Notwithstanding the Government apathy to promote it, organic agriculture seems to be emerging as an alternative to Green Revolution technology in India - slowly but surely. This is evident from the recent trend among an increasing number of farmers in the Green Revolution belts of the country to voluntarily switch over to organic agriculture from the 'hybrid seeds-agrochemicals and irrigation' based conventional farming technologies.

Until the appearance of this trend, organic agriculture, in the modern sense of the term had been adopted by two categories of farmers in India (leaving aside traditional farmers who have been using natural farming methods that could be termed as 'de-facto' organic farming): 1. Farmers who adopted organic agriculture because of their general environmental, ideological or philosophical underpinning. This category of agriculturists' reasons to go organic were certainly not financial incentives. 2. Farmers who wanted predominantly to tap the lucrative export markets for organic products, particularly in the developed countries.

While these two categories of agriculturists could be regarded as organic farmers by choice, the newly emerging third category in the green revolution belts of the country are the ones who are switching over to organic management techniques out of compulsions rather than by choice. These compulsions have their roots in the much-glorified Green Revolution - a magic lamp, which has converted India from a famine-ridden, starving nation of the sixties into a food-surplus country of today. Notwithstanding this laudable success story, the aftermath of this chemical-intensive technology has not only left India with severe environmental hazards, but has also put the long-run sustainability of Indian agriculture and the survival of the farming community itself into question.

See also
 •  A strategic case for 'Organic' Green Revolution technology has forced many farmers to get into debts in order to carry out the huge costs of cultivation. These debts did not pose any threat as long as the yields were impressive. However, things started worsening since the end of the nineties decade as soon as the long run unsustainability of the technology began showing up. The indiscriminate application of chemical fertilizers has depleted the organic contents and plant nutrients of the soil to such an extent that the soil productivity has started declining. The farmers, as a result, have been forced to apply ever-increasing doses of fertilizers to maintain the crop yields. While this has often required them to increase their burden of debt, crop yields have failed to show much improvement owing to the acute deterioration in the soil fertility. To make the situation even worse, pest problems have mounted over time requiring increasing application of chemical pesticides, which has further escalated the debt burden of the farmers.

The state of affairs has deteriorated still further by the mounting demand for water, owing to the poor water use efficiency of conventional farming. This may be explained as follows: water use efficiency depends mainly on water holding capacity of the soil and infiltration. While soils rich in organic matter have better water retention capacities, a high rate of infiltration requires maintenance of a topsoil with a good soil structure consisting of many cavities and pores. However, contrary to organic management techniques, which increase the water holding capacity of the soil (by increasing the soil organic matter) and facilitate better infiltration (by maintaining an appropriate topsoil structure), conventional farming techniques not only reduce the water holding capacity of the soil, but also accelerate the rate of soil erosion and run-off. The topsoil, as a consequence, gets washed off, which in turn reduces the rate of water infiltration into the soil.

This is what has happened in the green revolution belts of the country, where the poor water use efficiency of chemical-intensive agriculture has generated an ever-increasing demand for irrigation water. While the excessive irrigation requirement has caused several environmental hazards (such as, declining water table, pollution of groundwater due to leaching of chemicals, etc.) on the one hand, it has often required some farmers to get into further debt to cover irrigation expenses.

Having been confronted with the humiliation that has come along with growing indebtedness following repeated crop failures, thousands of farmers in the Green Revolution belts have been forced to commit suicide. But thousands others, having realized the unsustainable nature of Green Revolution type agriculture, are taking recourse to organic agriculture. They believe that organic farming is the only panacea that can take them out of this burgeoning crisis by way of improving soil fertility and overall health of the agro-ecosystem, thereby making their farming sustainable over the longer run. The promise of a better environment and improved health conditions ingrained in the concept of organic agriculture has also acted as an added incentive for these farmers, who have come across several perilous health hazards over the years, owing to the indiscriminate application of chemical pesticides under the conventional farming systems.

Given that organic agriculture requires less financial input and places more reliance on the available natural and human resources, there is nothing denying its potential to become a viable alternative for the debt-ridden, resource-poor farmers of the Green Revolution belts of the country. In fact a switch-over to organic farming can go a long way in improving the economic well-being of these impoverished cultivators if they can take advantage of the rapidly growing global markets for organic products which offer handsome premiums.

But is the trajectory of switchover from conventional to organic agriculture smooth?

