Organic farming finds a growing fan base

Organic farming finds a growing fan base

On Thakur Das’ farm in northern India, rice fields stretch into the distance, creating a chartreuse sea of waist-high stalks. Das, 59, gazed out at the crops on his small farm, about 16 km from Dehra Dun, where he grows rice, wheat and corn in rotation, as well as turmeric and beans. It looked to be another plentiful harvest. “Too much growth,” he joked.

The bounty was all the more fruitful because Das’s farm is organic. He has not used chemical pesticides or fertilisers since 2002, when he joined Navdanya, a nonprofit biodiversity centre and organic farm, a few kilometers away, to learn how to farm organically. Since he went organic, Das said, his crop yields, and his profit, have doubled.
Before Das switched to organic one acre of land yielded 600 kg of rice; now it yields 1,200 kg. He practices crop rotation and intercropping, or growing different crops together in the same field, and uses natural pesticides and fertiliser, like compost produced by worms.

“Organic is the best bet. Taste is different. Size of grain is bigger,” said Das. “Most farmers use chemicals. Soil is totally dead.”

In India, certified organic farming accounts for only about 1 per cent of overall agriculture production, according to the Indian Agricultural Products Export Development Agency. Organic farming is still small worldwide, as well; it accounts for less than 2 per cent of global retail production, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.
But as food prices rise around the world, agriculture has moved to the top of the global agenda after decades of neglect from policy makers and investors. India’s Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s used high-yield seeds, chemical fertilisers and irrigation to significantly increase agricultural production.

Yet over the years, chemical ‘inputs’ — namely, fertiliser and pesticides — have depleted soil, and inefficient irrigation has caused water tables to plunge in many parts of India. For many farmers, crop yields have fallen even as India’s food demand has increased. Now farmers and experts are looking for improved farming methods. In some cases, this means a back-to-basics approach.

A paper submitted to the UN General Assembly last December highlighted the benefits of ‘agroecology’ — otherwise known as organic farming. “Agroecology delivers advantages that are complementary to better known conventional approaches such as breeding high-yielding varieties. And it strongly contributes to the broader economic development,” the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food wrote.

In India, agriculture has always been an important topic, even if methods remain largely outdated and manual. More than half of the country’s population of 1.2 billion relies on agriculture for a living. Hunger and food security are also pressing, perennial issues for hundreds of millions of poor Indians. Malnutrition rates of children under age 5 is higher in India than in sub-Saharan Africa. Suicides of struggling, indebted farmers claim newspaper headlines each year. In India, rising food prices are particularly politically sensitive; the affordability of onions, a staple food here, is an unofficial but critical barometer of public sentiment in election years.

The vast majority of farms in India are small — three acres — and farmers can be burdened by the cost of fertiliser and pesticides, even though the government heavily subsidises them. For some small farmers like Das, organic farming makes sense if farmers are given training, support and linked to markets with affluent customers.

Navdanya, which is leading the charge for organic farming and biodiversity in India, has trained 5,00,000 farmers in sustainable agriculture in 16 states across India since it was founded in 1987. It also set up the largest direct-marketing, fair-trade organic network in the country and has established seed banks to preserve indigenous seeds. Navdanya sells its products in stores in Delhi, Dehra Dun and Mumbai.

The organisation says that “ecological agriculture is highly productive and the only lasting solution to hunger and poverty.” A new report from Navdanya, called ‘Health Per Acre,’ was released in New Delhi in March by Syeda Hameed, a member of the Indian Planning Commission. According to the report, “a shift to biodiverse organic farming and ecological intensification increases output of nutrition while reducing input costs.”

Vandana Shiva, the Indian environmentalist and advocate who founded Navdanya, claims that organic farming produces more food and nutrition than conventional methods. Through intercropping, one organic farm could produce 900 kg of food per acre, including 400 kg of corn and 500 kg of beans and other crops, according to Navdanya’s studies of the farms of its members. A comparable conventional farm growing one crop would yield 500 kg of corn but would lose the other products.

Organic farming produces “twice the amount of nutritional needs by intensifying biodiversity rather than monoculture and chemicals,” Vandana said.

But some agriculture experts say that while organic farming has benefits, it cannot make a significant dent in total agricultural demand. Organic farming is an important niche market with big potential near major cities. But it is “not a general solution to malnutrition at all,” said Mark W Rosegrant of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington. “You have to put inputs in to get yields. To move fully to organic, you are going to lose productivity.”

There are other barriers to the growth of organic farming in India. Organic certification from international agencies is expensive and bureaucratic. A shift to organic farming requires extensive training and support for farmers who are largely uneducated. Farmers must be connected to markets and shops that sell their goods, usually in cities with wealthy consumers -— no small feat in India where roads and infrastructure are poor.
Organic food is at least 30 per cent more expensive than foods produced by conventional methods. In India, there is no financial support from the government for organic farming, while the majority of fertiliser and pesticide companies are subsidised.

But if organic farming reached a greater scale, prices would fall, said Vinod Bhatt, a director of Navdanya. As he led a tour of Navdanya’s tranquil 45-acre farm near Dehra Dun, Bhatt walked past lush rice fields and explained how ginger and turmeric were grown between rows of corn to retain soil fertility and maximise yield per acre.

A botanist by training, Bhatt said rice should not be grown in successive seasons but should be alternated with peas, wheat, corn and mustard over two years to keep the soil fertile. Marigolds planted on the edge of the field help keep pests away, as do lantana plants and neem trees, and mixtures made of cow urine and worm secretions, he said.
Bhatt joined Navdanya in 1997, and he recalled that interest in organic farming was limited back then. Now, “farmers are coming to us because they can see the results,” he said.

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