In its report tabled in the Parliament on February 4, 2004, the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) looking into the issue of 'pesticide residues in and safety standards for soft drinks, fruit juice and other beverages' has upheld the findings of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a New Delhi-based non-governmental organization, regarding the presence of pesticide residues in 12 popular soft drink brands marketed in India by the multinational cola-giants Pepsi and Coca-Cola. Apart from vindicating CSE's findings the JPC report has also revealed some of the glaring loopholes ingrained in the existing norms and regulations dealing with food safety in India and has called for urgent actions on part of the central as well as state governments to restructure the entire regulatory framework so as to ensure better food safety and public health for the people of the country.

However, while there is no doubt that such regulatory reforms are required to be undertaken on an urgent basis, this is high time to do a fresh assessment of the risks of 'green-revolution technology', the wasteful application of which has led to India's ground water contamination problem in the first place. Also there is a strong case for the government supporting a shift to organic agriculture and this will be made in the second half of this article. While the JPC report has acknowledged the need for better agricultural practices no recommendation has been made to restructure the existing policy framework, which is still nurturing the agro-chemical based conventional agriculture, the other name of which is the 'green revolution technology'.

It is true that the green revolution has succeeded in transforming the Indian economy from a situation of severe food shortage into one where the country has not only become self-reliant in food production but has also been able to generate a sizable surplus for export. However, the high doses of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which have been used under this 'conventional' farming technology (along with 'high yielding varieties of seeds' and irrigation) are now causing severe environmental and health hazards, including the contamination of ground water.

Agrochemicals pollute the environment primarily because of their wasteful application and due to the fact that crops use them inefficiently. Fertilizer use efficiency is revealed to be only 30-35%; the remaining proportion reaching the underground water resources. Since chemical fertilizers do not supply humus (which plays a vital role in holding the nutrients required by plants), so the nutrient and water-holding capacity of the soil becomes very low. This in turn, results in unacceptable soil erosion and runoff and in associated losses of nutrients and pesticides. Sediment from erosion is known to be the greatest pollutant of surface water and is a major carrier of agrochemicals into the water system.

It is now well understood that the indiscriminate use of agrochemicals under conventional agriculture not only causes severe health hazards for human beings but also has numerous other side effects on the environment including destruction of the biodiversity. Last but not the least, the adverse impacts of conventional farming on the health of agricultural system itself makes it unsustainable in the longer run. Because, the losses of soil organic matter, sediments and nutrients caused by widespread erosion and run-off result in a degradation of the physical, chemical, and biological properties of soil. This, in turn, accelerates the rate of erosion, further fueling the nutrient loss. Thus soil productivity decreases over time and affects the plant growth adversely leaving the farmers with no other option than to apply increased doses of fertilizers. However, such increased application of fertilizers only aggravates the problem of erosion with little or no addition to the soil productivity.

Punjab's story: Also see earlier article by Ramesh Menon

There is also an intrinsic vicious cycle that needs mention. The standard fertilizer package of N-P-K (Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potash) under conventional agriculture also results in deficiency of certain essential elements (e.g. trace elements) among the plants often making them more vulnerable to pest and disease attacks. Such vulnerability necessitates application of ever-increasing doses of toxic pesticides thereby raising the level of pesticide residues in crops along with further aggravation in contamination of water resources. Moreover such high doses of pesticides generate resistance among the pests over time and cause more damage to the beneficial organisms of the soil (the predators). Thus the ecological balance that exists between the plants and their pests (through natural competition, selection and predator-prey relationship) gets disrupted often resulting in new, previously innocuous pests emerging as serious threats.

To take an example, in Punjab, the mono-cultivation of paddy-wheat rotation ever since the advent of the green revolution technology in the mid-1960s, has resulted in such serious degradation of land, water and environment that the sustainability of the current pattern of agricultural practices is now under question. There are indications of significant changes in the natural resource base e.g. falling ground water table, water logging, degradation of soil health (loss of organic carbon and deficiency of micro and secondary nutrients like zinc, manganese, iron and sulphur), severe soil erosion, and so on.

Given the massive depletion of organic content and plant nutrients in the soil, Punjab farmers are now compelled to use more and more chemical fertilizers and other inputs to achieve the same production level. The law of diminishing returns has set in. The productivity of rice and wheat, the major crops of the state, which occupy about 70 per cent of its gross cropped area, is reported to have approached a plateau and farm incomes are reported to be stagnant and insufficient for a decent living. The ground realities of Punjab show that the conventional agriculture in India has reached a stage where the use of fertilizers and pesticides cannot be stopped and at the same time there is no sign of further increase in productivity and production through their increased application.

The only solution seems to lie in going organic!

What is organic agriculture? A widely used definition of organic agriculture is the one provided by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which defines it as "…a production system which avoids or largely excludes the use of synthetically compounded fertilizers, pesticides, growth regulators and livestock feed additives. To the maximum extent feasible, organic farming systems rely upon crop rotations, crop residues, animal manure, legumes, green manure, off-farm organic wastes, mechanical cultivation, mineral bearing rocks and aspects of biological pest control to maintain soil productivity and tilth, to supply plant nutrients and to control insects, weeds and other pests."

In a nutshell, organic agriculture is a holistic production management system, which enhances the health of the agroecosystem, including biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity, thereby increasing the fertility of the soil and making the agricultural system sustainable in the longer run. Moreover, as organic farming refrains from using chemical inputs, the health hazards and other side effects posed by those inputs are also prevented.

