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Our Food is Poisoned! And We have been Misled by the Myths about Organic.

The shiny-looking food we bring from supermarkets or even good old sabzi mandi is poisoned.

I don’t need to make that point all over again. This episode of Satyameva Jayate has done a pretty good, if necessarily dramatized, job. (Please watch if you are not familiar with the dangers of chemical farming.)

The tragedy, however, is that organic has become a word that arouses skepticism more than hope. Anecdotal reaction to the word organic is typically:

  • Too expensive – only for hippies and elites
  • Low yield
  • Doesn’t work

This, unfortunately, is the result of half-hearted, half-baked attempts that have been made in practicing organic farming at many places without understanding its holistic (oh yes – that much misused word) principles and implications. Newtonian Mechanics and Relativity have some fundamentally different axioms. It would be futile and unfair to ask Relativity to be explained in terms of Newtonian Mechanics. It is similarly futile to talk the language of chemical farming, believe in their axioms and ask organic farming to prove its mettle.

farm-markus-winkler-706520-unsplash

The following conversation is not fictitious, although slightly dramatized and reconstructed from memory.

Person A: So, did you grow vegetables with the help of compost. How was the output?

Person B: Very good. Very good. Farmers were very happy. Healthy vegetables. Good weight. But there is one problem with compost.

Person A: What problem?

Person B: Amount of Nitrogen is less in compost. Something needs to be done about that. Otherwise, it is very good.

Person A: You measured NPK? [1]

Person B: Yes.

Person A: Was there a problem with the vegetables?

Person B: No. No. Very good vegetables.

Person A: They why care about NPK?

Person B: But Nitrogen was less.

We don’t eat nitrogen from Urea. We eat vegetables. Person B – a guy who has worked for years in the field with farmers – didn’t see the irony. This was, at least, not a case of failure. But because organic farming is often attempted with misguided notions and expectations, it is no surprise that it results in disillusionment.

Below I talk about some common beliefs about organic farming.

Belief: Organic is about replacing each chemical input with a corresponding “organic” one.

It’s not. That is like explaining Relativity with Newtonian Mechanics. Chemical farming has dissociated the process of farming from the natural way the plants grow (Think about this: Who applies Urea, DAP, MOP or pesticides in jungles? Don’t plants grow there and grow ferociously?). It has been like replacing a balanced diet of cereals, lentils, fruits, and vegetables with different pills and potions which directly introduce specific proteins and vitamins into your body with some calories thrown in. All of us intuitively understand that this isn’t going to work for our bodies. The plants are no different and chemical farming is doing this to our plants. So, organic farming can not work on this principle and when organic farming is treated as using “organic” fertilizer, “organic” pesticide, and “organic” this and that, it is going to result in disappointment.

Belief: Organic farming is more expensive.

I found this to be a tricky one. Everybody thinks so (perhaps judging from the “expensive” organic products in the market). But nobody has been able to explain to me exactly why. Recently, I visited a very good NGO which has done extensive work in the fields of health, education, water management, horticulture, sports and what not. “We tried horticulture with organic. It didn’t work. Too expensive and there is no market for organic.” I pressed on, asking specific questions.

“What do you mean there is no market for organic? Could you not sell the produce or did you not get more than the market price?”

“Was the input cost higher with organic?”

“Did the yield go down with organic?”

It resulted in answers like

“We could sell, but not get more than the market price of regular produce.”

“Input cost didn’t go up; it went down.”

“Yield didn’t go down.”

So, what was the problem? Even if you got the same price as everybody else, your input cost was less and the yield was also fine. Doesn’t that leave you better off?

It took me some effort to navigate through the muddled up conversations. Finally, I realized that the devil was in the certification! I don’t even know the entire process, but everyone agrees that certification is a nightmare and small guys can basically not do it. But the problem is that most of these initiatives start with a focus on certification, which is expensive. So, they need a higher market price.

In summary, the farmers don’t spend more to grow organic, the consumers don’t pay more to eat organic. They are both paying for the certification.

Please keep that in mind the next time someone says “organic is expensive”.

Belief: Organic farming results in low yields.

What organic farming takes care of and what chemical farming destroys is the fertility of the soil. What is the fertility of soil? It’s not a “thing” that you can put into the soil. Fertility comes from the soil ecosystem which includes inorganic material like minerals, but also, very importantly, a large number of micro- and macro-organisms and organic matter. These organisms and plants have a mutually dependent relationship. Through photosynthesis, the plants release “sugar” into the soil that the micro-organisms feed on. These organisms, in turn, through their regular metabolism, release the minerals and nutrients from the soil in a form that the plants need. If you have this process going on in the soil, you don’t need to put nutrients from outside in the form of fertilizers.

With the use of chemicals over decades, this ecosystem in the soil has been destroyed. The organisms and organic material have disappeared. Hence, all the minerals of the soil are locked and not available to the plants. When you talk to older farmers, they will say that the soil has become “addicted” to the chemical. It is because the natural process is no longer functional. So, now, if you just stop using chemicals and try to grow plants, it will obviously not grow well. What you need is for the micro-organisms to return to the soil and for the soil to have enough organic material and moisture to sustain that life. This change needs some intervention and blindly trying to procure “organic inputs” from the market doesn’t work. The solution, of course, involves using some inputs, but they can be prepared with the animal and plant waste available to the farmers in their houses, farms or nearby areas. And they are best prepared by the farmers themselves, involving community wherever needed and possible. Firstly, because even when the inputs are available in the market, their quality is by no means guaranteed. There is no regulation and there is no dearth of unscrupulous businesses trying to milk the organic fad. Besides, preparation of such inputs in-house also helps come up with a system that is sustainable and suitable for the locality. It makes the optimum use of everything a farmer has at his disposal – land, plants and animals. Finally, it reduces outside dependence of the farmers. Different inputs work at different rates, some fast, some slow, some more easily made in one area, some in another and so on. But they exist, they work and they can be used.

While the well-off urban professionals turning to farming can usually take their time in building up an organic farming operation, the process of transition needs to be carefully managed for the small and marginal farmers. The thing is, it is entirely possible to manage. We just have to focus on the correct principles and outcomes and not obsess on measurements like NPK which don’t really matter!

Belief: But pests will still destroy everything.

An ecosystem similar to the one regulating soil fertility works to regulate pests too. The Satyameva Jayate episode also touches upon it. Basically, if there are pests in nature that destroy plants, there are others which eat these plant-pests. The organic approach is not to identify every single plant-pest and kill them with external inputs. But to get that ecosystem running in which the predators of the pests do that job of keeping the plants safe. There are again ways to manage the transition, which must be done carefully so as not to leave the small and marginal farmers stranded. It will have to be designed keeping in mind local conditions with minimal dependence on external inputs.

There are a few other important pieces of the puzzle including the now widespread practice of mono-cropping, water management, and seeds. But I don’t intend to write a technical treatise here.  What I want to emphasize is that organic is not a distant, hippy, expensive or unnatural idea. It is, in fact, the default idea. That chemical farming enjoys the badge of ‘conventional’ is the real distortion. It needs to be corrected. And it can be corrected.

[1] Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium (in soil)

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

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