New Internationalist

Organic and beyond

Issue 399

Can ‘going organic’ save India’s besieged cotton farmers? Not on its own, argues Richard Swift, as he sorts through the evidence.

Michael York
Still hard work picking: a young organic cotton farmer harvests her crop (above). Michael York

Anil Gupta is a professor at India’s most prestigious management institute. He’s a key player in an impressive array of Ahmedabad-based appropriate technology organizations, like the Society for Research for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions (SRISTI) and the National Innovation Foundation (NIF). They run something called The Honeybee Network, with its own newsletter bringing together eco-theorists and practitioners.

We meet in his office on the modern Ahmedabad campus. Gupta bubbles over with enthusiasm about the genius of rural India. For him, the failures of the formal sector have left gaps in which indigenous science has had a chance to develop. He points to the work of SRISTI in first documenting and then patenting and helping develop a plethora of farmer-based inventions. He is obviously a man who carries a lot of intellectual weight with his co-workers, who hang on his words. He points to the simple cotton khadi that he wears, as a way of indicating both its comfort in the blistering heat and his faith in the future of the fabric.

There is a beautiful simplicity in the non-chemical bio-controls of organic production that has an immediate appeal. Gupta spins off example after example of how it might be done. Common-sense things, like spraying sugar on plants to attract ants that will eat the eggs of at least some cotton pests. It certainly sounds a little simpler, less expensive and dangerous than dousing the crops several times with pesticide each growing season. Gupta believes that a whole arsenal of these kinds of controls, in combination with the scientific innovation carried out by SRISTI, can provide an alternative model for cotton agriculture. Dr Vipin Kumar, the Chief Co-ordinator of SRISTI, proudly holds up a natural pesticide that the group is making available to Gujarati farmers for a fraction of the price of conventional agro-chemicals.

SRISTI and NIF maintain an impressive volume of hundreds of farmer-based inventions in various stages of development. The grounds of NIF are scattered with them – from the straightforward to the complex: simple devices that allow water to be carried greater distances (usually by women) with more ease; exercise chairs; coolers and milking machines that use no external energy source; a machine that would allow the harvesting of the traditional short-staple Desai cottons that made Indian textiles the marvel of the world in the era of handloom weaving.

With the World Health Orgnaization estimating three million pesticide poisonings and 20,000 deaths annually – it is definitely time for a change. And Gupta doesn’t restrict himself to the ecological impact of agriculture but looks ‘downstream’ to the environmental impact of textile mills. He surprises me with the simple fact that cotton can be grown in a number of different colours, which have been eliminated from cotton growing over years of selective breeding. Industrial dyeing is a highly polluting process, and Gupta holds that a return to coloured cotton bolls would have a beneficial effect.

Disconnect

It is hard not to be swept up by the enthusiasm of Gupta and those around him. But somehow, after seeing the devastation of the Vidarbha cotton belt, I felt a disconnect. When I gave Gupta the figures I had heard cited on the number of farmer suicides, he was shocked. It turned out that a team from Ahmedabad has actually travelled to Vidarbha and tried to get the farmers there interested in organic products and methods. But for some reason things had not worked out. They vowed to try again. It may be that the situation in Gujarat – where most cotton production is irrigated and the various BT hybrid seeds have been developed locally and are not too expensive – is just too different from the situation in the rest of India.

The Kutch (also a part of Gujarat) is a dry hilly area of northwestern India flat up against the Pakistani border. This is a region greatly affected by a tragic earthquake in 2001 that killed over 20,000 people in the ancient capital Bhuj and surrounding villages. The area has for some years now been the home of Agrocel, a company that works with farmers to make the transition to organic cotton. The land is irrigated, either through drip or channel irrigation, and farmers have experienced good crop yields once the transition to non-chemical and non-genetically modified agriculture has been made. A number of Agrocel farmers also get a fair-trade premium that they use ‘collectively’ to provide water-harvesting infrastructure, school improvements and other forms of social development.

Agrocel is a for-profit company part-owned by the Gujarati State Government, but with the main shareholder the philanthropic Schroff family. The Schroffs, through Agrocel and a series of rural-based charitable trusts, are helping the farmers shift to organic production. They have also been the moving spirit behind Shrujan, a movement of 3,000 rural craftswomen from the Kutch who produce some of the most beautiful handwoven textiles India has to offer. Mr Schroff, well into his eighties, bemoans the destruction of traditional Indian cotton and textiles by cheap imports that he blames on ‘multinationals’. Agrocel is also part-owner of a British-based clothing company called Glossypium that sells attractive organic cotton-wear, mostly by mail order.

