Waking up to old ways
THOUGH Indian farmers have practised sustainable farming for generations, the Union government has only now awakened to the need to promote ecofriendly, organic farming. In early January, the Union government announced an outlay of Rs 26 crore for organic farming during the remaining years of the eighth five-year plan (1992-97).
Additional commissioner in the Union agriculture ministry S L Seth says the present agricultural package is leading to monoculture (cultivation of a single crop) and stagnating yield in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, besides causing salinity, soil erosion and waterlogging problems. "All these have led to the need to seek an alternative system and so the organic farming scheme has been launched," says Seth. A technical committee set up by the ministry recommended that organic farming be promoted to maintain soil health and production and meet the demand for organically produced food.
The agriculture ministry has not specified how the scheme will be implemented. One measure will be the training in organic farming for two farmers, an agricultural extension officer and an agriculture scientist from each of country's 150 agroclimatic zones at the College of Agriculture in Indore every year. The participants are expected to disseminate the techniques to other farmers.
Scientists and officials associated with the scheme feel they have much to learn from traditional organic farmers. Says Seth, "The agricultural scientists have to approach the farmers and study the availability of home-grown resources and their use pattern, instead of concentrating only on laboratory research." According to Madhukar D Shinde, director of the agricultural research station in Mohol in Maharashtra's Solapur district, organic farmers should be encouraged to take part in the training programme as resource persons.
Increasing problems According to Seth, the motivation for announcing the scheme was the increasing scale of problems associated with the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Heavy use of these chemicals impoverishes the soil and requires large amounts of water. Also, subsequent crops require more fertilisers to produce the same yield.
A directory published by the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment depicts how organic farmers use plants and cattle urine as pest repellents and dung and municipal compost as manure, which are both effective and economical.
L Narayana Reddy, an organic farmer near Bangalore, says he earned Rs 50,000 in one year from horticultural crops cultivated on 0.60 ha. And, there was a saving of about 50 per cent in the use of water and labour.
Organically produced food fetches premium prices, especially in European countries. Says C Jayakaran, managing director of the Tamil Nadu-based Kurinji Organic Foods Private India Ltd, "Health consciousness and environmental impact are being realised more in Western countries and people are ready to pay more for organically produced items."
Domestic demand for these products, too, is increasing. Anil D Shah, chairperson of the Bombay-based Mahajam, says the demand for such items is mainly from wealthy people and is greater than supply. But he disputes the claim that organic foods are costly, saying organically produced wheat is sold at Rs 5 per kg in Bombay and inorganically produced wheat is sold at Rs 7.
Unviable proposition? P C Bhatia, assistant director general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, says adoption of pure organic farming techniques may not be viable because production might fall in the initial stage. "If we have to achieve the production of 230 million tonnes of food grains by 2000 AD, chemical fertilisers are a must," he adds. Agricultural scientist M S Swaminathan agrees, saying, "External inputs like fertilisers have to be judicially used with ecofriendly inputs like biofertilisers to maintain production levels, otherwise the food security might be weakened."
But Seth is certain that if the ministry's scheme is managed well, it will create capabilities that may be crucial to Indian agriculture in the years to come.