In the modern sense, 'organic' is a labeling term that denotes products that have been produced in accordance with certain legally defined standards and norms (which are codified in a number of formal standards) and certified by a duly constituted certification authority. It is the market for this kind of 'certified organic' food, which has now turned out to be the most rapidly growing food sector of the developed countries (especially, the USA, the EU and Japan), where it fetches a handsome premium as it is perceived to be safer, healthier, environment-friendly and socially responsible.

But other than niche NGO supported farmers, will organic agriculture work in India -- with its millions of small farmers and small landholdings?

First, the concept of organic agriculture is not something alien to India. In fact, the first 'scientific' approach to organic farming can be quoted back to the Vedas of the 'Later Vedic Period', the essence of which is to live in partnership with, rather than exploit, nature. More recently, Mahatma Gandhi pioneered organic agriculture through his constructive programmes in several locations in India. It was the aggressive promotion of green revolution, which had led to a set back in the spread of organic farming through Gandhian movement.

Second, there are evidences to suggest that small farmers, especially in the Third World, are much more likely to apply agricultural practices such as crop rotations, mixed cropping (e.g., intercropping - where the empty space between the rows is occupied by other crops), which are essential building blocks of organic farming. They are also usually observed to combine agriculture with livestocks and utilize the manure to replenish the soil fertility. Large farmers generally tend to plant monocultures because they are the simplest to manage with heavy machinery.

Empirical evidence further suggests that while conventional agriculture goes better with large holdings, organic farming functions better in small-scale farms. A study, by Hanson, Lichtenberg and Peters, comparing grain production in organic vis-a-vis conventional methods, determined that "as farm size increases, the advantages of organic rotation become less visible." Organic farming was found to be more profitable and productive than conventional farming on a smaller scale, in this study.

Only one fifth of the dryland farmers in India use chemical inputs, the rest relying upon manure and green compost for maintaining soil fertility.
Third, it is estimated that only around 30% of the total cultivable area in India, where irrigation facilities are available, is covered under green revolution technology; the remaining 70% (approximately) of arable land, where rainfed or dryfarming is practiced, do not, generally, use agro-chemicals. According to an estimate made by the Institute of Integrated Rural Development in 2001, only one fifth of the dryland farmers in India use chemical inputs, the rest relying upon manure and green compost for maintaining soil fertility. The great majority of these people are peasants, indigenous people and small family farmers with very little capital, who still farm valleys and slopes using traditional methods, often in highly heterogeneous and risk-prone marginal environments.

In fact, given their situation, these farmers have little alternative but to rely upon locally available natural resources to maintain soil fertility and to combat pests and diseases. Whatever may be the reasons, the fact remains that the diverse farming systems managed by such small farmers could be considered as 'organic', as they do not rely on synthetic chemical pesticides or fertilizers and use technologies that optimize nutrient flows and use local resources such as native seeds and traditional knowledge. In technical terms such farms are called 'de-facto organic' (as distinct from 'certified organic') farms, i.e., farms that rely exclusively on natural methods of building soil fertility and combating pests and diseases, but are not inspected and verified by any organic certification agency.

The lucrative market of the developed world has so far acted as the primary driving force behind the development of the 'certified organic' sector in India, which is still at a nascent stage in this country. According to one estimate, in 1999 merely 0.001% of the total agricultural land of India was under certified organic cultivation. It is predominantly the NGOs and people's organizations that have been spearheading the organic agriculture movement in different parts of the country during the last two decades.

Very recently the Government has shown signs of getting involved. For instance, a special cell has been set up under the Agricultural and Processed Food Export Development Authority (APEDA) of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MOCI). The MOCI has also come out with a 'National Programme of Organic Products' (NPOP) in 2000, and the 'India Organic' logo in 2002. While all these initiatives have been undertaken to promote exports of Indian organic products, the Department of Agriculture and Cooperation has formulated a 'National Project on Organic Farming' to promote organic agriculture as part of an exercise to curb the use of chemical pesticides and make agricultural activity more eco-friendly.

Such initiatives are a step in the right direction, but they should be weighed against the huge subsidies that the Central Government is still providing for the production and import of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. There is a huge potential for organic farming to flourish in this country and given an appropriate institutional and policy framework, it will not be very difficult to promote the existing 'de-facto organic' farms to the category of 'certified organic' farms. This will enable those small farmers to take advantage of the lucrative market for 'certified organic' products in the developed world, which can directly contribute towards the improvement of their economic well-being. Moreover, besides being a technological or market option, organic farming can very well become a philosophy for sustainable rural development in India.

Some of the steps required to be taken in this direction are noted as under:

1. Appropriate research and extension services should be developed to make available to the small farmers all the relevant information on organic farming, in general, and its specific technical details, in particular.
2. Certification and labelling capacities should be developed within the country so as to overcome the prohibitive costs involved in getting certification done by external agencies.
3. Certification processes should be simplified and made accessible to small farmers.
4. Biofertilisers, bioagents, biopesticides and other organic inputs should be made available to the small land holders at sufficient quantities and reasonable prices.
5. Domestic market for organic products, which is still at a budding stage in this country, should be encouraged and developed.
6. Marketing linkages, both domestic and international, should be ensured for resource-poor small farmers.
7. Subsidies and other financial support schemes should be undertaken to help the small growers bear the initial expenses for converting to 'certified organic' farms, and so on.

In conclusion, our national and state agricultural policies should move forward and away from maintaining current double standards. What we need instead is the necessary institutional and policy framework that can pave the way for the promotion of organic agriculture on a nation-wide scale. Because this is the only means that can ensure the sustainability of Indian agriculture in the long run, while at the same time providing a healthier and more habitable environment.

This requires nothing less than a paradigm shift in the agricultural policies of the Government of India and the state governments.