The benefits of organic farming far outweigh the costs

HAY SOREE , economist and director of Yardi and Sore, a New Delhi-based company involved in organic farming and marketing, spoke to Down To Earth on the dangers of using pesticides and the need to switch to organic farming

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

What is organic farming?
In organic farming natural materials are used. It lays emphasis on soil fertility and plant health. The idea is, 'the healthier the soil (which includes the health of all the soil organisms such as worms and the micro organisms), the healthier the plant'. In this type of farming, agrochemicals like pesticides and fertilisers are not used, thus the product is pesticide-free.

When was it first introduced in India?
Organic farming is not new to India. In the Vedas , the Earth is referred to as mother and all the elements used in organic farming find a mention in them. Unfortunately, they have ceased to be a part of the present day agricultural system. Yet, even today, many tribal people practice organic farming, though it could be because they cannot afford agrochemicals. However, the fact that their beliefs are strongly linked to their agricultural practices and the use of Earth's diverse resources might also be one of the reasons for not switching over to agrochemicals.

What is the advantage of organic farming over use of agrochemicals?
Pesticide-residues in agricultural produce can be very bad for health. The Green Revolution in India, particularly in the states of Punjab and Haryana, was very successful. But it is only now that we are witnessing the adverse effects -- fallow land and depletion of micronutrients in the soil. Organic farming is good not only from the point of human and animal health, but also for the richness of the soil. Another cause for concern is the introduction of genetically-modified organisms ( gmo ) in Europe, usa and India. This process involves tampering with the natural constitution of the plant, and this may lead to the complete disappearance of some species in the future.

Where is organic farming being practised in India?
In the course of our survey, which is yet to be completed, we have found that the percentage of total produce from organic farming is about 1.5 per cent. Organic farming is being practised in nearly all the states in India. Of all the organic tea produced in India, around 30 per cent is exported and this percentage is increasing every year. On the Karnataka-Kerala border, coffee, tea, pepper, cardamom and other crops are being cultivated by this method.

How far has organic farming been successful in India?
Many farmers have started understanding the drawbacks of agrochemical farming. But there are many impediments in the spread of organic farming. There is no marketing system, despite the fact that organic products are tastier and better for health. We feel that farmers should get a premium. What we offer to farmers is a premium of 10-15 per cent over the local mandi price. That is roughly the same they get when they export the product. In India, of the organic produce, roughly 30 per cent is exported while 70 per cent is marketed along with the normal produce. Since there is no marketing system for these products, people are not aware of the difference between organic produce and pesticide-ridden ones.

How does one counter pests through organic farming?
It has been observed that if the soil is healthy, the pest problem is negligible as compared to soil where agrochemicals are used or where there is low organic matter in the soil. There are a number of organic preparations (neem-based) and other biological control methods which are used tackle pests.

Is organic farming more expensive than conventional farming?
In Europe, the cost is 30 per cent higher than conventional farming because it requires more manual labour. However, if one looks at the environmental cost of conventional farming, then organic farming works out to be much cheaper and desirable in the long run. In Europe, such studies have already been conducted and the costs/benefits favour organic farming. In India, such research is still limited. However, as the labour costs are much lower, and the costs of inputs are reduced, the costs of organic farming will be at par with the costs of conventional farming.

What does the government need to do to promote organic farming in India?
Firstly, the government must improve the system of controls and enact regulations more efficiently. Secondly, farmers should be given some financial incentives to switch over to organic farming. The government must treat organic fertilisers and biopesticides at par with chemical ones. Policy-wise, if certain concessions or subsidies are given to the agrochemicals, then organic ones should be given the same. The existing 20 laboratories of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research ( icar ) should test agricultural produce for pesticide residue. The government should spread awareness about the favourable properties of organic farming and the potential health hazards from conventional farming. Besides, private companies must be urged to set up marketing systems for organic produce.

How can organic food be made more popular?
Although, many government officials are in favour of organic farming, their hands are tied because of the present system of governance. Unless it becomes a political issue, the change to organic farming will not happen that easily. There is a strong lobby against it. However, though less than one per cent of farmers in India practice organic farming today, their number is growing. It took a long time for people in Europe to develop a liking for organic food. It will also happen in India, but it will take time.

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