12 July 2010

but all food in India is organic right?

I have been asked the above question several times and it baffles me every time. Why would anyone assume that conventional agriculture is organic? The great illusion of Indian agriculture is that all produce is grown on small-medium sized farms and farmers use traditional methods of cultivation. It is true that most farms in India are small but 'traditional' methods as with everywhere else has been replaced with a fertilizer intensive, hybrid heavy form of production.

Agriculture remains the cornerstone of the Indian economy. There is a need to ensure maximum production to support the growing population as well as ensure export targets are met. All this needs to be achieved in the face of monsoon vagaries and diminishing agricultural land. This has naturally led to the increase in the use of fertilizers and pesticides. The manufacture of both is one of the biggest contributors of greenhouse gases. Synthetic fertilizers contributes 6% of India's total GHG emissions. A shift to ecological fertilizers will reduce this contribution to 2%.

The Indian government has been subsidizing fertilizers in order to make them cheap enough for farmers to afford and although the use of fertilizers have been increasing, yield in certain places have been dropping. The average crop response to fertilizer use was around 25 kg of grain/kg of fertilizer during the 1960s, this has reduced to 8 kg/kg in the late 1990s. High use of chemical fertilizers is also associated with high levels of water consumption and micro-nutrient deficiency in the soil leading to subsequent decline in the water table and deterioration of soil health. Furthermore, fertilizer and pesticide run-off has caused various secondary problems to water bodies.

Every year the central government spends crores of money on fertilizer subsidies. The figure for 2009-2010 alone was Rs. 49.980 crores. The good news is that organic farmers are making their voices heard and are disgruntled that the Government spends so much money on an environmentally harmful method of food production. Several bodies like the Karnataka Organic Farming Mission, Greenpeace etc are lobbying with the government to ensure that organic products are also subsidized.

It remains however that India has one of the highest usages of fertilizer in the world. The sooner we realize the potential of organic food not just to restore out diminishing soil resources but also in terms of health, the better for us.

4 comments:

JAL said...

This is a very important issue.

Ramesh said...

Nice post Akhila. Indian farming is far from inorganic indeed.

However, as you have noted, we have to feed a large population which is poor. But for the Green Revolution, which included propagation of fertilisers, we would have had famine. If organic farming , on any scale, is to substitute current practices, we have to prove a) it can achieve scale and similar productivity and be able to feed India on the same land area and b) it can be at least at the same cost. If this can be proven and believed, organic farming will automatically take over. The trouble is that this is not believably proven.

Akhila Vijayaraghavan said...

@ JAL - Thank you for your comment

@ Ramesh - There are several studies (Rodale Institute, Cornell University etc) and practical examples to prove that organic agriculture increases yield. With current declines in yield inspite of fertilizer intensive farming that we currently follow, it is about time that due importance is given to a more holistic method of food cultivation.

Organic methods not only increases yield but they do so without depleting the soil and when properly managed, fertility actually increases from season to season.

Costs as well reduce for the farmer in an organic method as his only expense is buying the seed.

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