The answer is in the negative. While the obstacles are numerous, the first and foremost among them is definitely the financial and economic costs involved in the process of 'conversion'.

In the terminology of organic agriculture, 'conversion' has a very specific meaning. In order to grasp it one has to keep in mind that organic agriculture, in the modern sense of the term, is a highly regulated form of ecological agriculture as it adheres to legally defined standards and norms of production, processing and labelling. The legalities of organic agriculture are codified in a number of formal standards that define the regimes that producers (or processors) need to work within in order to claim organic status. These organic standards, besides stipulating the prohibition of use of certain inputs (such as, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides), also demands strict adherence to a range of practices by the farm to maintain its sustainable productive capacity. In order to enter the lucrative markets for organic produce, it is not only necessary for farms to abide by these stipulated norms and regulations but they also require a certification from an internationally recognized authority on the authenticity of their produce, before it can be labelled 'organic'.

Globally there are more than 100 different organic standards and certification systems in place. However, all of them require that a farm undergoing a switchover from conventional to organic management should go through a transition period, generally called the 'conversion period'. This is basically an interim phase when all the requirements of organic standards are to be followed before the resulting product may be considered as organic. Thus the conversion period is the time span between the start of the organic management and the certification of crops or animal husbandry as organic.

The conversion from a conventional regime to an organic system primarily requires complete deterrence from application of chemical inputs. Furthermore, the chemical residues left in the soil by the hitherto practiced conventional agricultural techniques should also be neutralized. However, the organic conversion process is not just about replacing a high-input chemical system with a low-input non-chemical alternative. It involves changes, which are more fundamental.

First, the conversion process demands a significant change in the attitude of the farmer. This is a crucial step because the approach to farming problems in an organic system is essentially different from its conventional counterpart. While the latter handles a farming problem in a piecemeal manner with a linear 'input-output' approach, the former relies on a holistic or 'systems' view in order to work with and alongside natural processes.

Second, the conversion process necessitates major changes at the farm level, particularly within the soil. A healthy and fertile soil is the foundation of any organic agricultural system. The focus of the management under this approach is on maintenance and improvement of the overall health of the individual farm's soil-microbe-plant-animal system (a holistic approach). This contrasts sharply with agro-chemical based conventional farming systems that leave devastating impacts on soil life and soil biological activities (e.g., elimination of natural enemies, pest resurgence, genetic resistance to pesticides, destruction of natural control mechanisms, and so on). Conversion period is the intermediate phase when attempts are being made to rebuild the soil ecosystems that have been destroyed by the conventional agriculture over the years, to make it suitable for organic management.

During this phase of soil rebuilding the converting farmer takes recourse to several organic management techniques, such as, planting of legumes and green manures, use of crop residues, mulches, application of animal manures, composts and other organic wastes, carbon-based organic fertilizers etc. These techniques are aimed at creating an optimal soil condition for an enhanced biological activity in the soil so that plants get fed through the soil ecosystem and not through synthetic fertilizers added to the soil.

The process of soil rebuilding invariably demands some time. In fact, these time-consuming changes at the soil level are among the prime reasons for requiring an interim period for conversion prior to the certification as an organic unit. The 'IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) Basic Standards for Organic Production and Processing’ manual clearly recommends that the conversion period should be long enough to improve soil fertility significantly and to re-establish the balance of the ecosystem. Notably, the manual provides a framework for certification bodies and standard-setting organizations worldwide to develop their own certification standards.

The time required to achieve these goals largely depends on the pre-existing ecological condition of the soil, which is in turn determined by the past land use. Hence, the conversion period may not always be of identical duration for different situations. Although the rules of most certifying organizations require a conversion period of at least three years, the certifier has the discretion to extend the conversion period depending on the ecological conditions of the farm undergoing conversion.

However, the organic regulations allow a farm to get converted either by gradual introduction of organic practices over the whole farm, or by application of organic techniques to only a portion of the operation at first. In the latter case simultaneous production of the organic and conventional crops or animal products is permitted only if such production is undertaken in a way that allows clear and continuous separation of all products claimed as organic from their conventional counterparts. In both types of conversion strategies, there needs to be a clear plan as to how to proceed with the process.

The conversion period may turn out to be a difficult phase for the farmer owing to several direct and indirect costs involved in the whole process of conversion.

