Organic Farming in India: Myths and Realities

B.G. Shivakumar and I.P.S. Ahlawat / Mumbai Mar 23, 2009 15:45

Whether organic farming can address the multitude of problems faced by Indian agriculture at present is a major issue.

Whether organic farming can address the multitude of problems faced by Indian agriculture at present is a major issue
Agriculture in India is one of the most important sectors of its economy. It provides livelihood to almost two thirds of the work force in the country and accounts for 18% of India's GDP. About 43 % of India's geographical area is used for agricultural activity.

Agriculture is the single largest employment provider and plays a vital role in the overall socio-economic development of India. A large number of production systems are in practice in different parts of the country. Large scale use of inputs both organic and inorganic has been a common sight in many of the farming situations in the past several decades. However in recent times the concept of organic farming is being forcefully projected as the method for sustaining the agricultural production in the country.

Organic farming is a form of agriculture which avoids or largely excludes the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, plant growth regulators, and livestock feed additives. Organic farming relies on crop rotation, crop residues, animal manures, biofertilizers and mechanical cultivation to maintain soil productivity, to supply plant nutrients, and to control weeds, insects, diseases and other pests.

Before jumping into organic farming bandwagon, we need to have answers to the following: What level of crop yield/ productivity is acceptable? Is it suitable for country like India with a large population to feed? Whether available organic sources of plant nutrients sufficient for pure organic farming? And, are organic farming technologies sustainable in long run?

Whether organic farming can address the multitude of problems faced by Indian agriculture at present is a major issue. Further, the virtues attributed to organic farming need to be rechecked before coming to any conclusions.

Issues of concern:

Organic farming and nutrient supply
At present, there is a gap of nearly 10 million tonnes between annual addition and removal of nutrients by crops which are met by mining nutrients from soil. A negative balance of about 8 million tonnes of NPK is foreseen in 2020, even if we continue to use chemical fertilizers, maintaining present growth rates of production and consumption. The most optimistic estimates at present, show that only about 25-30 per cent nutrient needs of Indian agriculture can be met by utilizing various organic sources.: These organic sources are agriculture wastes, animal manure etc.

Organic farming and plant protection
Plant protection against the ravages of pests, diseases and weeds is an important issue in any modern high production system. The exclusion of pesticides for plant protection poses greater risk of yield losses. The options available under organic production systems are very few and crop specific. Often they are very slow and the success rate depends on the prevailing weather conditions leading to low to moderate effectiveness even in the recommended crops and situations. Thus they limit the realization of full potential of crop yields. Any sudden outbreak of insect pests or plant disease can completely destroy the crops, unless requisite chemical pesticides are used.

Organic farming and crop productivity
In general, it is observed that the crop productivity declines under organic farming. The extent of decline depends on the crop type, farming systems practices followed at present etc. The decline is more in high yielding and high nutrient drawing cereals as compared to legumes and vegetables and in irrigated systems as compared to rainfed and dryland farming systems. Without using fertilisers, the requirement of area to merely sustain the present level of food grain production will be more than the geographical area of India! This is simply neither possible nor sustainable.

Organic farming and certification processes
Hitherto there are no standard certification processes uniformly applicable across different agro-climatic conditions. Both process and product certification procedures are still in evolutionary stage and need further progress before they can be effectively adopted. Due to biological nature of both processes and products, there is always an element of dynamism subject to temporal and spatial conditions. The presently available certification procedures are very cumbersome and expensive and out of reach for the common farmer. Given the highly fragmented holdings of the farmers, there is every possibility of “contamination” from the neighbouring farms – besides the temptation to use chemical inputs to boost yields.

Organic farming and heterogeneity of inputs
There is a large variability in the inputs used in organic farming. Due to biological nature of the inputs, prescribing uniform standards and maintaining them in different agro-climatic conditions is beyond ones control. Thus, there can not be a common input recommendation as in fertilizers or pesticides. This leads to arbitrariness on the part of organic farmers as far as input management is concerned.

Organic farming and food quality.
It is often opined that the quality of the organically produced food is superior to that of conventionally produced food. However, there is no such conclusive proof to justify the nutritional superiority of the organically produced food, over conventionally produced food. If the conventionally produced foods are blamed to contain traces of chemical residues, the organically produced foods are equally to be blamed for their contamination with harmful bacteria and other organisms inimical to the health of the consumers.

Organic farming products and marketing
There are no diagnostic techniques available as of now to distinguish products from different farming systems. The perceived belief that organic products are good for health is fetching them premium prices. However, unscrupulous hawkers may sell anything and everything as organically produced to unsuspecting buyer at higher prices resulting in outright cheating.

Organic farming and switch over period
A transition period of 3-4 years is generally required to convert a conventional farm into an organic farm. In this period, the produce is not considered as organically produced. The reduced yields and lack of benefits of premium for the produces is a double blow for the farmers leading to financial losses which are substantial for the small to medium farmers

The Possible Options:
With all the above concerns, organic farming is not feasible as an alternative to conventional farming under all circumstances in Indian context. The shortfall in inorganic nutrient supply, uneconomic returns to inorganic inputs under dryland and rainfed farming systems, inherent better response to organic farming in crops like vegetables, legumes and millets under traditional farming systems paves way for integration of conventional farming with organic farming. Such integration on sound scientific basis will be effective in addressing the problems of micronutrient deficiencies; recycling of crop residues, farm wastes, rural and urban wastes; besides effectively meeting growing food demands of rising populations. There will also be scope for practicing organic farming on case to case basis in traditional strongholds like hilly areas, rain fed and dry land farming system to cater to the demands of organic produces in urban areas who would pay premium prices for such commodities.

Organic farming should be considered for lesser endowed region of the country. It should be started with low volume high value crops like spices and medicinal aromatic crops. A holistic approach involving integrated nutrient management, integrated pest management, enhanced input use efficiency and adoption of region-specific promising cropping systems would be the best farming strategy for India

Bottom-line:

Organic foods are a matter of choice of the individuals or enterprises. If somebody wants to go in for organic farming, primarily on commercial consideration / profits motive, to take advantage of the unusually higher prices of organic food, they are free to do so. Organic farming is essentially a marking tool, and cannot replace conventional farming for food security, quality and quantity of crop outputs. With a growing population and precarious food situation, India cannot afford to take risk with organic farming alone.

The authors are scientists at Division of Agronomy, Indian Agricultural Research Institute