Organic Farming Finds a Growing Fan Base in India

International Herald Tribune
June 3, 2011

DEHRA DUN, INDIA — On Thakur Das’s farm in northern India, rice fields stretch into the distance, creating a chartreuse sea of waist-high stalks. Mr. Das, 59, gazed out at the crops on his small farm, about 16 kilometers from the city of 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 Mr. Das’s farm, 10 miles from the city, is organic. He has not used chemical pesticides or fertilizers since 2002, when he joined Navdanya, a nonprofit biodiversity center and organic farm, a few kilometers away, to learn how to farm organically. Since he went organic, Mr. Das said, his crop yields, and his profit, have doubled.

Before Mr. Das switched to organic, one acre, or about 0.4 hectare, of land yielded 600 kilograms, or 1,300 pounds, of rice; now it yields 1,200 kilograms. He practices crop rotation and intercropping, or growing different crops together in the same field, and uses natural pesticides and fertilizer, like compost produced by worms.

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

In India, certified organic farming accounts for only about 1 percent 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 percent of global retail production, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

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 fertilizers and irrigation to significantly increase agricultural production.

Yet over the years, chemical “inputs” — namely, fertilizer 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 U.N. 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 U.N.’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 fertilizer and pesticides, even though the government heavily subsidizes them. For some small farmers like Mr. 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 500,000 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 organization 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, whose chairman is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

According to the report, “a shift to biodiverse organic farming and ecological intensification increases output of nutrition while reducing input costs.” Agricultural output should be measured in terms of “‘Health per Acre’ and ‘Nutrition per Acre’ instead of ‘Yield per Acre,”’ the report says. The paper said that “this should be the strategy for protecting the livelihoods of farmers as well the right to food and right to health of all our people.”

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 kilograms of food per acre, including 400 kilograms of corn and 500 kilograms 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 kilograms 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,” Ms. Shiva said.

The report from the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food pointed out that the Green Revolution had focused primarily on increasing cereal crops that contain relatively little protein and other essential nutrients. “Nutritionists now increasingly insist on the need for more diverse agro-ecosystems in order to ensure a more diversified nutrient output,” it 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.”

A chapter in the 2006 book “Global Development of Organic Agriculture,” co-written by Mr. Rosegrant, said that compared with “high-yielding crops cultivated with the use of fertilizer and pesticides, most organic crops yield less per hectare due to a combination of lower nutrient supply and yield reductions from weeds, fungi, and insects.” The paper cited a study from 28 countries that found “that on average organic yields are 80 percent of those under conventional agriculture.”

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 percent 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 fertilizer and pesticide companies are subsidized.

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, Mr. Bhatt walked past lush rice fields and explained how ginger and turmeric were grown between rows of corn to retain soil fertility and maximize yield per acre.

A botanist by training, Mr. 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.

Mr. 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. He pointed out some okra growing on tall stalks.

Mr. Bhatt bent a stem so a visitor could peer at the large green “lady fingers,” as okra is called in India. “I don’t know why people don’t believe organic is more productive,” he said.


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