To begin with, at the initial stages of conversion, yields may be lower compared to those under conventional practices, although they may turn out to be equal or even higher once the transition phase gets over. This is because it takes time for the soil microorganisms to re-establish the equilibrium that had earlier been disrupted by chemical agriculture. When the application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides is stopped suddenly, the soil may not have a healthy diversity of soil microorganisms, natural enemies and other helpful living organisms. Hence pest problems may be higher in the initial stage of conversion and it may also be somewhat difficult to achieve a good level of balanced fertility in the soil. Moreover, it may take some time for the manager to learn the nitty-gritty of the new system of farming and to develop management skills. Hence performance may be poor as a result of mistakes or inappropriate actions, or due to experiments with new techniques.

While initial yields may be lower on one hand, several costs may be required to be incurred at the initial stages of conversion at the other. For instance, new investments may be needed in farm machinery, fencing, storage space etc. Additional costs may also be associated with organic fertility building measures, such as, reseeding grassland, establishing green manure, legumes and so on. Since such organic techniques are generally more labour intensive so labour costs are also likely to be higher compared to the pre-conversion period.

Information and knowledge gathering may be expensive as well, due to the costs of literature, training courses, advisory services etc. Furthermore, high costs would also be involved in getting the inspections (at least once a year) and ultimately certification done by an established certification agency. The costs of certification and labeling may indeed turn out to be prohibitive for small farmers in a country like India, which still lacks domestic certification capacities.

Above that, a farm undergoing conversion cannot even take advantage of the premium prices available for organic products because during this official transition period products cannot be sold as 'Organic'. As a result, they cannot expect to cover for the initial financial expenses of conversion. Even though sometimes these products are allowed by the certifying authority to be labeled and sold as 'Organic in Conversion' products, they can at best fetch prices slightly higher than those received by products of chemical farming. Such prices can hardly compensate for the financial burden of conversion. Moreover, even if such labeling and sale is allowed, significant market development costs may be associated with marketing of such produce.

The mechanism of organic marketing is quite different from that of regular marketing (of produce of conventional farming). Organic markets are still a niche segment in which specific buyers are targeted. Careful selection and development of target markets and distribution channels is of utmost importance in case of organic. Such marketing requires different skills than regular marketing and may call for additional costs in the initial stages. Furthermore, reliable market information, which is very often difficult to obtain, may turn out to be another obstacle to marketing of organic produce.

Apart from the aforesaid financial burden, the process of conversion may be hindered due to other transaction costs as well. Some of them are:

  1. Lack of access to relevant knowledge and information
  2. Dearth of training facilities and the non-existence of an adequate extension system
  3. Enormous amount of mandatory documentation involved in the process of inspection and certification, which is too cumbersome to maintain for those small farmers, who are illiterate
  4. Difficulties in obtaining reliable information on domestic and international market (say, on suppliers, prices and qualities); more so because the marketing and information services available in the country all relate to conventional products only
  5. Lack of demand in the domestic markets
  6. Constraints on access to international markets
  7. Institutional barriers, such as, scarcity of professional institutions capable of assisting the farmers throughout production, post-production and marketing processes
  8. Inadequate availability of different organic inputs, such as organic seeds, bio-fertilizers, biopesticides etc.

Not surprisingly, the origin of many of these obstacles can be traced back to the negligence of organic farming in the agricultural policy of the Government of India, which is still endorsing the Green Revolution technology, despite ample evidence of its unsustainability. Given this negligent approach on part of the Government, the significant financial and economic burden of conversion is undoubtedly acting as one of the prime factors hampering a faster growth of organic agriculture in the country. There are many farmers in the country who are very hesitant to go into organic farming solely due to the fear of losses in the transition period, although they are quite aware of the prospect of a higher earning eventually.

Well-thought-out subsidy and other support schemes are needed to make conversion to organic agriculture easier and cheaper for farmers, as has been done in the European Union, the United States and in many other countries. Experiences from other countries have also shown that the initial expenses of conversion are often constraints that can be overcome if financial support is given to farmers. The extent of farmers' enthusiasm for organic agriculture in Western Europe has been found to be closely correlated with the size of the conversion grants available. Hence, the degree of support during transition, and sometimes in the first years following the transition period, are important factors in the economics of organic farming.

Given the multiplicity of direct as well as indirect benefits of organic farming (that includes financial, economic, social, environmental, ecological and other benefits), which far outweigh the initial costs of conversion, there is enough justification for a conversion support policy on part of the Central Government. Unfortunately, successive Governments at New Delhi have not undertaken action in this direction. Interventions by the Central Government have by and large been restricted to initiatives taken by the Ministry of Commerce to encourage export of ‘certified’ organic products.

