In India, farmers find that benefits of pesticides and herbicides may come at a tragically high cost
JAJJAL VILLAGE, INDIA—Four decades after the so-called Green Revolution enabled this vast nation to feed itself, some farmers are turning their backs on modern agricultural methods—the use of modified seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides—in favor of organicfarming.
This is not a matter of producing gourmet food for environmentally attuned consumers but rather something of a life-and-death choice in villages like this one, where the benefits of the Green Revolution have been coupled with unanticipated harmful consequences from chemical pollution.
As driving their actions, the new organic farmers cite the rising costs of seed, fertilizer, and pesticides, and concerns that decades of chemical use is ruining the soil. But many are also revolting against what they see as the environmental degradation that has come with the new farming techniques, particularly the serious pollution of drinking water that village residents blame for causing cancer and other diseases.
“People are fed up with chemical farming,” says Amarjit Sharma, a farmer for 30 years who began organic farming four years ago. “The earth is now addicted to the use of these chemicals.”
For now, their numbers are small, perhaps 5 percent of farmers around the agricultural region in the Punjab state, known for its cotton production. But this is a trend that could become important if their numbers grow and cut into India’s agricultural productivity in an era of tightening global food supplies.
Starting in 1965, India’s Green Revolution transformed the country’s few fertile regions into veritable breadbaskets, quadrupling India’s output of wheat and rice. The revolution brought new irrigation techniques, hybrid seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and mechanization. Punjab’s farmers became heroes of a self-sufficient India no longer dependent upon shipments of foreign grain and making a clean cut with a past full of mass starvation and food aid from the United States.
Times have changed, says Prof. R. K. Mahajan, an agricultural economist at Punjabi University. “The Green Revolution is not as green as it was earlier—it has now become brown and pale,” he says. “The profit margins have skewed to the minimum.”
The Green Revolution hardly seems to have made much of an impact in terms of well-being here. Rural poverty abounds, malarial mosquitoes breed in stagnant pools of water, and bullock carts far outnumber motor vehicles.
And behind the walls villagers speak of cancer, which they say is on the rise along with other ailments such as renal failure, stillborn babies, and birth defects that researchers attribute to the overuse and misuse of pesticides and herbicides. Punjab represents only 1.5 percent of India’s geography but accounts for nearly a 20 percent share of its pesticide consumption.
In many cases, rural farmers don’t know proper usage and disposal techniques, with few using protective clothing or equipment when handling highly toxic chemicals. In farming villages, pesticide containers are sometimes reused as kitchen containers. And many farmers assume that applying more pesticides and herbicides is better, without understanding that the heavy use is gradually poisoning water supplies.
Lying under a tree on a charpoi, a traditional bed made of taught rope, Santosh Rani, 30, believes she is one of the victims. “I have cancer,” she says, her voice barely above a whisper as she clenches her stomach. Since 2001, 40 people have died from various forms of cancer in Rani’s village of about 3,300; until 10 years ago, village residents say cancer was very rare or at least largely unknown by villagers who now regard it as a menace stalking all of them.
Some research does support their fears. A recent Punjabi University study found a high rate of genetic damage among farmers, which was attributed to pesticide use. The study found DNA damage affecting a third of the sample group of 210 farmers spraying pesticides and herbicides, a level apparently unaffected by other factors such as age, smoking, and dietary habits. A second study, also made public this past year, found widespread contamination of drinking water with pesticide chemicals and heavy metals, all of which are linked to cancer and other life-threatening ailments.
The government’s top civil servant for health and family welfare in Punjab, Health Secretary T. R. Sarangal, says more time is needed to study the problem. “Certainly, we are in a danger zone as far as the toxicity and danger of fertilizers are concerned,” says Sarangal. But the last time cancer rates were measured officially in southern Punjab—about seven years ago—the rates were actually below the national average. The state government is now commissioning two new cancer survey studies in an effort to document the extent of the problem, and it is also financing two new public-private partnerships for the construction of cancer hospitals in Punjab.
“It is a perception by the hospitals and by the households that cancer rates are much higher than in previous decades,” says G. P. I. Singh, a public health expert who has worked in southern Punjab for over 25 years. “The entire area of Punjab today is overloaded with pesticides. What is troublesome are the chronic effects. They take generations or decades to manifest themselves.”
Some doctors, like Singh, and activists are pressing farmers to go back to earlier agricultural techniques, even at the expense of reducing India’s farm production. “What are you achieving by feeding people at the cost of their health?” says Singh.
Umendra Dutt, a towering, energetic environmental activist with chest-length locks and a thick beard, goes a step further, arguing that “the Green Revolution has devastated the entire ecosystem of our society—the ecology and economy—we have lost almost all of our biodiversity. [It] is input intensive, techno-centric, resource-guzzling. It is not a cultural transformation leading to self-sufficiency.” Not in the way that organic farming is, he argues. “Our [organic] farmers are living a life that is much more sustainable,” says Dutt.
The organic movement, if it qualifies as a movement, is running up against the strong incentives the government provides farmers to support Green Revolution techniques: from the minimum price support the government offers farmers for wheat and rice made with the aid of fertilizer and pesticides to the social pressure to prevent farmers from changing decades-long practices.
Can the economics pay off? That’s unclear. Sharma, who is now the custodian of his village’s organic seed bank, says his wheat yield is half that of his neighbors, who used pesticides and fertilizer. But he is able to sell his organically grown crop for something more than twice the going price. In addition, he doesn’t have to buy costly supplies such as hybrid seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, purchases which put many farmers into debt at the start of each growing season.
Sharma uses traditional homemade pesticides such as cow manure mixed with urine, soured milk, garlic, chilies, and the leaves of a native plant to ward off parasitic insects. He is making a bet that over time, organic farming will narrow the productivity gap if his methods are able to improve the quality of soil damaged by chemically intensive farming. The major difference between chemical farming and organic farming is that with chemical farming, the yield either decreases or stays stagnant over time while with organic farming, the quality of the soil increases, he says. “After two or three years, the yield will be equal.”
But while some farmers talk of going organic, India faces what could become a new controversy over expanding the use of genetically modified seeds in what supporters envision as a second Green Revolution. This may promise salvation for a hungry world but, in rural India, the pluses and minuses of the first Green Revolution are still being tallied.