An Indian farm labourer displays a cabbage grown on an organic farm in India’s Gujarat state. Photograph: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images
India’s struggling farmers are starting to profit from a budding interest in organic living. Not only are the incomes of organic farmers soaring – by 30% to 200%, according to organic experts – but their yields are rising as the pesticide-poisoned land is repaired through natural farming methods.
Organic farming only took off in the country about seven years ago. Farmers are turning back to traditional farming methods for a number of reasons.
First, there’s a 10% to 20% premium to be earned by selling organic products abroad and in India’s increasingly affluent cities, a move towards healthy living and growing concern over toxic foods and adulteration plaguing the food market.
Second, the cost of pesticides and fertilisers has shot up and the loans farmers need to buy expensive, modified seed varieties are pushing many into a spiral of debt. Crippling debt and the burden of loans are trriggering farmer suicides across the country, particularly in the Vidarabha region of Maharashtra. Organic farming slashes cultivation and input costs by up to 70% due to the use of cheaper, natural products like manure instead of chemicals and fertilisers.
Third, farmers are suffering from the damaging effects of India’s green revolution, which ushered in the rampant use of pesticides and fertilisers from the 1960s to ensure bumper yields and curb famine and food shortages. Over the decades, the chemicals have taken a toll on the land and yields are plunging.
“Western, modern farming has spoiled agriculture in the country. An overuse of chemicals has made land acidic and hard, which means it needs even more water to produce, which is costly,” says Narendra Singh of Organic India. “Chemicals have killed the biggest civilisation in agriculture – earthworms, which produce the best soil for growth.”
Umesh Vishwanath Chaudhari, 35, a farmer in the Jalgaon district in Maharashtra, switched to organic farming seven years ago after experiencing diminishing yields from his 8-hectare (20-acre) plot. He came across a book on organic farming techniques using ancient Vedic science. He started making natural fertilisers and pesticides using ingredients such as cow manure, cow urine, honey and through vermicomposting – the process of using earthworms to generate compost. Since then, his yields and income have risen by 40%, and worms have returned to his soil. He sells lime, custard apple and drumsticks to organic stores in Pune, Mumbai and other cities, while his cotton is bought by Morarka, a rural NGO.
He plans to convert another 2 hectares to organic cotton and buy 10 cows to make his own manure, rather than buying it. “Using manure instead of pesticides and fertilisers has cut my costs by half, and I get a premium on these goods,” he says. “I used to drive a scooter, but in the past few years I’ve been able to afford a bike and car – and even two tractors.”
Udday Dattatraya Patil, 43, an agriculture graduate, turned to organic farming after his crops were showing a deficiency in feed, leading to rising fertiliser costs. In addition, his banana crop was being wrecked by temperature fluctuations and climate change. “Because bananas are sensitive to temperature change, 20% went to waste. Organic bananas can withstand this. Now none are wasted,” he says. Now he has 40 cows and bulls whose manure he can use for fertiliser, as well as vermicompost units. His yields have increased by 20% and income by 30%.
Although he is hailed as a progressive agriculturalist by his fellow villagers, he is the only organic farmer out 3,000 in Chahardi, in Jalgaon district. “Some have tried but they give up if there aren’t immediate results. Organic farming requires effort, and you have to invest in organic inputs,” he adds.
Many farmers are reluctant to make the leap because they fear a drop in yields in the initial period; good results tend to show after three years. Moreover, the market is growing by 500% to 1,000% a year, according to Morarka, but it only represents 0.1% of the food market.
Kavita Mukhi organises a weekly organic farmers’ market in Mumbai, where producers sell direct to consumers. She is trying to boost awareness about organic food. “The only way you hear about it is if you stumble on an organic shop,” she says. “There’s no widespread marketing or awareness of the benefits.”
Once the awareness increases, organic agriculturalists believe more farmers will join the movement because it’s favourable to small farmers. They already have the cows and buffalos needed to recycle biomass at the farm level, which is, essentially, the foundation of organic farming.
“Unlike Europe, India’s modern farming revolution is not very old, meaning they still possess the knowhow for cultivation without modern chemical inputs,” says Mukesh Gupta of Morarka.
While critics argue that organic farming is not the answer to India’s rising food demands, those in favour say it’s the only sustainable way out for impoverished farmers