Anupam Verma, who works for a multi-national company in Mumbai, was deeply disturbed after reading a report regarding the presence of poisonous chemicals in conventionally grown fruits and vegetables that he and his family used to eat everyday. The report was indeed scary. It said the consumption of these produce might cause life-threatening diseases like cancer, neurological defects, autism and respiratory and reproductive problems. Verma did not want to take a chance and decided to use only ‘organic produce’, which are presented in the report as a healthy alternative.
Like Verma, thousands of people in Mumbai and other parts of the country are turning to organic products. But the organic produce is burning a hole in their pockets. The so-called organic fruits and vegetables available in the market cost upto 10 times the rate of the conventionally grown food. Here I have used the phrase “so-called organic” because there are doubts about the way it is being produced and marketed. Just a costly certificate does not mean that the produce is healthy to eat, does it? I will discuss about it in details later.
Well, nobody wants to consume poisonous chemicals in food and jeopardise his/her health or the health of his/her family! The use of such chemicals in farming endangers the lives of the rich and the poor alike. So, the first problem lies in the way organic products are marketed and positioned. It is being positioned as a produce meant for an elite class. Its prices simply make it out of the reach of the common people. For example, one piece of organic tomato cost over Rs 10, a small bunch of spinach cost at least Rs 20. Mostly such organic products are priced per piece and not in kg. Prices are so high that only elite rich can afford it.
Some people from the middle-class turn to organic food out of fear or as a caution, but often the high cost forces them to turn back to the conventionally grown produce. So the situation is this: majority of the population cannot afford it because the cost is high; for middle and even upper middle-class it’s considered a luxury product that may be eaten occasionally, say on the weekends.
The focus of the discourse on organic produce has to change. “We can’t treat organic as a luxury—something that we need to eat once in a week or something that niche stores will sell. It has to be absolutely the basis for what we grow,” says Maneka Gandhi, Union Minister for Women & Child Development.
What is Organic?
Simply put, organic products are those grown or made without the use of artificial chemicals. Organic farming should be done without the use of chemically formulated fertilisers, growth stimulants, antibiotics or pesticides. It follows the principle of living organism in which all elements of farming – soil, plants, insects, farm animals and farmers – are closely linked with each other.
United States Department of Agriculture defines organic farming as a system, which “avoids or largely excludes the use of synthetic inputs (such as fertilisers, pesticides, hormones, feed additives etc) and to the maximum extent feasible rely upon crop rotations, crop residues, animal manures, off-farm organic waste, mineral grade rock additives and biological system of nutrient mobilisation and plant protection”.
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) defines it: “Organic agriculture is a holistic production management system which promotes and enhances agro-ecosystem health, including biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It emphasises the use of management practices in preference to the use of off-farm inputs, taking into account that regional conditions require locally adapted systems. This is accomplished by using, where possible, agronomic, biological and mechanical methods, as opposed to using synthetic materials, to fulfill any specific function within the system.”
At a local vegetables mandi in Patna, Bihar, I came across a poor farmer selling bottle gourds and tomatoes. He was ready to sell these vegetables at almost half the price charged at his adjacent shop, but there was hardly any taker. Reasons, his tomatoes and bottle gourds were not “good looking”. When I inquired, he said he had grown those vegetables at the backyard of his house, located nearly 50 km from Patna city. He did not use any pesticides or chemical fertilisers. As a result the growth of the vegetables was uneven. He did not sprinkle any chemicals so the product was looking dull and not shining like the similar products available in the market. He managed to convince me that these vegetables would taste better than those better-shaped and shining vegetables available in the market. The taste was indeed good, and I managed to save money also!
The vegetables, that I bought was totally organic. It was even healthier than the “organic” label products because there was no use of the so-called organic pesticides in it. But why was that poor farmer forced to sell his produce at such a dirt-cheap price? He got less than even the conventionally grown products, not to mention premium for organic.
Millions of farmers across the country face similar problem. They fail to get premium for organic products in absence of certifications.
