Going organic in agriculture: Will consumers support farmers?

Sunday, 1 July 2012 - 2:57pm IST | Place: Ahmedabad | Agency: DNA
It is very encouraging to see an upsurge of interest among various classes of consumers about organically grown food products.

It is very encouraging to see an upsurge of interest among various classes of consumers about organically grown food products. Lest this interest evaporates soon, it might be useful to understand little more deeply the way organic agriculture movement has emerged in different parts of the world, and how we could strengthen it in our country.

A large number of farmers in dry or extremely humid regions, mountains, forests and other marginal regions indulge in organic farming, more or less compulsively. This means, given a choice, many of them might start using chemical inputs. But due of lack of irrigation or financial resources or technology suitable for their conditions, they continue to grow organic. They were also called as laggards of green revolution.

The tragedy is that they will become laggards of the organic movement as well, if portrayal of sustainable farming by a TV series dominates understanding of the masses. The gentlemen farmers, who have taken to organic farming, are most welcome and their contribution has to be encouraged. But their proportion is miniscule. The real large numbers come from regions where local varieties of crops are still grown in a heterogeneous ecological environment. How can we sustain agro-biodiversity and incentivise majority of organic producers, in the process helping ourselves through better health and quality of life?

There should be a separate market yard, besides market outlets, in every major city for organic producers. This will help consumers as well as the producers. The organic food or vegetables are tastier, not only to humans but to pests and diseases as well.

Storing them for longer duration is a real challenge. The common facilities for storage have also to be created. For pest management, Astad Pastakia of IIMA had done a doctoral thesis in 1996 on sustainable pest management. This was based on non-chemical pest control –innovations by farmers scouted by Honey Bee Network in the previous decade. A database on the subject, larger than anywhere in the world, is available at www.honeybee.org. We are interacting with state department of agriculture to identify ways to diffuse low-cost, extremely affordable and sustainable solutions to farmers and livestock keepers.
In many countries, Consumers Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a way of life. The consumers offer to contribute their labour at the fields of organic farmers and thus help in reducing costs and experience the whole process. The farmers, in turn, gain confidence of the consumers and also reduce their costs. Both sides benefit in the process.

Like in earlier years, there will be Sattvik 2012 in third week of December. The traditional food festival is perhaps the largest festival in the country where around 50,000 people come and savour traditional recipes and organic products. But once a year is not enough. Consumers, even here, can play a role in random inspection to the claimed organic farms. Unless we develop robust mechanisms of inspection, record-keeping and periodic tests, organic agriculture movement will remain confined to a few inspired souls.

Farmers in disadvantaged regions may need procurement guarantees from the consumer associations. Never before in history of human civilization have we lost so much agro-biodiversity and associated community knowledge as we are currently. Sadbhav – SRISTI Sanshodhan, a natural product lab at SRISTI has pooled many of the farmers’ innovations to develop herbal growth promoters, veterinary medicine and food products such as nine-grain khakras, biscuits made of buck wheat, among others. One needs to develop a value chain around organic agriculture to ensure that food based on such products is available in hospitals, schools and of course, to the consumer at their homes.

India had a whole treaties viz Vriksha Ayurveda on the subject. Contemporary experiments by farmers and in a few cases by scientists have expanded our understanding much wider. There is a need for invigorated support from consumers and policymakers to take this movement forward. I hope readers will get engaged.

The author is a professor at IIMA


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