Richard Swift
‘NGOs are not enough’: Kavitha Kuruganti believes any generalized move to organic requires change in government policy. (right). Richard Swift

It is here in Gujarat that the BT/hybrid seeds have helped most with yields and some degree of pesticide reduction. But it is highly questionable whether this success in irrigated Gujarat (at least partly due to the controversial Narmada Dam) can be translated to the rain-fed regions of the country, where farmers are at breaking point. BT cotton, even in its so-called `pirated’ hybrid varieties, is very water-intensive and more vulnerable to Indian climatic conditions and local pests than indigenous Indian ‘short staple’ cottons. Despite this, BT cotton has spread across the two-thirds of India’s cotton crop that is unirrigated, with often disastrous results.

Debt to come

You would be hard-pressed to find anyone, outside supporters of the agro-industrial lobby, who does not believe that a transition to organic is a good idea, at least in principle. One farmer in the Kutch told me that he and his sons had decided on the organic path because it was ‘our debt to nature’.

But there are problems. One of these is the transition period. Depending on soil conditions and the level of chemical pollution, it may take as long as three years for cotton yields to recover to the levels previously achieved by agrochemical methods. This is three years that farmers in Vidarbha who ‘can’t get back to zero’ – out of debt – simply don’t have. They would need massive public support to make the transition to organic. This is less of a problem for farmers who are not monocropping cotton and can shift gradually to organic. The main payoff is less in a ‘premium’ price for organic cotton than in the reduced costs of expensive agrochemical inputs that make it more profitable. Advocates of organic maintain that yields are equivalent or just slightly below those obtained through agrochemical production. Then there is a steep learning curve required for knowledge-intensive organic, compared with simply throwing on the chemicals.

Rural India has no shortage of keen teachers. Hundreds of NGOs and advocacy organizations are pushing the transition to organic in general, and cotton in particular. Still, with cotton farmer suicides on the rise and only three per cent of the cotton crop organic, their impact has been severely limited. It is clear that, without massive public support from both state and national governments, ‘going organic’ will be very much swimming against the current.

Challenging times ahead

Kavitha Kuruganti, at the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture in Hyderabad, has few illusions about the collective impact of local organic experiments: ‘What civil society is doing is trying to swim against the tide. Government, that is thrusting it down our faces, supports the tide. Civil society is not looking at policies, at how whatever you are doing is getting negated in a policy environment dedicated to ‘liberalized’ imports. The farmer gets punished for producing more and the farmer gets punished for producing less. So what does it matter if you can produce sustainable yields? Input costs are increasing. The extension services are crumbling. The World Bank is recommending private agro-clinics to tell farmers how to produce their crops. Then there is the worst scenario, with the markets. So, given all of this, how can civil society prevent farmer suicides?’

The Centre has done some very good work promoting organic in Andhra Pradesh – they point proudly to the small village of Enabavi that is now the first in the state to declare itself completely free of pesticides, chemical fertilizers and GM crops. While Kuruganti feels that the future needs to be organic, she says that this only solves part of the problem. Even if the US subsidies – that have for years suppressed world cotton prices – are removed, she sees challenging times ahead. ‘This raises the whole question of consumption, and what is best for both the growers and the planet. There is never a discussion of sustainable cotton consumption that works out the equation at the planet level. There are so many issues. How much of fibre should be cotton, so that producers are supported? Trade justice – what is the amount to be paid to the primary producers as opposed to other people in the chain? What is labour getting and what are the farmers getting, as opposed to the retail chains? The energy equation needs to be worked out completely. The question of transport costs (‘fibre miles’) needs to be calculated.’

For Kuruganti, while organic is not sufficient to address the whole problem, going organic remains essential for improved farmer livelihoods as well as the ecological and human-health impacts. But for her ‘this cannot be a question of premium prices for organic. Economically it just will not work out if you want organic farming to spread. It needs to move beyond a niche market and needs to enter the mainstream. A fair-trade premium is welcome. But an organic niche market is not something that should be encouraged. The organic premium is often claimed because there is an expensive certifier as the middle person. These inspectors often come from Europe. So the premium is being paid by Europeans to other Europeans and not necessarily to Indian farmers.’

Kuruganti is equally sceptical about the effects of pest management based on the Mansanto originated genetically modified BT cotton and its various spinoffs. For her ‘pest management cannot be reduced to a single gene. It just goes after just one pest, the dreaded bollworm. This was more of a US pest, and in India we have a great variety of other infestations.’

In the industrial North, campaigning organizations like the Pesticide Action Network see the shift to organic as essential. While they make a good case, this is not a cure-all for Asian and African cotton farmers. So, even if the enthusiasm for organic cotton moves beyond the high street boutiques of Britain to the malls of Middle America, it needs to be treated with a degree of caution. Perhaps the watchwords should be – ‘necessary but not sufficient’ for bringing justice to the South’s smallholder cotton farmers.

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on Organic and beyond

Leave your comment