In several parts of the country farmers don’t use pesticides and fertilisers either due to tradition or they can’t afford it. Their yield is generally low and the produce is not that good looking. Chances are you will buy it at a cheaper price in the market. You are eating a healthy product. It has no chemicals and pesticides. But you won’t have confidence in that product unless it carries “organic” label.
Certification is crucially important to get premium price. But that “organic” label comes with a cost. Even if your product is fully organic, it is not treated as organic unless you pay for that label. Majority of the farmers in India are too poor to pay for such labels. Average size of land holding in India is just around one hectare. Over 80 per cent farmers are smallholders with less than two hectares. Nearly 45 per cent landholders are sub-marginal farmers with landholding in the rage of 0.01 to 0.04 hectares and almost 20 per cent are marginal farmers with landholding in the range of 0.41 to 1 hectare.
According to Krishan Chandra, Director, National Centre of Organic Farming, “organic” label certificate cost in the range of Rs 40,000 to Rs 100,000.
To regulate the certification process for export, import and domestic markets, the government has set up the National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP). There are nearly 20 accredited certification agencies that issue “organic” label certificates.
According to data available with the Agricultural & Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA), the agency responsible for implementation of the NPOP, the total area under organic certification was 4.72 million hectare in 2013-14. Out of this only 0.72 million hectare or 15 per cent are cultivable area, while the rest 3.99 million hectare or 85 per cent are forest and wild area for collection of minor forest produces.
In the financial year 2013-14, the total output of certified organic products was 1.24 million. This included a wide variety of food items like sugarcane, cotton, oil seeds, Basmati rice, pulses, spices, tea, fruits, dry fruits, vegetables, coffee and their value added products. There was also production of organic cotton fiber and functional food products.
If we do state comparison, Madhya Pradesh has covered the largest area under organic certification followed by Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan.
Organic farming can be broadly put in three categories. First category of farmers are those who can’t afford the high cost of chemicals and pesticides and thus stick to the natural or organic way of farming due to compulsion or tradition. The second category is of those farmers who have realised the ill effects of such toxic chemicals on land and produce and thus shifted to
organic. The third category is of commercial organic farmers. They know the market dynamics and are doing whatever possible to get the premium prices.
Produce of the first category of the farmers is truly organic. Majority of the organic farmers are part of this category. But their produce is not certified. So they are not getting any premium price. In fact, getting less. The second category farmers comprise of both certified and un-certified. While, farmers under the third category are mostly certified. These enterprising commercial farmers are attracting most attention.
Can Organic Farming Feed Us All?
Various studies show that average yield in organic farming is lower than the conventional system. Also the organically produced products like fruits and vegetables have lower shelf life as no preservative is used.
According to a United Nations report, food production needs to be almost doubled by 2050 to feed the world’s growing population. Considering this growing need for food, can we afford to shift to a system where the output is lower? So, it’s not just about the quality, but quantity is also crucially important. We must reduce the use of toxic chemicals in farming, but at the same time methods have to be devised where output does not suffer.
Is it possible to have equal or even higher output without using chemicals? Deepak Suchde, who is involved in farming at grassroots for at least three decades, says, yes, it is possible. He suggests that the focus should be on improving the quality of soil. “If you just make the soil healthy, everything else will be taken care of,” says Suchde explaining how he has improved the quality of soil at his base located at Bajwada village in Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh.
He claims that a 5-member family could get sufficient organic food by doing farming scientifically on a small patch of 710 sq feet of land. He calls it Ganga Maa Mandal.
Several organisations and individuals are involved in promotion of organic farming in the country. I, along with a SKOCH team, recently visited a number of such projects in different parts of the country, notably in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to study the organic farming initiatives at the grassroots level.
At individual and institution level some wonderful work is done. At most places people claimed that the output under the organic farming is even higher than the conventional farming. People associated with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) have developed Govardhan Ecovillage, some 108 km north of Mumbai at the foothills of the Sahyadri Mountains. It is located near Galtare village in Palghar district of Maharashtra. People involved in the farming at Govardhan Ecovillage claim that the output is much higher than the conventional farming.
