Friday, June 10, 2011


Organic foods command considerable attraction from a sizable consumer segment because of the relative safety these foods offer due to non-use of chemicals during production both as fertilizer as well as pesticides. That their share world-wise has soared to 2% from an insignificant start a decade ago speaks volume about the faith consumers have on them and this volume is likely to go up significantly with safety questions repeatedly being raised on traditionally grown crops. This is in spite of the premium price consumers will have to pay for buying organic food versions from the market. Though the present land coverage under organic farming is only about 37 million hectares, which is less than 1% of the cultivated agricultural land globally, it has the potential on a long term to replace the traditional practices.

If local food movement is catching up in the West, this is also due to precisely the same reason though environmental advantage is also claimed while promoting locally grown foods. Farmers market, another phenomenon, taken roots in the West, is also borne out of the demand for fresh foods as safe as possible from the local farmers without the intervention of retail marketing operators. Urban gardens coming up in many urban areas in the US and Canada are a result of another effort by the city consumers to ensure high quality fresh produce for themselves. In spite of all these innovative efforts, food poisoning continues to haunt some of the most affluent countries as illustrated by the recent E.coli contamination episode in the EU which has already claimed two dozen lives and affected thousands of people. Fortunately the source of contamination, contrary to earlier reports of Spanish cucumbers, has been traced to sprouts from Germany.

Organic food production is an area not well understood by many people and farmers willing to switch over from their traditional cultivation with mono culture have no clue as to the wherewithal of the needed technology. Besides the cost involved is significantly higher when organic cultivation is taken up though market gives a higher returns to these "adventurous" and progressive farmers. There are, however some NGOs working in some areas offering training to farmers in switching over to organic crops, though they are not widespread. From the soil health point of view, organic farming with emphasis on multi culture cultivation, does not destroy the health of the soil draining all its nutritive contents. It has to be remembered that the single most mistake committed during the Green Revolution was its emphasis on mono culture and chemical and water intensive operations affecting the health of top soil in many areas. No tilling technology adopted by many farmers can only be a temporary measure because applying organic manure can only maintain top soil.

The controversy regarding the claim by a few organic food enthusiasts that it is more healthy from nutritional angle does not merit any consideration as the same has been proved to be not correct. Some enthusiasts even suggest that organic food is tastier than conventionally produced counterparts though scientific evidence is yet to confirm this claim. Similarly there is also raging controversy regarding productivity, the major criticism being that yield per acre is less in case of organic farming, raising some doubts regarding its usefulness to help increase food production but this has not been consistently demonstrated. On the contrary there are several findings asserting that organic farms withstand drought more effectively than the traditional agriculture. If organic farming as per the definition of the International Federation of Agriculture Movement (IFOAM), the umbrella body guiding the new developments in this field, is followed major benefits would be sustaining the health of the soil, the ecosystem and human health. Advocates of GM technology feel that integrating organic farming with transgenic crops can enable the former to achieve quantum jump in the productivity. But IFOAM norms do not allow GM crops to be called organic.

According to APEDA, the agency that oversees agricultural products exports from India, duly certified organic farming accounts only for about 1 per cent of overall agriculture production in the country as organic farming is very small in size, compared to 2 per cent at the global level. It is known that over the years, application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has depleted soil, and inefficient irrigation has caused water tables to plunge in many parts of India. Crop yields are falling continuously even as India's food demand has significantly increased necessitating drastic action to buck this trend. According to some experts Agro-ecology or organic farming deserves to be considered for country wide use as it can deliver advantages that are complementary to better known conventional approaches such as breeding high-yielding varieties.

In India, agriculture has always been an important area but methods and practices remain largely outdated and manual. More than half of the country's population of 1.2 billion relies on agriculture for a living. The vast majority of farms in India are small, less than three acres in size and farmers are heavily burdened by the cost of seeds, fertilizer and pesticides, in spite of extensive government subsidies. For many small farmers, organic farming makes better sense and the existing limited training infrastructure largely in the NGO sector, is doing yeoman service. What needs to be done is to expand such facilities manifold besides putting in place attractive financial incentives to farmers for taking up organic farming. There is no doubt that Green Revolution, though was able to raise food production, did cause extensive damage to the health of the soil and organic farming seems to be the only way to restore the soil health that can again raise productivity from agricultural lands in the country.

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