Written by Hilary Byerly
To the average American, the term “organic” implies a choice: pay a little more to know a tomato was grown naturally, or opt for another that was sprayed with chemicals, but is still relatively safe to eat. For us, choosing organic or local produce represents an informed decision not to use conventional pesticides or synthetic fertilizers to better protect our environment and our health—it is not a matter or life or death. However, in rural areas of India and other parts of the developing world, the difference can be just that—grave.
There, conventional chemical-dependant agricultural practices are linked to terms like “suicide belt” and “cancer trains,” and represent serious environmental degradation; these practices are literally contributing to the deaths of farmers and their land. The current situation is deplorable, yet there is hope. Thanks to the work of local organizations, and with support from Greengrants, organic farming movements are empowering people to build better livelihoods and safer environments.
The not-so-Green Revolution
In 1943, 4 million people died from starvation in India during the Bengal Famine, one of the worst in the 20th-century. Over the next two decades India subsisted by importing grain to feed its hungry population, becoming highly dependent on foreign aid and failing to resolve food deficiencies in rural regions.
The end of the 1960s ushered in a new era. The introduction of high-yield seeds under the banner of the Green Revolution more than doubled grain production in less than 20 years. Previously marginalized regions of rural India became breadbaskets, producing enough wheat and rice to export a surplus. Farmers adopted techniques of monoculture (growing only one cash crop) and double-cropping (harvesting twice a year by generating a second rainy season through irrigation), increasing their yields enormously.
The movement was seen as a great success, and the fundamental changes in agricultural technique were mere side notes. The new high-yield seed variety and double-cropping required more water, but it was easy to tap into the then-rich water tables. And, as monoculture and multiple crop seasons leached nutrients from the soil, using more and more fertilizers was an obvious remedy. When the loss of crop diversity made plants vulnerable to insects, farmers were advised to spray pesticides, but of course there was no proper education on usage and dangers.
In the excitement of changing from a country plagued with famine to a major grain exporter, these temporary fixes were worth the risk. Yet, four decades later, it’s clear that this resolution to Indian food scarcity has had dire consequences for farmers and their families.
From Surplus to Suicide
The harmful effects of intensive monoculture and its necessary inputs have spared few rural Indian communities. Farmers who once grew as many as 30 different crops in their field now cultivate only a single cash crop, stripping regions of their biodiversity. Methods of high-yield double-cropping, which use non-native seeds and require extensive irrigation, have caused steep drops in water tables and severe land degradation. What was once nutrient-rich soil has become anemic, salinized, and dangerously expensive to maintain.
Environmental damages have translated into social problems as the cost of inputs has left thousands of farmers indebted beyond relief. To yield the same harvest, degraded fields now require as much as three times more fertilizer than when intensive farming began. The drop in water levels has also forced farmers to invest in heavy drilling machinery to keep their crops irrigated. These costly inputs, including pesticides and annual seed purchases, have left already marginalized farmers deeply indebted to informal money lenders, without hope of a way out. In turn, suicide rates in India’s farming regions are reported to be as high as 17,000 people per year, according to The New York Times.
Mortality rates are compounded by the striking increase in cancer victims in some small villages. The pesticides necessary to protect large monocrops include toxic chemicals that are banned in the United States, notably DDT, and are sold without regard for proper, safe usage. Although more studies are needed to find a conclusive link between the high influx of toxic pesticides and the increase in cancer rates, the stories are disturbing. For more information on this and the cancer train in Punjab, India, read this article from NPR.
Back to Basics
The fundamental difference between sustainable organic farming and intensive agriculture is simple: embrace the yield of the farm, not just the crop. Ardhendu Chatterjee, coordinator of Greengrants’ India Advisory Board, has worked extensively in developing education and training programs in rural India to revive this more integrated style.
Organic farming is not simply a matter of inputs; it is a design approach, “a way to consider soil, sunlight, water, and wind in designing the garden as a whole,” explains Ardhendu. “It is about using holistic planning to design a system that is adjusted to the local climate and soil, according to environmental and social needs, rather than what is selling at the highest price.”
According to Ardhendu, this is hardly a new concept for Indian farmers: “In the past, integrated rice-fish-duck-tree farming was a common practice in wetlands. This does not only meet peoples food, fodder and fuel wood needs, but it provides superior energy-protein output to that obtained from today’s monoculture practice of growing high-yielding varieties.”Read more in the article “Grains of Delusion”.
Organic farming is poised to resolve many of the manufactured problems created by intensive agriculture. It embraces heirloom seeds and diversified gardens, which replenish the soil and the nutrient-poor diets of farming communities. It involves composting and pest control through natural insect-repelling plants, like turmeric, instead of costly fertilizers and dangerous pesticides. It means planting more drought-tolerant crops where rainfall is scarce, thereby preserving the declining water tables.
While it may not be a cure-all, organic foods are becoming much more than a healthful option in our supermarkets. Even the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, in their 2007 Report on the International Conference on Organic Agriculture and Food Security, determined organic agriculture to positively contribute to food security, climate change, water security and quality, agrobiodiversity, nutritional adequacy, and rural development.
Recognizing these benefits and their relevance to India’s poorest communities, the Greengrants India Advisory Board has been supporting organic agriculture in the country for close to ten years. The Board has made it a priority to support groups working with women and marginalized communities to promote food security and rural development in particularly hard-hit regions. Over the years, they have assisted in the emergence of a growing movement that is offering new hope for Indiaís farmers.
Educate, Train, Decide
With two grants from Greengrants in 2008, and almost $20,000 in grants over the last five years, the Development Research Communication and Services Center (DRCSC) is improving the state of agriculture in West Bengal and surrounding states in northeastern India. Focusing on education and capacity building as major strategies for change, the DRCSC supports organic farming as a means to ensure food and livlihood security for India’s rural poor. This citizen-run organization has built school gardens, organized workshops, created nurseries and seed centers, and even produced a documentary, each emphasizing the benefits of organic farming to community stakeholders.
The DRCSC’s work has been so successful that some organic farmers are actually producing more than their community needs. According to Ardhendu, the next step may involve creating an organization to market and negotiate fair prices for these surpluses, signalling a new hope for expanding the organic movement beyond subsistence farming. The progress has created considerable momentum, and has even begun to work its way into the mainstream.
“Even government policy is considering organic terms, but their scope is limited. To them it is about not using fertilizers or pesticides, but it is really so much more. ‘Organic’ is access to water, biodiversity, clean soil; it is a whole new context for the industry.” Although the movement has seen small successes, Ardhendu warns, it will be challenging to reshape the agricultural paradigm of an entire country.
Yet, for the small-scale Indian farmer, the organic choice is simple: either adopt more wholesome, healthful means of farming, or continue monoculture methods that endanger human, social, and environmental health. While the answer seems obvious, there are enormous obstacles to gathering accurate information and funding, and to building capacity and political will. Thankfully, with your help, Greengrants grantee DRCSC and many others are breaking down these barriers, building a momentous organic movement, and making the choice easier for dozens of Indian communities.
For more about the plight of the Indian farmer visit NPR.
Also, check out this fascinating article on The Global Food Crisis from National Geographic.