In a series of articles on Slate.com, Mira Kamdar (of the World Policy Institute and author of Planet India) discusses the challenges and outlook for organic farming in India based on her visit to Punjab farms. After an introduction to her visit and the history of the Green Revolution, Ms Kamdar delves into the reality of the matter, derived from the insights of farmers and academics.
In “The Organic Farmer,” Ms Kamdar focuses on why organic farming is beneficial, yet difficult. The involved labor itself presents employment opportunities, but government policies discourage the growth of organic farming:
Abundant cheap labor is one of the potential advantages India can bring to expanding organic agriculture. Picking off pests by hand, harvesting inter-cropped fields with a mix of plants ready at different times, eliminating weeds by frequent hoeing between tight rows, preparing soil with organic fertilizers, deploying micro-irrigation lines positioned to release water at the roots of each plant-these are all labor-intensive tasks.
But organic farming in India faces significant disincentives. Most government policies favor industrial agriculture, with heavy subsidies for India’s chemical-fertilizer and pesticide industries. The focus, understandable in a developing country, is on maximizing yields and boosting exports. The mindset of the Green Revolution is well-entrenched, despite the widely acknowledged social and environmental damage those practices have wrought and the knowledge that they are simply not sustainable.
According to a farmer in her article, seventy percent of Indian farmers are organic producers, since chemical farming is expensive. And although there is a huge export market, the fact that they aren’t certified (the articles point out that it takes three years to receive certification – a lengthy period for farmers) means that they are missing out on lucrative opportunities for profit.
So why doesn’t the government assist farmers in cashing in on practices that are both better for the land and for the public health? Ms Kamdar comments bitingly (and in my opinion, hits the nail on the head) on the government’s current policy in her piece titled “In the Test Fields of Academe“:
Incredibly, in a country where 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas and slums are the fastest-expanding part of overloaded cities, India’s leaders believe that moving millions of people off the land so that large-scale factory farming can be established with private investment is the way to go. After all, that’s what the United States did, and in the process it became a fabulously rich and powerful country, never mind the damage done to its heartland or to the health of a people whose “supersized” diet has afflicted them with epidemic obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
Considering these environmental and health concerns, in addition to the fact that there is a growing organic movement in the U.S. as more people become aware of the dangers of chemical farming, it might not be the best idea to copy the same mistakes of the country’s agricultural policies by encouraging factory farms.
Ms Kamdar presents convincing statistics and compelling anecdotes on the state of agriculture in India, and on the potential for organic farming. Her case study on Punjab reveals that while farmers seem to prefer organic, policies and structures prevent them from finding sustainability for this path. Are there realistic solutions available for this agricultural dilemma? The possibilities for impacting a series of issues – the environment, health, employment, the economy – makes this question worth looking into.