Why organic farming is yet to bear fruit

Despite concerted efforts to promote this alternative system of food production, a majority of agriculturists are yet to jump on the organic bandwagon, as factors such as costs, land size and viability remain sticking points

September 22, 2018 11:47 pm | Updated September 23, 2018 01:07 pm IST - Chennai

 While proponents of organic farming say it is fast catching up with chemical farming, experts are of the view that it can, at best, be used to supplement conventional farming, but is no replacement for it.

While proponents of organic farming say it is fast catching up with chemical farming, experts are of the view that it can, at best, be used to supplement conventional farming, but is no replacement for it.

Nearly 25 years ago, an event held at the American Center Auditorium in Chennai on the topic of the Green Revolution witnessed a lively debate on the merits and demerits of organic farming and “conventional farming”, a euphemism for chemical-based cultivation practices which came into vogue in the country in the mid-1960s.

Though the idea of organic farming was relatively new back then, many participants did raise points about the ill-effects of excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in agricultural production. The winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize and the “Father of the Green Revolution”, Norman E. Borlaug, who spoke at the event from Texas in the U.S., strongly defended chemical farming, and even expressed the apprehension that the total exclusion of fertilizers may lead to famine.

Despite the passage of time and the concept of organic farming gradually taking root in the country, the core characteristics of the debate do not seem to have changed. Farmers do constantly discuss whether the idea makes sense from the point of view of economic dividends.

 

In Tamil Nadu — a State known for being receptive to new ideas, with a long history of irrigated agriculture — the situation is no different from the rest of the country. In fact, it lags behind other southern States in terms of the coverage of organic farming, though there have been reports of organic food products catering to an upwardly mobile consumer base.

In fact, Chennai alone accounts for 400 shops that exclusively sell organic food, according to this year’s State Focus Paper of the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD). The figure may look impressive, but if one were to consider the bigger picture, the concept of organic farming is yet to capture the imagination of a majority of agriculturists in the State.

“It is utopian to think that organic farming could completely replace chemical farming. It is only one of several technologies available to the farming community. Having said that, I do agree that organic inputs have certain benefits, such as enriching soil for microbes. Maybe, to the extent of 20%, you can substitute synthetic chemical fertilizers with them. But not more than that. You cannot do agriculture without chemical fertilizers,” asserts C. Ramasamy, who was the Vice-Chancellor of the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU) from 2002 to 2008, and had worked with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Washington, D.C., for four years in the 1980s.

He says that over the years, the chemical molecules in the fertilizers have been diluted, reducing their toxicity substantially. Clarifying that he is not against organic farming per se, the former V-C, however, feels that at present, it is being promoted through activism rather than through solid scientific work.

Mannargudi S. Ranganathan, general secretary of the Cauvery Delta Farmers’ Welfare Association, engages in organic farming on 40-50 acres out of a total area of 250 acres in Perugavazhnthan village near Muthupet of Tiruvarur district. He says that while organic farming ensures health security, it is “conventional farming” that ensures food security.

There are practical difficulties in upscaling the chemical-free method of farming, says Mr. Ranganathan, who taught geology at the National College, Tiruchi, in the 1960s, before becoming a full-time agriculturist. For example, he points out, the practice of farmers producing farm yard manure themselves and having biogas units has become a thing of the past. “You need to revive these first,” he says.

Also, there are not enough men and material freely available for all these activities. Due to the lack of grazing ground, cattle breeding itself has become a rarity in villages, he says, underscoring the need for making fundamental changes to farming practices.

Policy lacking

There are other hurdles too. The absence of a policy on organic farming is cited as the primary factor impeding its growth. “There has to be a comprehensive policy,” says R. Selvam, State coordinator of the Tamil Nadu Organic Farmers’ Federation, adding that about five years ago, steps were taken to frame one, but to no avail.

As NABARD has mentioned in its report, many States, including Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Meghalaya, have formulated specific policies. Sikkim has been particularly successful in organic farming. The north-eastern State, which began a drive in 2003, went fully organic in December 2015. “It is happening in a small, isolated way in our State too,” says O.S. Manian, Handlooms Minister and an agriculturist himself from Vedaranyam in Nagapattinam district. “I am carrying out organic farming on an acre out of my total holding of 20 acres. Initially, those who have lands would have to practice it as a means of taking care of their immediate requirement for food. That is the way the concept can be popularised,” the Minister explains, displaying a sample of organic rice he had grown on his field.

