival of rain-fed farmers.

Dr. Y.V. Malla Reddy

Dr. Y.V. Malla Reddy is the director of Accion Fraterna (AF) Ecology Centre in Anantapur, India. He has been with the organization for 35 years, having started as a grassroots worker to finance his evening studies in law. Malla Reddy has served in government commissions on farmers’ welfare at both state and national level, including commissions conducting research into the rising numbers of farmer suicides. Malla Reddy earned a doctorate in human resource management from Sri Krishnadevaya University, Anantapur. He was a Fulbright Fellow of the Indo-American Environmental Leadership Programme (IAELP), invited to study agriculture and drought management in the US in 2006.

AF Ecology Centre is an agricultural NGO working in southern India. What is the situation for farmers there?
We work in Anantapur district in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Anantapur is the second-most drought-affected district in the country. Yet agriculture there is predominantly rain-fed; only 10% of farms are irrigated. The farmers we work with are smallholders, owning less than ten acres of dry land each. Their situation is precarious because of the twin problems of drought and poverty in Anantapur. The majority of farmers cannot earn a living from what their farms produce and have to work part-time as labourers for middle class farmers or for government programmes such as the National Employment Guarantee Programme. On average, the Anantapur district gets struck by three years of drought in every five years. In those years the yield is typically only a quarter of what would count as a proper harvest.

What can AF Ecology Centre do for these smallholders?
We work with 60,000 small farmers from 230 villages. We try to help them go back to ‘the agriculture of our forefathers’; that is, to natural, sustainable and organic farming methods that have been adapted to present conditions. We want to free agriculture from high-cost high-tech, big machines and polluting chemicals, and we want the farmers to have control over the production processes. Our vision is to see that small farmers with rain-fed land are free from distress and the environment free from polluting chemicals. This is quite the opposite of what is generally happening with agriculture in India today.

Agriculture on the Indian subcontinent is increasingly mechanized, high-tech and chemicals-based. Cash crops and monocrops are the order of the day. Ninety percent of Anantapur district’s farmland is covered by groundnuts. But monocropping is bad for the health and long-term productivity of the soil. Over the last few years the groundnut harvest has been disappointing – due to drought, but also because of distortions in soil nutrients. And plant diseases are increasingly difficult to control with insects’ growing resistance to pesticides.

We strongly believe that large-scale, high-cost and highly mechanized monocropping is not what small farmers in areas of drought need. In fact, it is mindless. Small farmers cannot afford the large investments needed to acquire big machines, chemical pesticides and fertilizers. When harvests fail, farmers are left with enormous debts that they have no means to pay off. Many farmers are severely depressed, and we are now witnessing the devastating consequences. Five hundred farmers in Anantapur committed suicide between 1998 and 2003. The district still has one of the highest rates of farmer suicide in India. That shows the depth of the crisis in farming in Anantapur.

How can research contribute to your work and to the lives of farmers?
AF Ecology Centre supports a Low External Input and Sustainable Agriculture (LEISA) approach to farming in drought-prone areas such as the Anantapur district, where 90% of farmers are smallholders. The focus must be on developing low-cost, integrated, sustainable farming systems and achieving food security at the household level. This requires a lot of ground work and a favourable policy environment, and indeed also a lot of relevant research and development.

Current agricultural research in India is highly biased toward irrigated crops such as wheat and rice. It has very little relevance to the problems of rain-fed agriculture and particularly those of smallholders, whose situation is almost totally neglected.

So, first of all we need research that prioritizes the drought-prone, poverty-stricken areas. Questions that need answers are: which crops and practices withstand droughts and low rainfall, and which breeds of livestock are sustainable in these areas? Which short-duration crops will do well in areas where the rainy season is only a maximum four months? How can poor soils in these areas be improved and their nutrient value enhanced to revert the detrimental impact of years of monocropping? We at AF Ecology Centre are already working with farmers to promote LEISA. We focus on crop diversification, biomass rebuilding in the soils and biological control of pests and diseases. It is a little more work for the farmers, but it saves them from high crop investments and the risks of borrowing money at exorbitant rates of interest. And it is much friendlier to the environment.

What do you think of current approaches to research?
I think research should shift its focus to the specific local context. India needs research carried out from the vantage point of the very people who, with their low educational levels, have to eke out a living from dry and marginal lands. If research keeps aiming at further mechanization and high external farm inputs, these small farmers will be the definite losers. They will be forced to leave the land, but they have no other options for earning a living. The cities do not offer a dignified future for illiterate or semi-illiterate farmers.

Research that focuses on improving the livelihoods of farmers must look at the possibilities of integrated and sustainable farming systems: with mixed crops, backyard livestock, poultry and fisheries as additional sources of income to achieve day-to-day food security. Research must address what local breeds of livestock perform best in arid regions and give milk and meat. The famous exotic breeds like Jersey cows and Murrah buffalo are not necessarily the star animals for all dry regions of India.

We lobby with government and agricultural research institutes to think from the local perspective and to prioritize the themes of research differently. We need an alternative approach to the present dominant paradigm. It is an uphill struggle but a crucial one, because the research that is done today may develop agriculture, but it will destroy the lives of many farmers.


Unfortunately, due to the age of this contribution and several migrations to online content management systems, the footnotes in the text may have been lost. The footnotes below are listed in its original order of appearance in text.
  1. See the website of LEISA.