By the late ’80s, the chemicals had started taking a toll. Mr. Govindan’s land dried up. Yields declined. Mr. Govindan said the quality of his crops did, too. In the old days, he told me, if you cooked too much rice for dinner you could keep it overnight and eat it the next day for breakfast. Now, rice from the fields around Molasur turned rotten overnight.
Other things had changed: labor was more expensive, the price of fertilizers and seeds had increased, and the overall cost of living had outstripped the rise in crop prices.
How bad is it?
The scientist M.S. Swaminathan, often referred to as the father of India’s green revolution, has spoken of a “disaster” in Indian agriculture. The sociologist Dipankar Gupta has written of “hollowed” villages.
According to a recent report in The Hindu newspaper, almost 200,000 farmers committed suicide between 1997 and 2009 — a national tragedy (although it is rarely treated as such) brought on by rising debt and the resulting economic and existential despair.
So is the Indian government being realistic about the problem?
Mr. Govindan wondered about something else, too. Farming had always seemed a special profession to him, with a vital, even noble, role in feeding the nation. He wondered why the country didn’t see it that way anymore. Just the previous night, he had watched Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on television, assuring the nation that it wouldn’t face food shortages. Mr. Govindan felt something didn’t add up. He pointed to the barren fields; he said you couldn’t even grow peanuts on them anymore. “I don’t understand,” he said, “Where is all the food supposed to come from?”
Well, if India follows the U.S. model, the food will come from a tiny number of agrobusinesses that will end up owning most of the land.
There is a very narrow group of annuals, however, that grow in patches of a single species and store almost all of their income as seed, a tight bundle of carbohydrates easily exploited by seed eaters such as ourselves. Under normal circumstances, this eggs-in-one-basket strategy is a dumb idea for a plant. But not during catastrophes such as floods, fires, and volcanic eruptions. Such catastrophes strip established plant communities and create opportunities for wind-scattered entrepreneurial seed bearers. It is no accident that no matter where agriculture sprouted on the globe, it always happened near rivers. You might assume, as many have, that this is because the plants needed the water or nutrients. Mostly this is not true. They needed the power of flooding, which scoured landscapes and stripped out competitors. Nor is it an accident, I think, that agriculture arose independently and simultaneously around the globe just as the last ice age ended, a time of enormous upheaval when glacial melt let loose sea-size lakes to create tidal waves of erosion. It was a time of catastrophe.
Corn, rice, and wheat are especially adapted to catastrophe. It is their niche. In the natural scheme of things, a catastrophe would create a blank slate, bare soil, that was good for them. Then, under normal circumstances, succession would quickly close that niche. The annuals would colonize. Their roots would stabilize the soil, accumulate organic matter, provide cover. Eventually the catastrophic niche would close. Farming is the process of ripping that niche open again and again. It is an annual artificial catastrophe, and it requires the equivalent of three or four tons of TNT per acre for a modern American farm. Iowa’s fields require the energy of 4,000 Nagasaki bombs every year.