“It costs me the same to farm now as it did before”: the inputs crisis from an agroecological perspective

“It costs me the same to farm now as it did before”: the inputs crisis from an agroecological perspective

Farmers, like Jesús Cabanillas (pictured), who do not use pesticides and synthetic fertilisers are more resilient to rising prices.

(Jesús Cabanillas)

When Jesús Cabanillas left his job as a photographer to take up farming, he was clear about one thing: he did not want his farm to be exposed to the vicissitudes of the international markets. And so, not only did he set up an agroecological farm, he also decided not to use fossil fuels on it. “I wanted a farm that wouldn’t be affected by external factors. And now you can see the difference. It costs me the same to grow now as it did in 2019,” he tells Equal Times.

The rising prices of agricultural inputs are putting farmers around the world under increasing pressure. The cost of fertilisers has tripled in the last two years, according to the World Bank, mainly due to the rise in natural gas prices. Herbicide prices are also rising, with glyphosate, the most popular, tripling in price last year in some regions of the United States. One of the biggest concerns, however, is the price of diesel, which has increased by up to 70 per cent in countries such as Spain and is difficult to come by in Ukraine.

Cabanillas is an unusual case. His vegetable plot is terraced, in accordance with the principles of permaculture, is less than a hectare in size and everything is done manually. “We only use a small amount of diesel three times a year for the brush cutter,” he says. Other agroecological farmers are also thankful for their reduced dependence on fossil fuels and synthetic inputs. “Conventional farmers make a lot of money, but they also have to spend a lot of money and they’re left with nothing in the end,” says Jon Jandai, a farmer based in northern Thailand, who has had an agroecological farm for over three decades.

At his school, the Pun Pun Center for Self-Reliance, Jon Jandai now teaches other Thai farmers how to break out of the traditional market. “Many farmers are afraid of going bankrupt if they try to go organic because they don’t know where to sell,” he explains.

“But we teach them to grow for themselves first and then to sell to others. I want them to realise that when they do conventional farming, it’s like working for someone else, not for themselves,” says Jandai.

“With organic farming, you can set your own price for your product,” explains Shamika Mone, president of the Inter-Continental Network of Organic Farmers Organisations (INOFO). “Whereas conventional farmers run into problems because they have to sell on the usual markets and those markets have their own policy.”

Despite the rising prices of agricultural inputs, the price paid to conventional farmers has not increased proportionally and their quality of life is steadily deteriorating. According to a study conducted in the Indian state of Punjab, farming families, especially those with smaller plots, suffer from food insecurity as the income from their crops is insufficient to cover their basic needs. As agricultural analyst Devinder Sharma points out, while the salaries of teachers in India jumped by 280-320 times between 1970 and 2015 and the salaries of government employees increased by up to 150 times, the wheat prices paid to farmers increased by just 19 times during the same period.

A failed revolution?

Although much of the food produced today is grown on traditional plots of less than two hectares – up to 35 per cent of total production using only 12 per cent of agricultural land – and often with very few chemicals, certified organic farming is still in the minority. It accounts for just 1.5 per cent of the world’s agricultural land, with some 72 million hectares managed by three million farmers in 187 countries, according to the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture FiBL and IFOAM. It has, nonetheless, been growing steadily over the last few years, and in some countries, such as India, the trend was particularly strong, with the area under organic cultivation increasing by 18.6 per cent in 2019.

But the bad press around organic farming in countries like Sri Lanka is making things difficult, as Mone explains. “It has done us a great disservice. Organic farming has many detractors and it has been very easy for them to exploit the situation,” she says. In April 2021, Sri Lanka’s president at the time, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, announced a ban on the import of agrochemicals. The measure, however, was a response to the country’s inability to pay for them, following a long crisis that was made worse by the pandemic. After the ban, some crop yields fell and the crisis worsened in the months that followed. But Mone recalls that the Sri Lankan government had already announced its intentions to promote organic farming in 2015 because of health problems detected in farmers due to the use of pesticides. “It was a gradual process but the story has not been well told,” says the president of INOFO.

When it is well managed, agroecological farming does not necessarily mean lower productivity, especially when crops are combined, explains Jandai. “It is difficult to make farmers realise this because the comparison is not always straightforward,” he says. A study conducted in India and published by Cambridge University supports his view. The report warns that, although little research has been done on the comparative performance of multiple cropping, the results are consistent: the productivity per unit of land of multiple crop plots is higher than that of sole crop plots.

The sales channels are, however, more complex. In the case of the Pun Pun Center for Self-Reliance, the centre itself helps the farmers who have been trained there, more than 100,000 since 2004, to sell their products through a network they have called Thamturakit (fair business, in Thai).

To be part of the network, farmers have to commit to growing multiple crop varieties in line with agroecology principles. Cabanillas, for his part, uses a WhatsApp list to keep in touch with customers to whom he sells directly, something also used in India, explains Mone, along with other social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. “The main problem is that the organic market is very niche, but the handling costs are the same. With conventional rice you can transport large quantities and it works out cheaper. With organic you can only transport small quantities and it works out more expensive,” explains Jandai.

Agroecological projects are also more labour-intensive, especially when no machinery is used. “I’ve been making terraces for three years and I still haven’t finished. I could do it in a morning with a tractor,” says Cabanillas. “It’s very hard at the beginning, but after that the farm practically runs itself.”

This all leads to a higher selling price. “It is still limited to an affluent class that mostly lives in the cities. But we are doing as much as we can to make it more accessible to people from other social strata,” says Mone. According to Jandai, the gap is slowly closing, with the rise in prices for conventionally grown foodstuffs: “The price for our produce is still higher, but it has been more stable, whilst the prices of conventionally grown food in Thailand is skyrocketing.” He is optimistic about the future. “I think there will be less and less difference because more people are interested in organic food,” he concludes.

This article has been translated from Spanish by Louise Durkin