It is high time that the Government of India make a structural shift in its current policy stance of promoting organic agriculture merely as a means of enhanced earnings from the export front and support it as the technology of mainstream agriculture in the country. The Ministry of Agriculture should devise a full-fledged long-term policy framework to create an environment conducive enough for organic agriculture to flourish. Some of the steps required to be taken on part of the Central as well as the state governments are discussed below.

1. As mentioned earlier, government support during the transition years is an essential prerequisite for organic agriculture to gain momentum in the country. Hence, well-thought-out subsidy and other support schemes need to be designed so as to make conversion to organic agriculture easier and cheaper, as has been done in the European Union, the United States and in many other countries.

2. Organic agriculture does not require huge investments in irrigation, energy and external inputs. Rather, it demands substantial investments in capacity building through research, training and extension. Unfortunately, till date, government-supported research initiatives and extension services in India have displayed blatant bias in favour of green revolution technology. Thus, while the country has one of the most well developed networks of extension services in the world for conventional agriculture, official extension services on organic agriculture are virtually non-existent up till now.

Organic agriculture must in one way or the other be linked up with the existing infrastructure of research and extension services. This was actually done in Europe, where agricultural universities gradually introduced a faculty for organic agriculture and organic agricultural extension workers were incorporated in the pre-existing systems of extension. Similar initiatives need to be taken for creation of faculties on organic agriculture at the leading agricultural universities in India. Organic extension services and training facilities for farmers (such as organic farmers' field schools) should also be established.

3. Appropriate networks should be created in the country for dissemination of information among the farmers about international as well as local markets for organic produce.

4. The marketing channel for organic products in India has been confined primarily to exports with domestic marketing still in its infancy. This needs to change. Very few alternative marketing channels have been explored so far to promote domestic sales of organic products. The creation of a proper balance between export and local consumption, however, warrants exploration of various domestic market and marketing alternatives, such as weekly farmer's markets, buyers-sellers meet, organic fairs, and so on.

5. Steps also need to be taken to enhance consumer awareness about the health-safety and environmental implications of organic produce. Heavy investments are required to be undertaken over a longer period in order to carry out several promotional activities and for development of domestic marketing networks before local marketing of organic products can actually take off in India.

6. A proactive role needs to be taken on part of the Central Government for creation of domestic certification capabilities in order to overcome the exorbitant costs involved in getting certification done by external certifying agencies. Support structures may also be introduced for small farmers' group certification. Such initiatives are essential for creating a level playing field for the numerous resource-poor small farmers of the country. Otherwise, the production and marketing of certified organic products risks becoming a business that only large farmers, or highly organized groups of small holders, can afford.

7. An appropriate organizational system (e.g. through cooperatives or NGO initiatives) needs to be developed in order to assist the less-educated farmers in necessary documentation, without which organic certification cannot be obtained.

See also
 •  Bio-fertilisation solution helps 8. Market development needs to happen for various organic inputs as well. Products such as biofertilisers, biopesticides, bio-control agents etc., should be made available in adequate quantities and at reasonable prices. For this purpose, production units may be established for large-scale and organized production of these inputs. Evidence for this is the experience of Cuba - a country where organic conversion has been successfully undertaken on a nation-wide scale as a consequence of a conscious policy decision on part of the Fidel Castro government.

All these initiatives inevitably call for a well-thought-out policy framework as well as significant public investment in favour of organic agriculture. It may be recalled at this point that the new UPA Government, in its Common Minimum Programme (CMP), has already promised a significant stepping up of public investment in agricultural research and extension, rural infrastructure and irrigation. Unfortunately, these increased outlays, even if actually undertaken, in all likelihood, will once again get utilized for reinforcing the failed model of chemical-intensive agriculture in the country.

That the Left-backed UPA-regime is going to take a pro-agriculture stance in the days to come is evident from their signals. This approach of bringing the spotlight back on farmers is a welcome step forward in right direction. However, what is further warranted at this juncture is a quantum jump in policy focus from chemical-intensive farming to sustainable agriculture. If the bottom line is to enhance the welfare and well being of farmers, and to assure a secure future for their families in every respect, as has been affirmed in the CMP, then organic agriculture is definitely the right choice. The sooner the Government realizes this truth, the better it is for Indian agriculture.