M. Krishnamurthy, a septuagenarian farmer owning four- and-a-half acres in Pannimadai village near Coimbatore, is into organic farming these days. It was the guidance of local officials that spurred him to take to this method of farming five years ago. Today, he is regarded as a success story, growing crops such as coconut, coffee, pepper, banana and lady’s finger (okra).

As he plays host to a visiting group of farmers and agricultural experts on his field, he says that for the concept of organic farming to succeed, one needs to get a good amount of support from allied sectors such as animal husbandry and fishery. “It is doable,” he emphasises, claiming he is now earning twice what he did under “conventional farming”.

Madhu Ramakrishnan, a farmer with 50 acres in Narikkalpathy village near Pollachi, presents another success story. Originally, he had also been following chemical farming. But when he realised, in the mid-1990s, that his expenses exceeded his income, he decided to make the switch. “For over 15 years, I have been practising organic farming successfully. Except paddy, sugarcane and millets, I have been growing all others,” he says, explaining that he avoids these three crops as he fears that they would be damaged by wild animals, which frequent his farm.

S. Murali, marketing manager of Neelamalai Organics, whose tea estate is located in Yellakandi, about 13 km from Ooty town, also gives an account of how organic farming has helped him achieve “virtually nil production cost”, and says it is ideal for small tea growers. “But for operational reasons, not many prefer it,” he adds.

Mr. Ramakrishnan’s advice to the government is to support farmers for at least the first three years after they migrate to organic farming, called the “conversion period”, as low yield is expected during this period. “The period varies from crop-to-crop. But there has to be government assistance for a minimum of three years,” he feels.

The Agriculture Department of the State is now following the schemes of the Centre to promote organic farming. At present, the coverage is only modest. Besides, the Department is distributing 3,000 tonnes of carrier-based bio-fertilizers and six lakh litres of liquid bio-fertilizers annually.

It is during the conversion period that the process of certification begins, which, many feel, has its own issues. Ananthoo, one of the people behind the Organic Farmers Market at Indira Nagar in Chennai [which functions as a hub for organic products], says the process has limitations. “It is a costly affair. Affordability is a huge issue,” he complains, adding that he prefers trust to any formal process. On occasion, he does refer some samples of products to laboratories to check for the presence of chemicals. “But I cannot do that regularly in view of the cost,” he adds.

Justifying the costs associated with the organic certification process, K.K. Krishanmurthi, president, Indian Society for Certification of Organic Products (ISCOP), Coimbatore, says the procedure involves registration, inspection, review, evaluation and issuance of certificate. “Each process involves a good amount of manpower and dedicated work,” he says.

There is one more agency — the Tamil Nadu Organic Certification Department (TNOCD) — involved in the process. TNOCD, which is part of the State Agriculture Department, covers, on an average, 30,000 acres annually. Cuddalore, Salem and Erode districts constitute nearly one-third of the area certified by the TNOCD.

As of now, certification is mandatory for exports. But with rising health consciousness, the process is becoming essential for domestic sale too, says Dr. Krishnamurthi, referring to the recent move of the Centre making it mandatory to obtain a licence from a competent accredited body or through the Participatory Guarantee System for selling organic products in the country.

As for the profile of farmers engaging in organic farming, the proportion of small and marginal agriculturists following the practice in Tamil Nadu is greater than in other States. “Sections of the agricultural community are convinced of the significance of the alternative system,” Mr. Selvam says, adding that his federation has 10,000 such farmers.

Land fragmentation

Notwithstanding the numerous accounts of success, the concept of organic farming suffers from a lack of incremental growth. Chronic issues plaguing the farm sector are likely to hamper its growth. For example, the growing fragmentation in land-holdings risks making it infeasible. This is why NABARD and TNAU Vice-Chancellor K. Ramasamy advocate the idea of declaring a cluster of contiguously located areas as an “organic region”.

Apart from the Nilgiris biosphere, Javadhu, Yercaud and Kalvarayan hills, where tribals grow millets, can be notified as protected organic zones, they suggest.

The debate on organic farming is far from over. While farmers, like the Handlooms Minister, are of the view that the concept, which is gaining traction, is bound to go from strength to strength, experts, including the former TNAU Vice-Chancellor, say organic farming can, at best, supplement chemical farming.

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