Accepted paper:

Microbes against the market: alternative agronomy, intimate human-soil relationships and the cultivation of food sovereignty among Kerala's zero budget natural farmers


Daniel Münster (Heidelberg University)

Paper short abstract:

Drawing on Polanyi and Marx, I critically analyze an emerging food sovereignty movement that, in the context of agro-ecological crisis, promises hope to small-scale farmers by minimizing market dependence, challenging state agronomy, and new methods of building soil fertility with microbial ferments.

Paper long abstract:

This paper focusses on the Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) Movement among small-scale farmers in Wayanad, Kerala (India). This system of farming, invented and propagated by charismatic leader Subhash Palekar, breaks with conventional methods (chemical and organic farming) of soil management through the application of ferments brewed with the products of native cows. Drawing on theories of the metabolic rift (Marx, Foster) and the work of Polanyi, this papers focuses on the possibility of repairing the rift between human and non-human nature in agriculture under capitalist conditions. It will argue that in the context of a severe agro-ecological crisis in the region this food-sovereignty movement restores hope and a sense of an agrarian future for Wayanad's petty commodity producers. It does so by propagating a low input farming with innovative methodologies of restoring soil fertility with microbes activated by fermenting the products of the native cow. ZBNF is a protective double movement (Polanyi) by insulating farmers from the reliance on credit and commercial inputs. With its methods of restoring fertility and productivity the movement challenges mainstream agronomy, conventional chemical farming and organic farming. The paper will also highlight some contradictory dynamics of its recent adaptation in Kerala and its proximity to right-wing (Hindutva) ideology in its re-evaluation of the Indian (desi) cow, its insistence on "spiritual" relations to "nature" and in formulating its critique of globalization, state agronomy and organic farming in terms of "conspiracy".

panel P038
Soils, seeds and capitalism: political agronomy and the intimacies of farming