Regenerative Agriculture; a People’s Agenda

In today’s Sri Lanka, the growing poverty of the rural population is one of our biggest problems. Small farmers in Sri Lanka and the rest of the world are being marginalized. Agriculture has been transformed into an activity that requires considerable capital investment. 

It is estimated that over half of all small scale farmers will be reduced to destitution because of market globalization. In India, around 40 million small farmers will suffer that same fate in the next decade. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) target or reducing the world’s hungry people by half by the year 2015 cannot be achieved. Instead, the hungry increased from 840 million in 2000 to over one billion in 2009. People who are excluded from the globalized market since they are not needed by it are called upon to develop their own agenda.

A strategy of the poor to overcome their poverty cannot depend on external capital whether local or international. Whoever invests such capital will have the interest of earning more capital and not of allowing this capital to be distributed or "trickled down" to reduce poverty. Lenders use the process to get what they want. Thus the sovereignty of the people is taken away, and even elected representatives have little opportunity of disagreeing with them.
Therefore, we need to present ordinary people, the majority of whom are poor, with a strategy that addresses their needs directly. It must be economically sound, address social justice, achieve economic sustainability, and deliver true democracy that respects sovereignty of the people and prevents political violence. It should allow ordinary people to take over the agenda of formulating economic policies and political systems that affect them. 

The essential need of the poor is to solve the problem of hunger. Then address health, housing, education, livelihoods and culture. Issues arising from modernization - improving skills and understanding, skills of organization and self-government, needs of advancement and entertainment and so on – must then be addressed.

The most basic need is to guarantee the opportunity to use people’s creative potential, and this can begin now. Dr. Vandana Shiva identifies three different economies in human history, the "economy of nature", "economy of the people" (or the subsistence economy, where people meet their economic needs outside the market) and then the "market economy". Those who cannot survive in the market economy have to maximize their potential in the economy of nature and in the people’s economy where they have considerable comparative advantage.

The fundamental principle of a strategy of non-dependence on capital is to integrate the abilities of human beings, their creativity, with the benefits that are available in nature free of cost. A major transformation of the way food is produced is an essential starting point. 

The priority need is for "survival" and it should be the guiding principle for us all. Concerns such as "sustainability" show that there is an overall threat to survival. But it is necessary to recognize that what the world needs today is not mere "sustainability". Trying to sustain systems that are not basically sustainable is impossible. We need the recovery and restoration of regeneration. 

The Agenda

The agenda of people excluded should be one of survival based on recovering nature’s ability to restore, part of an emerging promotion of "ecological agriculture". This is much broader than the idea of "organic agriculture", which is the production of food without external chemical inputs, or even "sustainable agriculture". We should refer to "regenerative agriculture". We need to restore natural processes. We need nature’s ability to regenerate if humankind and other life forms are to survive.

The natural growth process of a tree or plant is entirely dependent on nature’s free contribution. They absorb sunlight for free, carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, water from rain. There is a completely natural cycle where food is produced in leaves, enough to feed not only the plant, but other plants, animals and human beings as well. Plants grow and give flowers and fruits to feed others. Then they grow old and decay to become part of a bigger process. Decaying leaves, branches and also animals, including their dung, fall to the ground and decay, a process carried out by millions and billions of micro organisms, earthworms and other tiny animals. Top soil is a medium that can sustain these microorganisms, but not if it is eroded either by wind or rain. Microbial activity can also be destroyed by unnecessary ploughing and cleaning of top soil, addition of poisonous external inputs such as weed-killers, pesticides or chemical fertilizer. 

We need diversity to ensure ecological sustainability and regeneration. Insect and plant diversity provides natural balance, natural fertility and natural pest control.

The recycling of organic matter ensures this diversity. It is known that animal dung and urine promote microbial activity. Therefore, we need to combine animals with plants in a proper approach to ecological agriculture. It has also been found that the indigenous varieties of animals, cows etc. give much better results. We should use indigenous seeds since they are much more adapted to local conditions, whereas high yielding varieties require external fertilizer and thus capital.

Experiences in such ecological farming have shown that the overall productivity of land can be equal to, or even much bigger than the type of external input dependent agriculture.

Sri Lanka has a large population of small farmers where such a strategy of "regenerative agriculture" could be followed effectively. 

We cannot continue to depend on imports of food and agricultural inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides. At the moment there is considerable loss of natural soil fertility due to the use of damaging inputs of chemical fertilizer, pesticides and weed-killers; tremendous pollution of water, soil, food and atmosphere, and deaths and illnesses caused by pesticide poisoning; environmental damage caused by unhealthy agricultural and productive activities and loss of immunity caused by chemical contamination of food.

It is now possible to think of an agenda that the poor, marginalized and excluded people could present as their programme. The overall agenda should be that people use a production process that makes the best use of nature’s resources to meet their survival needs first, then their other needs and those of the rest of society. 

Since they have only limited access to nature’s resources, this has to be done in a non-depleting and non-destructive manner. Nature’s regenerative capacity is central. This should be relevant to not only the poor, but also to the rest of the country. It should also be meaningful in the present global context, something that can unite the poor people in Sri Lanka with those in the rest of the world.

Many organisations and people are currently working on a similar agenda. One way of proceeding would be to present a policy document for wider discussion initially among those organizations, and through them to a wider public. This should be done without creating any illusion that the elected president, whoever it is, would carry out such an agenda. 

This has to be a people’s agenda planned and carried out by them. They should claim ownership and it should be based on their experiences. Much of this agenda can be carried out irrespective of what the government does. Practical implementation is the best way of understanding the concepts in depth.


  1. As a small time producer of "organic" paddy in talangama I am fully supportive of Sarath's thoughts on regenerative agriculture. Has "organic" now become just a brand name? to feed the rich in the EU/USA and help them eat healthy?
    Are we denying our people access to this cost effective healthy produce?

    Jomo Uduman


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