States opt for the green way
The Centre has no policy on organic farming but 10 states are promoting it
Manoj Kumar Menon of the International Competence Centre for Organic Agriculture (ICCOA), a knowledge centre on organic agriculture, has an interesting story to relate on how the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) views organic farming.
Some years ago, ICCOA proposed a research study to prove the scientific validity of organic agriculture since mainstream scientists were dismissive of this system of growing crops without synthetic fertilisers and chemicals. “Organic agriculture in a holistic sense is sustainable agriculture but ICAR is not ready to accept it,” says Menon.
The project proposal that was put to ICAR’s National Agricultural Innovation Project (NAIP) was to test organic systems in different agro- climatic zones and with different crops (cereals, pulses, spices etc). The outlay was initially Rs 42 crore but it was whittled down to Rs 12 crore. The proposal cleared four committees, including technical, and finally in February 2008 reached the then director general of ICAR Mangala Rai.
“A distinguished scientist Tej Pratap Singh (vice-chancellor, Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology) had just started making the presentation. But after just the third slide Rai observed, ‘I do not see any science in organic agriculture’.” That, in fact, sums up the general attitude of mainstream agriculture scientists whose thinking has been shaped by the late Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, who was a firm believer in the use of synthetic fertilisers to push up crop yields. Borlaug had termed as “ridiculous” the idea that organic farming was better for the environment because it gave lower yields and therefore required more land to produce the same amount of food.
Supporters of organic point out that on the contrary the shift from expensive high-input agriculture to knowledge-intensive practices is much kinder to the environment with the emphasis on using naturally available resources (green manure and cowdung), biopesticides, crop rotation and water conservation. But almost everything that the Ministry of Agriculture and ICAR’s vast network of public research institutions does undermines sustainable farming.
Official policies are stuck in what India’s leading authority on biomass, Om P Rupela, terms, “the NPK mindset of mainstream scientists”. NPK stands for chemical elements nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium that are commonly used in fertilisers. “They calculate that the same amount of synthetic NPK that is used in conventional agriculture has to be replaced by an equivalent amount of biomass nitrogen and then claim that India doesn’t have those quantities.”
“But the science of biology doesn’t work that way,” says Rupela, former scientist with ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) who conducted a long-term experiment on low cost agriculture. “Organic is a different paradigm. The idea is to nurture soils through micro fauna which is there in large numbers, and macro fauna such as earthworms.” Nature has hundreds such but little research has been done on them.
Fortunately, there are open minds in the agriculture departments of states which, unlike ICAR, see merit in organic farming. At least seven states have sought ICCOA’s help to set up organic farming clusters for specific crops. The package includes capacity building, training on organic cultivation and help with certification and market linkages. An analysis of state agriculture policies by Down To Earth shows that 10 states have clearly defined policies for organic farming. These are Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Nagaland and Mizoram. Of these, Uttarakhand (10 mountain districts), Sikkim, Nagaland and Mizoram have declared their intention to go 100 per cent organic.
A K Yadav, director of National Centre of Organic Farming, the Ministry of Agriculture’s nodal agency, says it is difficult to say which of these states has the best organic policy but he zeroes in on Uttarakhand and Sikkim as the best. “As far as taking the movement to the people is concerned, Sikkim is more successful. But if we are looking at market facilitation, networking of farmers and ensuring that farmers get a premium, Uttarakhand is ahead.”
Over 30 certified organic producer groups have come up in Uttarakhand in less than a decade, with farmers producing a range of organic commodities like amaranthus, Basmati rice, finger millet, maize, wheat, turmeric paddy, ginger, soybean, rajma (kidney bean), medicinal and aromatic plants and different types of pulses. More villages are waiting to be certified, all thanks to the dedicated efforts of the Uttarakhand Organic Commodity Board (UOCB).
Binita Shah, senior manager, UOCB, says, “Our strategy is focused on clusters for a particular crop because it helps with group certification which brings down the costs considerably. It also helps to reduce transportation cost which is one of the biggest challenges for farming in hilly areas. The other, of course, is ensuring a market for organic produce.” UOCB was set up by the state in 2003 to encourage organic agriculture, primarily in its hill districts.
A signal success story here comes from Haridwar where sugarcane farmers under the aegis of Bhartiya Kisan Club (BKC) have started an organic sugar manufacturing unit. The club, formed in 2009, has 324 members from the nearby areas. Claimed to be India’s first certified organic sugar mill, it supplies major retailer like Sresta’s 24 Letter and supplies often run short. Kartar Singh, president of the club, says, “Farmers associated with us have around 455.66 ha of land where we grow organic sugarcane. To keep farmers’ interest, we have ensured two things. First, we give farmers Rs 10-20 premium per 100 kg of cane and the other is cash payment on delivery of crop.” This ensures that BKC is never short of raw material.
