Why one needs to take criticism of PM Narendra Modi’s organic farming policy with a pinch of salt
Pseudo-scientific writers often attack organic farming for lesser yields, conveniently overlooking fiscal revenue burdens -- fertiliser, pesticide, subsidies, soil and water degradation and debt endured to make industrial agriculture viable
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech created many ripples in the agricultural world. His statements were “chemical-free farming and organic farming is our duty”, and “small farmers can especially benefit from natural farming”. The prime minister called this “a national campaign to be Atmanirbhar” or self-reliant, but this caused an uproar among ideology-driven media. After all, you can’t blame journalists with no experience in farming, probably under strict editorial command regurgitating industrial agricultural propaganda.
Being an urban organic vegetable grower, I was appalled at these articles, for one must give credit where it’s due, even if that person happens to be the prime minister. So, I ventured out to meet small organic farmers who are making a big change economically.
Although there are many organic farmers in India, I was looking for recent converts to organic agriculture to prove the point. The answer appeared in a southern Maharashtra village, next to whitish sand banks of the dry Agrani river. I sniffed out Ramesh Khandagale, a two-acre organic farmer who turned to organic farming in 2020. He was encouraged by a local agricultural officer. And as luck would have it, not only has he quadrupled his income but is now known throughout the region for his record Rabi (winter) jowar (sorghum) yields. I wanted to know his secret.
Fortunately, it was an open one. Slightly smelly though, but Ramesh didn’t mind the putrid smell. He was standing by his compost pit, and two blue barrels of bio-fertilisers. “Once you shift from chemical to organic, there is a drop in production, but it’s not because of organic farming. It happens because prolonged agri-chemical use causes soil damage. The toxic chemicals destroy soil microbes and organic matter. Crops like sugarcane, grapes, etc., soak up all the traces of minerals and other nutrients, making the soil dead. But organic farming is the way to recovery, and with the right methods of soil conservation, yields can be better than chemical farming,” Ramesh explained.
So how is it done? “One needs to compost a lot. I continuously mulched and added as much natural compost as I could. Home-brewed bio-enzymes using different local leaves, eggs, bones, etc., accelerated the composting and provided for the nutrient gap,” Ramesh narrated as he was stirring the bio-enzyme barrel. But all this must be expensive, I thought. Maybe more labour intensive too?
Ramesh smiles when I asked about costs and scalability. “The compost and bio-fertilisers are no costs at all. One barrel will last me the whole season. I only need to hire one person to collect different leaves. I have ample cow and buffalo manure. My real-time costs for 2020 were about Rs 40,000 and I earned over Rs 10 lakh.”
“Profits grew because I saved 30 per cent water and used less labour than chemical farmers in my area. I also didn’t spend anything on pesticides or fertilisers. Using flower insectary and other natural methods, I saved my crops from pests and diseases, whereas others spend a huge amount on chemical crop protection. I also used lesser seeds and weed out-break was minimal on my fields,” he said.
But that was not all. Ramesh, after growing, also worked very hard on value addition. Today, he boasts of making 28 items from jowar (sorghum) alone. Getting a few other farmers together, he started a local brand for desi items and increased his income. “I got bumper yields and then did value addition by transforming the crops into biscuits, flour, etc. And it’s not just my model, with technical help and some common sense, this model can be adapted to all regions in India and across a variety of crops or plantations.”
Ramesh’s commonsense became clear as we moved to inspect his field. Robust green chilli and corn welcomed us. We often crossed iron boards, declaring the partnership with government or private companies. Ramesh’s farm is a model farm in the area and he is experimenting each season with newer seeds and crops. I strayed to inspect the neighbours’ field, and the difference was visible to the naked eye. While Ramesh’s soil was darker, smelled earthy and was moister, his neighbour’s chemical agriculture fields were dry, the soil was lighter and the corn looked unhealthy.
It was strange to see how with chemical pesticide and fertiliser use, Ramesh’s neighbour’s field looked sickly compared to his green corn and chilly. This went beyond industrial propaganda, “Over time, the chemicals give the weeds and insects resistance, and they attack the crops with more ferocity. Over time, not only the cost increases for chemical farmers, but also the resilience of the land dies,” Ramesh said as he has meticulously noted his expense and soil conditions year after year.
I rushed back to Ramesh and asked him how much time does it take to run his farm? “Farming is in my blood, and even after working for an MNC, I was not satisfied. I didn’t want to leave the Earth as an insect, I wanted to do something good for the planet and my family. So, I took organic farming. I usually do all the work myself, but hire one-two person seasonally,” Ramesh said. Apart from farming, Ramesh continues his work with an MNC, working evening-night shifts and dedicating the day to agricultural work.
As the sun was turning orange, it was time for Ramesh’s night shift. His son came running from the house, carrying tea and jowar biscuits. Ramesh’s life proved yet again, that organic farming is economical and the need of the hour. Pseudo-scientific writers often attack organic farming for lesser yields, conveniently overlooking fiscal revenue burdens — fertiliser, pesticide, subsidies, soil and water degradation and debt endured to make industrial agriculture viable.
It became clear, that for the small farmers to have a sustainable future, we need to move towards regenerative agriculture, and our prime minister has been prescient after all.
The writer is an independent agri-policy analyst and the former director, Policy and Outreach, National Seed Association of India. He tweets @Indrassingh.
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