A close study of these projects indicates that output can go up substantially under organic system if it is done properly. However, scalability is a big challenge here.
“We are getting much higher output. The size of bottle guard and several other vegetables that we get here is not possible in conventional farming,” says Sanat Kumar Das, President, Govardhan Ecovillage.
He said the Govardhan Ecovillage actively promotes the organic farming practices like crop rotation, multi-cropping, composting, mulching and use of organic fertilisers and pesticides in nearby villages and areas.
However, such initiatives have its limitations. Its impact will be limited to a handful of farmers or villages. It needs to be taken up at a broader level.
Agricultural scientists explain that chemicals and pesticides are mostly used unnecessarily in the conventional farming. For example, instead of using pesticides to control pest outbreak, the organic methods should be used like altering crop rotation or planting the crop that repel such pest, says Chandra.
Sikkim has emerged as a role model for organic farming. The state is set to turn 100 per cent organic this year. This is a remarkable achievement. Organic farming is practiced on less than 1 per cent of total agriculture land in India. The global average is also not different. Globally, less than 1 per cent of the total agricultural produce is organic. Then how Sikkim managed to turn 100 per cent organic? What is its impact on the farmers’ income and local economy?
Regulatory intervention has played a critical role in it. The state launched Organic Mission in 2003 and immediately stopped imports of chemical fertilisers. Under the Mission, the target is to convert the entire state farming activities organic by 2015. The state started the ground level work in 2010 and is all set to bring its entire 58,168 hectares of cultivable land under organic farming system.
“Sikkim has shown us the way,” says Maneka Gandhi adding, similar intervention at the regulatory level was needed to discourage the use of toxic chemicals and pesticides in farming. The state assembly has passed a resolution seeking to covert the entire farming to organic. The state has set up a dedicated body called Sikkim State Organic Board that promotes organic farming.
Lauding Sikkim’s success in organic farming, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently suggested other states in the North East region to emulate it. “If a small state like Sikkim can do it, why can’t we dream of developing the whole of our North East as an organic region,” Modi asked while replying to a debate in Lok Sabha recently.
Modi expressed hope that the lives of the people of these hilly states will change for better with organic farming.
Amid growing skepticism over the use of conventionally grown food produces, health conscious people are turning to farming at balconies, terraces and backyards. This is gaining momentum in the metro cities.
In fact, backyard farming has been one of the major sources of vegetables in rural areas in the states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. People are now increasingly using whatever available spaces in their house for growing vegetables and other foodstuffs.
Urban terrace farming is gaining currency across the country. Several specialised companies have come up mostly in the metro cities like Mumbai and Delhi to provide terrace-farming services. You just need to make a phone call and everything is ready. These companies will provide you container, soil, seeds, organic compost and whatever else needed for the terrace farming.
Normally a row of beds covered with netting for sun protection and temperature control are made on the exposed concrete terrace for such farming. Popular crops grown at terraces, balconies and backyards are tomato, cucumber, zucchini, okra, chillies, aubergines, bush beans, coriander, among others.
Chemical Fertiliser Lobby
India is one of the world’s biggest consumers of chemical fertilisers and also the third largest producer after the United States and China. Fertiliser is heavily subsidised. The government spends over Rs 700 billion (around $11 billion) annually on fertiliser subsidies, more than half of it goes to subsidising urea.
Because of the scarcity of fossil fuels the country is forced to import over 40 per cent of its fertiliser ingredients. Nearly a quarter of urea demands in the country is met through imports, while the entire requirement of Potassium Chloride (commonly referred to as Muriate of Potash or MOP) are imported as there is no viable reserves of potash in the country.
According to the latest data available with the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers, India imported 70.88 lakh MT of urea worth $1.96 billion in 2013-14. The urea imports bill had touched $3.22 billion in fiscal 2011-12.
Some analysts say a lobby of chemical fertiliser producers doesn’t want the promotion of organic farming in the country. The fertiliser industry is worth billions of dollar.
