Published: Wednesday 15 December 1999

Debate over organic farming

This is with reference to the interview with S K Sinha, national professor at the Water Technology Centre, Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi ("India cannot afford organic farming" Down To Earth , Vol 8, No 10; October 15). Sinha says India cannot do without pesticides if it has to meet the growing food demand. He adds that the use of genetically-modified organisms ( gmo s) in areas where cotton and vegetables are grown can reduce the pesticide use.

The fact that pesticides are affecting the soil, plant life, drinking water and human health is well-established (see interview on p58). But Sinha does not seem to be aware of these studies. Neither does he seem to be aware of the heated debate among scientists on gmo s.

Their presumed property of countering pesticide attacks is also yet to be proved. The threat is that they may change our present plant life. An equally dangerous point is the monopoly a few gmo producers and distributors enjoy. They want farmers to be totally dependant on them for seeds. This is socially and economically unacceptable.

He believes that organic farming is "a nice idea, but difficult to implement", thereby giving the impression that it is an impractical solution. Organic farming is a luxury, he says, adding: "There are many countries that can adequately meet their foodgrain requirements. So they can afford to use organic farming." This is an economic statement, but it is not true. For example, Scandinavian countries favour organic farming because of the fragility of their soils and the importance they give to their environment.

Many studies have established that organic agriculture can increase productivity. A study by iied , 1996 Sustainable Agriculture: impacts on food production and challenges for food security, states: "The analysis indicates that (from 63 investigated projects) at least 1.1 million farmers in rainfed areas have made the transition to sustainable agriculture. Most have doubled their per hectare crop yields. A further 0.79 million farmers have substantially cut pesticide use and increased their yield (rice) by 10 per cent."

In India, an increasing number of tea and coffee plantations and cotton farmers are switching over to organic and bio-dynamic farming. While their number is still very low, the trend is positive.

S K Sinha replies:
To respond to these points, some statistics are necessary. The total human population in the Scandinavian countries in 1996 was 18.4 million and the arable land was six million hectares (ha). They used 212 kg per ha of nutrients as fertilisers. Even then, they imported foodgrains because they could afford it.

In comparison, India's population is now one billion and the gross cultivated area is 200 million ha. Our fertiliser consumption in 1996-97 was 84 kg per ha. Though we produced food equivalent to approximately 2,400 calories per capita per day, many people still go hungry. Hence we must increase our production while taking care of the environment, and also reduce both human being and livestock populations.

In 1996, the total consumption of pesticides in agriculture was 56,000 tonnes and 24,000 tonnes in the health sector. Thus for agriculture the use was 280 grammes per ha. Even this is used and misused on only a few crops in some regions. The need of the hour is to use degradable (short half-life) pesticides carefully. In 1998, gmo s (transgenic crops) were grown in 28 million ha of land in the us , Argentina, Canada, Australia and Mexico. Most of these crops were resistant to diseases and pest attacks, which enabled a reduction in pesticide use. A continued high level of productivity (harvest) depletes the soil of nutrients and hence necessitates.

Promoting organic farming

The demand for organic produce the worldover is outstripping supply. In the uk, even if production goes up by more than 300 per cent, it is still short of the demand.Unless the Indian government takes steps to promote organic farming, the situation is bound to get worse due to the irrational use of agro-chemicals....

Behind the hype

This is with reference to the article ' aids threatens students' ( Down To Earth, Vol 8, No 10; October 15) which is, in fact, a reproduction of an article which earlier appeared in the Indian Express . The article does a doublespeak by talking about aids , when it is actually referring to hiv . It even quotes experts on the "alarming rise" in aids cases among students, without giving evidence to establish these claims. Experts are quoted as saying that this is due to "unchecked proliferation of medical engineering colleges".

Having worked in the field of hiv/aids for some time now, I am aware that there is more hype than substance, more speculation than science in what is being promoted regarding the mode and extent of the spread of the "epidemic".

aids has spawned one of the deadliest industries, with the backing of the powerful pharmaceutical companies, research groups, bilateral and multilateral agencies, and other small-time organisation who are building brilliant careers by diverting vast amounts of public funds to "research grants" and " aids prevention". And all this depends upon the extent to which they can hype the " aids statistics".

But there are voices, albeit a few, in the field of science who are questioning, at the cost of their careers, the fundamental premises of hiv science. But instead of putting this debate into the open, in the spirit of "true fearless science", it has been systematically and dogmatically suppressed. In this context, it was a pleasant surprise to find a review of a book, " aids: the failure of contemporary science", in an earlier issue of Down To Earth .

But what struck me was a violent reaction to the review by one of your readers. Does the person expect the whole thesis of the book to be put forth in a review? Why not read the book instead, and provide a counter argument?...

Foul air

The article 'Polluted and ignored' ( Down To Earth , Vol 8, No 11; October 31) presents a dismal picture of the air pollution in the small towns of India. While the people are craving for clean air, the government is dilly-dallying about adopting stringent measures to reduce pollution.

The government must first set its house in order by making all government vehicles comply with air pollution standards. It should also increase the number of air pollution monitoring stations....

Grassroot change

The issues covered in Down To Earth are informative and an eye-opener on various environmental issues. It is sad that our government and the bureaucracy can neither provide the type of service, nor results like that produced by ngo s such as the Tarun Bharat Sangh and environmentalists such as Anna Hazare.

Unfortunately, the common person in the country knows very little about their work and their contribution to the betterment of society. I believe that it is only through these people that a just and happy society can be created. In future, the preservation of our country's biodiversity can be achieved only by people like them and not the babus of various government departments. Down To Earth should publish a regular section on ngo s, their work and developments in their fields. Such articles could encourage people from the urban areas to work for such institutions.

The editor replies:
We regularly carry a section called "Grassroots" in Down To Earth in which we highlight the work done by ngo s/individuals. We are, probably, one of the very few magazines in the country which regularly report the efforts of local communities and ngo s in the areas of pollution control and natural resource management....

Points to ponder

The article on the rating of the paper and pulp industries (Down To Earth, Vol 8, No 5; July 31) was excellent and exhaustive. However, such an exercise is fraught with a host of limitations. For example, many corporations (like j&k ), which own more than one mill, will misuse the rating for their other mills, which may not be rated as a clean one. This is like Honda or some automaker using their Formula One victory to prove the technical superiority of every machine they make. This is continuously advertised to sell the product.

It is also extremely difficult to make the ratings holistic and appropriate. To activists like me, it is more important that the effluents discharged by the company has no adverse health effects, not whether they are within the prescribed norms. I would like the Centre for Science and Environment to take the first step in this direction and establish certain standards....


In the debate on patents ('Are we ready to hand over our life forms? Down To Earth, Vol 8, No 9; September 30), the designation of G V Sarat Babu was wrongly mentioned as joint secretary. It should have been joint director.

In the article 'Strangers in their own land' (Down To Earth, Vol 8, No 12; November 15), Vasant Saberwal is a researcher from Yale University, usa, and not from Oxford University, uk, as reported.

The errors are regretted...

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