Neither a myth nor a panacea
Organic farming can not just feed the world but is easy on the environment too and hence more sustainable
ORGANIC farming is neither coterminous with the non-usage of chemicals nor homogenous. Besides, the non-usage of chemicals, it has many other components. What goes under the rubric of organic farming can vary from farming dependent on external inputs (some times provided by some of the same corporations that supply chemical inputs), practising mono-cropping similar to one practised by conventional farming, looking for a year-round supply of ‘tomatoes’ to those using no external or minimal external inputs other than labour, insisting on mixed cropping and combining animal husbandry etc with farming, respecting nature and producing only seasonal crops to the point of excluding mono-cropping from the definition of organic.
This diversity within the ‘organic’ is often ignored in comparative studies while amongst practising ‘organic’ farmers, one will find wide diversity going up to the point that each one gives a different name to it! This diversity should be acknowledged in all comparative studies. The moment we do this, we will realise that comparing individual crop yields does not make much sense as contrary to the conventional practice, practising organic ‘wheat’ growers are often growing no less than 6-7 crops in the same field at the same time. An organisation in Wardha refuses to treat any farmer producing less than 10 different crops in his/her fields as an organic farmer.
But all this should not be read to mean that comparisons of yields and income are not important or that organic performs poorly on these counts. A conference organised by the FAO in 2007 had some 350 participants from more than 80 countries, including five inter-governmental institutions, 24 research institutions and 31 universities. ‘Recognising the need to increase agriculture productivity by 56 per cent by 2030’, it evaluated the available data to determine whether organic agriculture could offer an alternative system. It concluded that ‘organic agriculture has the potential to secure a global food supply … but with reduced environmental impacts’.
Then there is the case of Cuba, which in the mid-nineties in the post-Soviet phase, devoid of petroleum products, had no choice but to go organic and it is no worse for that. Nutritional status as well as rural employment are reported to have improved.
It is a well-known fact that conventional agriculture is in crisis. Father of Indian Green Revolution M.S. Swaminathan himself calls conventional agriculture ‘exploitative agriculture’. This ‘exploitative agriculture’, according to a Planning Commission report, has ‘damaging impacts on environment, human and animal health, soil and water resources’. … The rural economy is in ruins because of over-dependence of outside inputs in agriculture such as seed, fertilisers, pesticides, growth-promoting chemicals etc.’ Another Planning Commission study reports that according to official reports, ‘it appears that nearly 2/3rd of our agricultural land is degraded or sick to some extent’.
So, one has to certainly look for alternatives. If there are various ‘organic’ alternatives available that claim to work wonders, one must. study and evaluate them seriously rather than brush these aside as ‘misinformation’. We must devote a significant part of resources going into agriculture research into these alternatives too. Way back in 2001 a Planning Commission committee had recommended that ‘all the state governments may be advised to consider experimentation and demonstrations on government farms on 50:50 area basis on organic farming and other forms of farming’. How many mainstream agriculture research institutes in India have implemented this? Without having done this, to claim that non-chemical farming does not work out is ‘misinformation’!
The writer is a Professor, Department of Economics, M. D. University, Rohtak