Over the past few years, hundreds of thousands of farmers in rural India have transitioned organic farming. But can these families grow enough to compete with conventional agriculture?
India’s agricultural history, especially in the 20th century, has been haunted by the Bengal famine of 1943, in which food scarcity led to the deaths of 4 million people. In order to combat a future national hunger crisis, the American plant breeder Norman Borlaug worked with Indian scientists, farmers, and politicians to promote the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 70s. New seeds, fertilizers and agricultural technology were introduced and, for a while, dramatically improved crop yields to feed India’s hungry and growing population.
After its initial success, however, the accumulation of chemicals in the ground damaged the soil and crop yields declined. Over time, more and more fertilizer had to be used to achieve the same yields as before, and for some farmers, the benefit of fertilizers and pesticides eventually outweighed by the costs it incurred.
But according to recent report from NPR, some farmers are making the switch to more varied crops instead of a single-crop farms to improve the nutrients in the soil.
Despite its growing popularity in India as well as around the world, some agribusiness companies like Monsanto worry that organic techniques just aren't as efficient as those developed during the green revolution, and will leave those immediately affected by the switch to organic without enough food to survive.
Worries about food distribution are justified. Approximately 2.1 million children under five die each year in India, with over half of those deaths directly related to malnutrition — of those who survive, another half will suffer from malnutrition-related stunted growth. Still, organic farmers around the world argue that given time, government support, and technological advances, the sustainability of organic farming will in fact increase the productivity and the safety of food given to those at greatest risk.
According to international organizations like the World Bank and the farmers themselves, it is not just agriculture itself that needs a face-lift in India, but also the bureaucracy and policy that surrounds it. A recent study by the Punjab State Farmers Commission cited by NPR found that 70 percent of India's farms could go organic and maintain appropriate food production. It also suggests that India redirect some of it's government funding to organic farming infrastructure and research, thus recognizing its future place in India's food production.
Gurcharan Kalkat, a member of the commission, told NPR he believes in the organic movement. "Only one thing can save Punjab: India has to launch a brand new Green Revolution. But … this one has to be sustainable."
With a population of 1.15 billion, the population of India is three times that of the United States. It also has 30 times the number of organic farmers. Some, like Grist food editor Tom Philpott, think the rest of the world could learn a thing or two from an Indian organic farmer, rethinking the ways to feed a massive population on healthy, sustainable crops.