One of the interesting learnings from this pioneering venture is that cost of organic cultivation is much lower than that of the conventional method and that sugar recovery is much higher from cane grown with biopesticides. “This more than offsets the 15-20 per cent drop in sugarcane yields. Besides, buyers give us a premium, too,” says Singh. This season BKC has produced around 900 tonnes of organic sugar but expansion is difficult because subsidised agriculture credit is not available. Commercial banks and NABARD have refused to extend any credit to this sugar mill which has a crushing capacity of 25 tonnes per day, set up entirely with the farmers’ investment.
Uttarakhand is the third largest organic state with over 32,000 ha under organic or under conversion, bringing under this tag over 47,000 farmers. Neighbouring Himachal Pradesh has 48 clusters covering 5,800 farmers but has a much larger area under organic farming at 631,902 ha. In fact, in our view Himachal Pradesh has an arguably better policy. The Department of Agriculture provides assistance of Rs 1,500 per farmer for three years to facilitate documentation, database management, training and capacity building, apart from help with certification, market linkage and value addition. They also get Rs 3,750 per cluster for setting up vermicompost units and so far 376,000 such units have come up in the state.
For wider diffusion, the state has involved local NGOs and KVKs or the agriculture extension service centres to promote organic farming. One example of how well this policy works comes from Khakrola village (population: 1,200) where farmers, again, mostly women, have made the difficult switch to organic cultivation over a three-year period. But their hard work has been repaid. The 150 farmers have actually improved their yield—ICAR, please note—and enhanced the marketability of their grains, fruits and vegetables. And these are really small farmers, each with a holding of 60-100 bighas (1 bigha=2,500 sq m). The Khakrola experiment is part of a Rs 1.5 crore model project initiated in 2003 by the M R Morarka Foundation in tandem with the Himachal Pradesh Agriculture Department.
The critical issue here is finding customers for such hard-won produce. Says Rajashekar Reddy Seelam, managing director of Sresta Bioproducts of Hyderabad, the leading domestic retailer: “Markets must provide the incentive for the switchover to organic, but the difficulty is in getting either regular supplies and for assured amounts.” On the other hand, the comfort is that in two drought years, 2008 and 2011, organic farms performed much better than conventional ones because they were more resilient to climate stress, he points out.
Karnataka, the first state to announce an organic farming policy in 2004, is carrying forward research to strengthen organic farming. Biocentre, a certified 17-ha spread of plantations and nurseries, is developing workable models of organic production systems with medicinal and aromatic plants as one of the components. K Ramakrishnappa, additional director in the horticulture department, who looks after organic agriculture, says that one of the more practical initiatives the state has taken is to set up the Jaivik Krishik Society that clubs 47 farmers’ groups and is the nodal agency to facilitate group certification and marketing. It has also set up a Jaivik Mall that offers ample space for farmers wanting to sell their produce directly to consumers.
Another remarkable experiment that Down To Earth would like to highlight is the non-pesticide management (NPM) initiative of Andhra Pradesh. This has freed an impressive 1.5 million ha and 1.5 million farmers from the tyranny of chemicals through a community managed sustainable agriculture (CMSA) initiative. Interestingly, the initiative was launched by the Andhra Pradesh Ministry of Rural Development and not by the Agriculture Department. The fundamental objective of CMSA is to provide healthy food, healthy crops, healthy soil and a healthy life to farmers by ensuring food security locally.
The CMSA philosophy does not necessarily endorse organic as the ultimate objective although both work towards the similar objective of eliminating chemical inputs. Explains D V Raidu, director, CMSA, “Our mandate is to raise the incomes of small farmers, eliminate poverty and liberate ourselves by unlearning the practices of the past. Organic agriculture, on the other hand, leads to tunnel vision since its driving force is only the premium.”
Raidu’s contention is that organic market dynamics are not in the farmer’s hands—true enough, since there are widespread complaints that retailers and NGOs are ripping off the growers—and, therefore, the focus should be on “sustainable, viable and remunerative agriculture”. He also asks why “if organic is so good, it so minuscule? Besides, the premium is earned only on scarcity of supplies.”
However, CMSA, he hastens to add, is ready to help farmers with certification if they want it. “The choice is the farmer’s. The best part of CMSA is it is a programme that fits all needs.” In fact, the groundwork is done to assist farmers with the Participatory Guarantee System certification, a cost-free way of providing quality assurance. But Raidu takes pride in the following statistics: 124 villages declared pesticides-free, 26 villages deemed organic. Not a bad record at all, although the programme only seeks to cut synthetic fertiliser by half, not bar it.
For the Union government, CMSA offers a silver lining: it is saving Rs 1.2 crore on fertiliser subsidy, while farmers are spared an expense of Rs 1.47 crore by eliminating pesticides and cutting fertiliser use.