Maneka Gandhi says excessive use of urea and other fertilisers are not only impacting the soil and food quality but also burning a hole in the national economy. Imports of petrochemicals and fertilisers are among the main reasons for high trade deficit. Gandhi points out that the government can save over Rs 300 billion just by doing away with the subsidies on urea.
However, the solution is not that simple. Cow dung, an important ingredient of organic fertiliser and pesticides, is in short supply. According to the National Centre of Organic Farming, the availability of cow dung in the country is around 1.33 million tonnes. The requirement is for more than 7 million tonnes.
Truth vs Hype
There are two broad concerns related to the conventional farming. First, health risks and the second one is related to its impact on the environment.
Toxic chemicals and pesticides are increasingly being used in conventional farming. In the developing countries like India low quality of chemicals and pesticides are used, which are more harmful. High quantity of these chemicals remains in the produce and its consumption might cause life-threatening diseases like cancer, neurological defects, autism and respiratory and reproductive problems, various studies show.
These chemicals can also enter the human body through inhalation and dermal absorption. This means even if you are not eating such products, you are still at risk of being affected by it through inhalation and touch.
The second concern is related to environmental impact. Toxic chemicals contaminate soil, water and the general environment. It reduces genetic diversity. It erodes the productivity of soil. After a while these chemicals have a little impact on insects. Punjab is a classic example. Chemicals and pesticides have been used heavily since the beginning of Green Revolution in mid-1960s. Soil quality, which was among the finest in pre-Green Revolution era, is in the worst condition today. So the modern conventional farming the way it is being practiced is not sustainable. Organic farming requires high quantities of fossil fuel that leads to greenhouse effect and global warming.
Now the question is, are these problems related to the conventional farming adequately addressed under the organic farming system?
No doubt, the food, relatively free of pesticides and chemicals, are healthier. But the question is, are the “organic” label products available in the markets free of chemicals and pesticides? Organic pesticides are being increasingly used in organic farming. Then what about the contaminated water being used? Then there are question marks on seeds. Smokestacks from nearby factory and drift of pesticides from the adjacent conventional farm also contaminate the organic farming.
There are question marks over the environmental impact also. Take an example: particular fruits and vegetables are produced organically in Sikkim and sold in Mumbai. Carbon footprint of such an organic product will be even higher than those of locally grown conventional products. A lot of fossil fuels are burnt on transportation. Storage is another big challenge.
What Needs To Be Done?
Growing organic products in patches won’t solve the problem. Efforts should be made to gradually shift to healthy, environment friendly and sustainable way of farming. This should be done at broader level and not in patches.
Several pesticides, which have been banned or restricted in other countries, are used extensively in India. Strict steps should be taken to curb the use of such pesticides. Such toxic chemicals endanger the lives of the rich and the poor alike. We can’t afford to have a situation where those who could pay premium get toxic chemical-free produce, while the rest suffer.
Instead of running after the “organic” label farming the focus should be on ensuring sustainable farming. Although, the term “organic farming” has gained currency in the last one decade, it is not new to India. Even today in several parts of the country people practice organic farming as a tradition but it mostly goes unnoticed.
Certification is too costly. A system should be devised where the poor farmers are not required to pay for such certification. Presently, the cost of certification is Rs 40,000 to 100,000. This is not even the annual income of the majority of the farmers. How can we expect this kind of payment from such farmers just for certification?
Corporate lobbies must be kept at bay. Farmers are today victim of the lobby of chemical fertiliser and pesticides producers and dealers. Organic fertiliser and pesticide producers should not be allowed to create similar situation.
Just adding the name “organic” does not guarantee that everything is well. Proper checks and balances are required. This is needed for the ingredients used in the production like organic pesticides and organic fertilisers as well as for the produce.
Organic could be a way of sustainability and self-sufficiency in farming. Farmers should be compensated for the losses they could incur in the form of lower production due to relinquishing the use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers.
Farming at terrace and other unused spaces should be encouraged. There are several unused plots in the city. People just buy it and leave it in hope of price appreciation. Such unused plots should be utilised for organic farming. In fact, municipalities or the other local bodies could consider some sort of taxes or penalty on the owner if the plots remain unused.