The organic farming conundrum

October 04, 2016 01:43 am | Updated November 01, 2016 10:42 pm IST

Without doubt, India needs to go forward with bio-safe agricultural practices, but the farmers need to be helped to make them sustainable

Reshma religiously mixes cow dung and manure in the soil in her farm, hoping for a better yield at least this time around. Reshma is a 22-year old smallholder farmer in a village outside Hyderabad. She is a part of the growing army of farmers in India who have recently taken the leap from conventional to organic farming with the anticipation of premium returns and healthy farms. In this transition, synthetic chemical fertilizers are replaced with natural and bio-materials, such as neem cake and cow dung, and chemical pesticides are replaced with neem oil and bio- pesticides. All this is done to compete in the global organic market, which is worth $64 billion.

In a rude backlash, in the first year her yields dropped to half and her net income to less than a one tenth of what she made before making the switch. While the second year saw a marginal increase in yield, her net income has only improved to about a third of her previous returns. She is yet to claim the premium promised on her products as they do not fall in the “organic” category yet.

Inputs for organic farming, while cheaper, need dedicated guidance for implementation by novices like Reshma. A disillusioned Reshma today asks a pertinent question: “Of what use is organic farming and its claim of long-term sustainability to me, when I’m unable to bring home two square meals a day today?”

Organic farming promises a lot: it can reduce the detrimental effects of conventional farming while cutting input costs, fetch a premium price on produce, improve soil fertility, promote efficient use of water resources, and provide safe food for consumers. But having worked closely with 8,000 farmers like Reshma in different capacities, I know that the realities on the ground present a stark contrast to this Utopian picture.

While there may be a place for organic farming in India’s future, it is not an economically viable option for the smallholder farmers who make up 80 per cent of the total number of farmers today in India. In fact, I believe that pushing these methods on such farmers can actually do much more harm than good.

Let’s first address the claim that farmers will get higher returns with organic farming. These supposedly higher returns are a result of lower input costs and the realisation of premium prices. While the inputs in organic farming, including bio-fertilizers and organic manure, are often cheaper than their chemical counterparts, this claim masks the true cost and risks involved in switching to organic farming.

In the initial years, yields typically plummet. Farmers find the activity far less profitable due to decreased yields, and the lost income that cancels out the savings from cheaper inputs. In addition, after detoxing the soil, which takes up to three years, farmers have to shell out the equivalent of around $450-600 a year to obtain organic certification. This is a sizeable investment for farmers like Reshma who aspire to take home something like $100-120 a month. In this transition period, farmers are unable to sell produce at a premium because it is not yet completely “organic” by global standards.

It is also clear that even if farmers were to recoup the initial investments, organic farmers are dependent on niche urban markets and export markets. This comes with additional complications, since accessing such markets typically requires contracts with large companies. This means the small organic farmer is not reaching those who pay more for organic products. If we are going to see smallholder farmers benefiting from their investments in organic farming, we need collective farming to bring economies of scale, financial support for small farmers in the initial years, and a better market for the produce. The government recently started offering support for the organic certification process when farmers group together, which is a good start. However, we also need to ensure farmers organise in a way they can enter into contracts and demand a fair price from global companies.

The second claim is that organic farming is inherently safer and healthier. The reality is that because the organics industry is still young and not well-regulated in India, farmers and consumers alike are not only confused about what products are best, but sometimes use products in ways that could harm themselves and their consumers. For example, since organic fertilizers are difficult to obtain on a large scale in India, farmers often use farmyard manure, which may contain toxic chemicals and heavy metals. Certain plant sprays, such as datura flower and leaf spray, have an element called atropine. If it is not applied in the right dose, it can act on the nervous system of the consumer and can even lead to cardiac arrest and paralysis. Unfortunately, how much and when to use it are not well-researched or regulated issues.

Encouragement needed

Right now, there is a lot we can do to improve safety in farming and reduce the impact on the environment without going “full organic”. For example, we can educate farmers about “eco-friendly food” that will allow the use of limited and specified agrochemicals within the safe levels specified by public health organisations. In addition, the encouragement that the government gives for organic farming should be supported by financial incentives during the first three years and market connections for small farmers.

Instead of pushing Reshma to risk it all by taking up organic farming, it is imperative that we strike a middle path to ease this transition period for farmers. We all want a world in which our farmers thrive while taking care of our environment and health. But we must also consider the timing and how we introduce new solutions. Only then can we secure a future devoid of poverty, hunger and malnutrition.

( The author works to help small and marginal farmers. He has been in organic and natural farming since 2011 . )

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