INDIA is predominantly an agriculture driven economy. Its arable land area as per 2011 data was 159.7 million hectares or 394.6 million acres, which is the second largest in the world after the United States of America. India has a gross irrigated crop area of 82.6 million hectares or 215.6 million acres, the largest in the world. Organic farming has been practised for thousands of years. world over. The Industrial Revolution brought in both mechanisation and inorganic practices to improve the yields, which led to serious side effects. Concerned with the side effects of inorganic farming, a movement began in the 1940s to go back to the basics and focus on organic farming practices.
In Germany, Rudolph Steiner’s development, biodynamic agriculture was probably the first comprehensive system of what we now call organic farming. The term “organic farming” was coined by Walter James (Lord Northbourne), a student of Biodynamic Agriculture in his book Look to the Land, which was published in 1940. In this book James described a holistic, ecologically balanced approach to farming, “the farm as organism” basing it on Steiner’s agricultural principles and methods.
One nation that had made a remarkable transition towards organic farming is the USA. USA has witnessed a 56 per cent increase in certified organic farms during 2011-2016 and these farms and ranches have sold nearly $7.6 billion of certified organic products in 2016, up from $3.5 billion in 2011. The role of the large corporations like General Mills, Ardent Mills in increasing organic acreage has been laudable. These companies aim to double organic wheat acres in the US from the current 260,00 to 520,000 by the end of this year. USA realised soon enough that the biggest challenge to increasing organic farming acres is the three-year transition that the farmers must make to become organic. During these years. the farmer cannot use chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and options for farmers to sell their transitional crops are often limited. The Organic Traders. Association (OTA) of US has worked hard towards easing the challenge by working with the US Department of Agriculture to create a Certified Transition label programme.
In the Indian context, the total area under organic certification process (registered under National Programme for Organic Production) is 3.56 million hectares (2017-18), this includes 1.78 million hectares (50 per cent) cultivable land area and another 1.78 million hectares for wild harvest collection. India has produced around 1.70 million MT (2017-18) of certified organic products which includes varieties of food products namely oil seeds, sugarcane, cereals and millets, cotton, pulses, fruits, tea, coffee and many more where the success is limited. The total volume of exports during 2017-18 was 4.58 lakh MT. The organic food export realisation was `3,453.48 crore (USD 515.44 million). In terms of export value realisation, oil seeds (47.6 per cent) lead among the products, followed by cereals and millets (10.4 per cent), plantation crop products like tea and coffee (8.96 per cent), spices and condiments (7.76 per cent) and so on.
A study has found that Sikkim, which is the country’s first organic state is facing a lot of challenges. The state after phasing out chemicals was not complemented by a simultaneous increase in availability of and access to organic manure. Farmers have been facing challenges of low productivity during the transition from inorganic farming to organic. The incidence of pest attacks on organic crops is another major cause of their low productivity.
The challenges in converting from inorganic farming to organic farming are numerous but the prevalence of high amount of pesticides and insecticides, and the diseases that result during and post usage is reason enough to make this change. It is difficult to ascertain the health impact due to inorganic food consumption, resulting from the toxic exposure to pesticides and if someone was to do a detailed analysis, the figures could be mind-boggling. These substances are directly responsible for an array of health problems for the farmer and consumer alike, and include Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, hormone disruption, birth defects, sterility along with a series of adverse neurological side-effects.
India has approved 280 pesticide modules for use in its farms. It is reported that at least 99 of these molecules seem to be banned in other countries. Seven hazardous pesticides that include Monocrotophos, Oxydemetonmethyl and Carbofuran are on the list of 18 Class-1 (classified as extremely/highly hazardous) and account for 30 per cent of the total pesticide use in India (2015-16). Another challenge is that spurious, mis branded or unregistered pesticides were estimated to account for 25 per cent of the value of `27,000 crore agrochemical industry, according to a report prepared by the FICCI-TATA strategic management group 2015.
The transition from inorganic to organic farming involves giving up the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, genetically modified organisms among other things, all of which raise the productivity from land but at the cost of the environment and health of the farm workers. and the consumers. This transition entails huge challenges for the farmer and if we take the case of a farmer in Sikkim (India’s fiRs. t organic state), who grows pulses and maize on his small farm of 0.6 hectare, he witnessed a sharp decline in his productivity after transitioning to organic farming, earlier he would grow 280-300 kg or pulses and now he is barely able to grow 80-85 kg. Similarly, another farmer who grows ginger and cardamom on his 2 hectare farm saw his ginger production plunge by two-thirds after transitioning and he blamed it on the diseases to which the crops become susceptible as no chemicals are allowed to be sprayed.
Pradhan and his farmer’s co-operative in the village of Rhenok, in eastern Sikkim went organic in 2007. His first few years were disastrous as the crops failed and as late as 2016, he was incurring a loss of `1 lakh every year.
According to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, productivity on an average dips by 6.7 per cent in the first year after transition. The report on Doubling of Farmer’s Income by the Ashok Dalwai committee, too, echoes the concern of the farmers who claim up to 30 per cent drop in yields when embracing organic farming. The committee goes on to say that it takes about a decade to attain pre-conversion yield levels.
A case study from Punjab, A Comparative Study of Cost and Profitability of Conventional and Organic Wheat in Southwest Punjab, in 2013 found that the per acre produce of organic wheat was 9.18 quintals as compared to 16.74 quintals produced by inorganic means, in addition, the cost of seeds was much higher in organic farming and therefore it was a huge challenge to maintain national food security through organic wheat cultivation. This poses a challenge for the policymakers. to balance between safe food and pure food and, therefore, a calibrated approach has to be adopted, one that consistently make progress towards safe food without compromising on the food security challenge.
To give further fillip to organic farmers, it will be critical to create adequate agricultural infrastructure as a large percentage of organic produce consists of fruits and vegetables. We need to push for additional investments in this space both through the state and the private enterprises. This will ensure that these products are saved from rot along with keeping their original taste and quality.
Whilst a direction towards pure food is critical, there is a need to create a market for organic food by sensitising the consumers on a mass scale about the health benefits of organic. This will ensure that the farmer is duly compensated for his efforts towards clean and healthy food production. It needs to be understood, that most of the organic farmer’s efforts are directed towards producing products that deliver superior health for the consumer. The consumer’s need to understand that ultimately he is bound to benefit from the efforts of the organic farmers and should not mind paying a little extra for these superior products. The government too needs to recognise that investments in and promotion of organic farming will reduce the health costs for the nation. Eventually, it will be a win-win situation for the farmer, consumer and the government.
The writer is Sr. Vice President, ITC Ltd – Views expressed here are personal