Myths hurting organic farming

Deccan Herald, December 21, 2018

By George Cheriyan and Simi T B

The ‘Green Revolution’ brought substantial positive impact initially, in enhancing production. However, within a few decades, the excessive use of chemical fertilisers and practice of environment-unfriendly farming techniques destroyed the fertility of soil. Recognising the importance of adopting more responsible and sustainable agricultural practices to conserve the soil and optimise crop yield, a wave of organic farming began spreading.

While organic agriculture aims to maintain ecological balance and takes a proactive approach, it also contributes to mitigating global warming through its ability to sequester carbon in the soil. The practices of organic agriculture are modifications and continuation of traditional practices infused with modern technologies.</p>

According to the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA), India produced about 1.7 million metric tonnes of certified organic products in 2017–18. This includes all varieties of food products like oil seeds, sugarcane, cereals, pulses, medicinal plants, tea, fruits, spices, dry fruits, vegetables, coffee, etc., and non-edible crops. Still, the area under organic cultivation in India is only 0.4% of the total cultivable area within the country. Worldwide, it is about 2.59%.

This scant growth is primarily because much focus is on export-oriented organic production, without due regard to the domestic market. Even India’s National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP) is set up under the Ministry of Commerce rather than under the Ministry of Agriculture because of this export-oriented approach. It is time to realise that consumers in India are increasingly getting concerned about the quality and safety of the food they are consuming. A need for an inward-looking strategy that encourages organic production for the domestic market, without being biased against exports, is vital.

There is also a need to dismantle the existing subsidy structure that supports indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides as agricultural inputs. Fertiliser subsidies are presently the second highest subsidy provided by the government. Such subsidies can be diverted to provide farmers with organic inputs and establishment of organic supply chains.

Sikkim is an ideal case that showcases successful scaling up of agro-ecology. It is the first Indian state to cultivate and certify fully organic. It began decreasing its subsidy on chemical fertilisers by 10% every year and banned it completely in 2014. Now, the sale or use of such chemicals within Sikkim is an offence punishable with imprisonment up to three months or fine of up to Rs 1 lakh or both.

The myth that chemicals and pesticides are necessary to feed the world must be denounced. Proponents of conventional agriculture claim that organic farming produces lower yields. But most studies have debunked this theory. Farmers like Narayana Reddy in Karnataka prove this. Reddy, a recipient of ‘best farmer in the country’ award in the late 1970s, later gave up using chemical fertilisers and pesticides and stuck to organic cultivation. Though the yield was low in the beginning, it was close to what he had got earlier. Within a few years, he began to reap more than what he used to get using chemicals. His phenomenal success resulted in global attention.

Another common misconception is that organic products have to be more expensive than their conventional counterparts. The fact is, in most developed countries, they are not. In India, organic foods still pinch the pocket for various reasons, like export-oriented production, high accreditation cost, low supply and high demand. These factors need to be addressed to bring prices at par.

There is a need to support and guide farmers during transition to organic farming. Such guidance can reduce the financial burden that a three to five-year transition period could impose. In countries like the US, the provision of transition certification exists. That means, the food was grown on a farm undergoing transition from conventional to organic production. This is a way to increase availability of foods that are produced more sustainably and get better value for the producers. Currently, demand for organic foods exceeds supply.

Once the myths of ‘low yield’ and ‘expensive’ recede, it is up to the agricultural researchers, officials and governments to invest in long-term sustainable agricultural systems. Most of the successes of the organic movement over the past decades have been achieved through the vision and enterprise of individuals and local farming groups.

If government, too, actively collaborates with the organic movement, the beneficial impacts of organic farming systems can be further improved. More importantly, our farmers can increase incomes and thereby break the cycle of indebtedness that has devastated farmers’ livelihoods throughout the country. For an expansion of organic agriculture in India, other than mass awareness campaigns, the right kind of policy and institutional support is vital.

(Cheriyan is director and Simi is policy analyst at CUTS International, a global public policy research and advocacy group)

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