Organic farming caught in ‘quality vs. quantity’ debate

Despite growing clamour for pesticide-free produce, doubts persisit about the capability of organic farming to generate high yields.

Debate on health: At the centre of the debate over organic farming are the growing public health concerns triggered by high morbidity and lifestyle diseases in the State. An organicv vegetable orchard in Kakkanad. Photo: H. Vibhu

Organic farming began finding momentum in Kerala since the unveiling of a policy in 2010 that set the goal of converting the entire agricultural production in the State to organic within 10 years. That policy announced by the then Left Democratic Front government is now being fast-tracked by the present United Democratic Front dispensation. If public pronouncements of Agricultural Minister K.P. Mohanan are anything to go by, all of Kerala’s agriculture will take the organic route by the end of 2016.

Organic farmers and proponents of the concept are passionate about reviving traditional farming practices and methods, to save the soil and agricultural produces from contamination caused by chemical inputs. Another section backed by segments of the agri-science community in the State however warns that the claims that organic farming is a ‘second agricultural revolution’ may have little to do with contemporary realities.

The organic farming policy of the government captures the concerns over adverse impacts of scientific farming. It states that farmers are now realising that they are fighting a losing battle with the “high-yield variety fertilizer-pesticide pack” of the Green Revolution. Revival of the traditional sustainable ways of cultivation is portrayed as the only way out.

The narrative that Green Revolution created an ecological and social crisis – in the country in general and in Kerala in particular – has the backing of cultural figures and celebrities such as poet Sugathakumari. The agricultural scientists, for their part, contend that if the alternative organic farming is enforced all the uncertainties that prevailed in the pre-Green Revolution era cultivation will be revived.

At the centre of the debate over organic farming are the growing public health concerns triggered by high morbidity and lifestyle diseases in the State, as also fears about contaminated vegetables and food grains being consumed in the State. It is perceived that agricultural production is contributing to several health-related and environmental problems.

“If you want to prove that organic farming is a better and a viable option to feed the growing population, it has to be proved scientifically,” says Dr. C. George Thomas, Professor at the Kerala Agricultural University (KAU).

As it is a proven fact that productivity of organic cultivation will be far lower and that more organic resources are required to ensure there is no substantial decline in productivity, organic farmers will be forced to sell their produces at premium prices unbearable to the common man, he noted.

Environmental toll

Many advocates of organic farming say that it is just propaganda that yields are low in traditional organic cultivation. C.K. Sujith Kumar, a Thrissur-based promoter of organic farming and author of Karshika Paramparyam Keralathil (agricultural tradition in Kerala) is one of them. “What is science? Is science only the practices promoted by the KAU or the government?” he asked.

The science of organic farming, according to him, is different from the ‘so-called scientific farming’. While the former is based on the limits of the natural system, the latter seeks to break those limits, he pointed out.

Though individuals and groups promoting organic farming share a common view on the environmental and health toll of the farming methods depending on the use of chemical inputs, there is no unanimity among them over the methods and objectives. They often come under different garbs with different slogans. Mr. Kumar, for instance, is even sceptical of the current “media hype” about organic farming. “It raises a suspicion that big businesses are planning to utilise the current momentum that the organic farming concept has gathered,” he observed.

Though some analysts link the concept of organic farming to ruralism rooted in romantic notions of an organic society promoted by the political Right, many of its proponents defy that characterisation as they often locate themselves politically on the Left or Left-of-Centre pursuing organic farming on anti-corporate or eco-feminist slogans. The spectrum of organic farming movement in the State has groups and individuals advocating either extreme or moderate versions of organic farming.

Dr. A.K. Shareef, Director of the KAU’s Centre for e-Learning, who is an advocate of organic farming, says the philosophy of organic farming is not based on output. “There are farmers who are doing natural farming for years and they are satisfied if they get enough returns, not more,” If cultivation in a farm is to be completely organic, soil has to be conditioned for that and it requires time, he said adding that organic farming in the past was successful because farmers in those days had animal components. He even recommends use of safe chemicals if extreme situations warrant it.

Land availability

His view comes close to admitting that organic farming may not be practical for large scale cultivation essential for feeding the population. According to agricultural scientists food grain production rate should either match or exceed the population growth rate. Equally important, according to them, is the availability of arable land.

“India’s arable land is 2.4 per cent of the total arable land in the world while the United States’ share is 6 per cent and India’s population is 15 to 16 per cent of the world’s population while the U.S.’s population is around two per cent,” said Dr. K.M. Sreekumar, Professor, KAU’s College of Agriculture at Padannakkad in Kasaragod. The U.S. can completely go organic, if they want, but countries in Asia and Africa cannot afford to do that, he noted.

The debate over organic farming is not likely to find a resolution any time soon. “What is required is a balanced approach that makes a judicious blend or organic methods and science and technology,” advises Dr. K.P. Aravindan, State president of the Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad, a popular science movement.

He, however, warns against using organic farming as a fetish, though he admits there is misuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, especially the post-production use of pesticides.

The spectrum of organic farming movement in the State has groups and individuals advocating either extreme or moderate versions of organic farming.

Source: The Hindu

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