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Nammalvar, a pioneer of organic India

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G Nammalvar, one of the most extraordinary and outstanding pioneers of the organic farming movement in India, passed away on 2013 December 30 near Pudukottai in Tamil Nadu.

Dr G Nammalvar

Dr G Nammalvar

Dr Nammalvar was a founder member of the Organic Farming Association and later became its Advisor. He regularly attended meetings and conventions of the Association and large numbers of farmers always looked forward to learning the techniques of organic farming from him.

Claude Alvares, the Goa-based environmentalist and advocate of reform in the ideology of education, and who manages the Goa Foundation and the Other India Press, has said that Nammalvar “was a long-standing friend. We shared many meetings together. He was responsible for much of Tamil Nadu gradually shifting from chemicals to organic over the past 20 years”.

“He was not in the best of health in the past couple of years. He had two choices: either retire and look after his health which most people above the age of 60 are advised to do by their doctors; or carry on relentlessly with his task of promoting organic farming, fighting Monsanto and GM crops, and advising thousands of organic farmers on how they could improve their organic farming practice. We all know he chose the latter. He was happier that way.”

RG_GN_farm_segments“Now we will find it difficult to find another person like him, to do the things he did. Even an army of his followers may not be adequate. So at this period in the history of the organic farming movement in India, we too have two options. Either we simply mourn the passing of a truly inspiring leader who lived only to promote sustainable, ecological agriculture, and leave it at that. Or we renew fulsomely our commitment to ecological agriculture, listening all the while to what Nammalvar wrote and spoke about it. There is little doubt about which option would make Nammalvar happiest.”

In the Organic Farming Sourcebook (Other India Press, 2009 revised and updated edition), Alvares had interviewed Nammalvar (you can read the full interview in this extract [pdf 835 KB]). Asked by Alvares, “what is the motivator for farmers to switch to organic farming?” Nammalvar had replied:

“There are three main reasons. One is, farmers have realised that land and the natural environment cannot be sustained through chemical farming. All food is poisoned through modern farming. Second, the farmer finds that the cost and quantum of inputs are increasing day by day and so the farmer cannot pay back the loan. The result is that the small and marginal farmers are losing their lands, becoming landless or they are allowing the land to go fallow and migrating to the river belts for seasonal operations and other states and countries doing menial jobs for survival.”

“Third, the export market is facing a problem because the importers of food materials from USA and other European countries find that our foods contain too much of pesticides and insist that these have to be removed and that food has to be organic. So the pressure for changing over is coming from the export market also. Finally, techniques have so improved that a farmer can switch over to organic farming without losing too much income. But most of all, the farmers are interested in organic farming because chemical farming has become uneconomical, grain yield has started declining. These are the prime reasons.”

Amongst many other questions, Alvares had also asked Nammalvar about other obstacles for farmers to convert to organic farming, and the reply was:

“On economic plane many farmers think more of money and not of their home needs and families. On cultural plane they are also tied up with family pressures. Also the women are not involved in this. Secondly, the companies which manufacture and distribute chemicals, hybrid seeds and machineries and so called scientists in the universities deter the farmers from switching over to organic farming. The universities act against organic farming by teaching about and encouraging modern hybrid varieties, genetically manipulated seeds and precision farming. That is a major problem. However the farmers’ movements are giving support co the organic farming movement.”

The organic foods divide in India

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The recently-held Biofach India 2013 in Bengaluru – which is an annual meeting about and exhibition of organic producers and products – has helped confirm three disturbing trends concerning Indian organic produce.

These are:
(1) that the urban market for organic products is growing at a rapid pace and a ‘junior’ food retail system (junior as compared with established, large-scale food retail as a consumer goods sub-sector) devoted to these products is aggressively rounding up consumer interest and budgets;
(2) that under central government programmes to encourage and promote cultivation based on organic principles (like the Rashtriya Jaivik Kheti Pariyojana, or National Project on Organic Farming) state governments have administrative and budget capacities (even though small) to develop organic produce but these efforts are evolving into parallel, local-specific knowledge and practice networks; [update in response to the valuable comment below: the networks coming about is a good thing for the long term, but there is apparently less and less connection between the produce from these networks (if there is a surplus townspeople can buy) and the retail frontrunners in the organic foods business. If this separation continues along this path, organic foods and beverages will be an upper middle class consumable that bears no relation with the human-scale cultivation these networks locally are fostering.]
(3) that the connection between the organic farming family in the rural district and the consumer is being exploited in a sophisticated manner by a growing roster of new companies whose profit margins do not lead to higher or necessarily more secure incomes for the cultivating household. [Read the full article at Infochange India.]

A simple poster in Kannada about organic farming methods

A simple poster in Kannada about organic farming methods

The real destiny of most organic foods grown in India, processed and packaged by *Indian organic food traders (under third-party certification), and promoted abroad (particularly in Europe and North America) is as exports. The Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA), which is responsible for promoting food exports, said that India exported almost 70,000 tons of organic products, valued at around US$ 130 million (around Rs 715 crore) in 2010-11. This rose to 115,000 tons worth over US$ 360 million (around Rs 2,090 crore) for 2011-12. An APEDA statement quoted in the business press attributed the financial assistance it has given the organic foods export sector (about Rs 210 crore) as being responsible for this growth. Furthermore, APEDA has forecast that exports of organic foods and beverages from India could double by 2014.

At Biofach India 2013 (held during 2013 November 14 to 16), the pavilions of the major organic foods and beverages retailers – such as Phalada, Organic Tattva, 24 Mantra, Sanjeevani Organics, Amira Organic, Mother India Farms, Ecolife Organic and Morarka Organic – resembled those to be seen at a conventional food and agriculture industry exposition (like those routinely organised by major industry associations such as CII, FICCI and ASSOCHAM). In contrast were the tables and small kiosks (at times no more than a pair of posters, a desk and two stools) of the state government-supported organic cultivation agencies – yet these were the ones that had brought cultivators to the fair, who were wandering the air-conditioned aisles astonished by the prices they read printed on the packets of the organic foods on display.

Industrial farming versus the peasantry

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Vegetable vendor, district bazaar, Maharashtra

The October-November 2010 issue of Himal Southasian is out and includes a contribution from me. The issue is themed on agriculture and ruralscapes in Southasia (that’s how Himal spells it, one word). Here’s an extract from my article:

India’s government and its agricultural research establishment are forging new compacts with the private sector food industry. Their reasons for doing so are the breakdown of agricultural extension and the need for food infrastructure. Yet low-input organic farming yields sufficient produce in tune with local conditions, and is well suited to smallholder rural farming households. This benefit is opposite to the ‘agritech’ demands of food industry powers in India, and at risk is the farm livelihood of the country’s massive majority of farmers.

In July, India’s agriculture minister, Sharad Pawar, talked about the role of the private sector in agricultural research and human-resource development in the country’s food industry. His audience was made up of participants of an ‘industry meet’ put up by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), assembled to discuss four issues: seed and planting material; diagnostics, vaccines and biotechnological products; farm implements and machinery; and post-harvest engineering and ‘value addition’.

Vegetable vendor, district bazaar, Maharashtra

Pawar explained the conventional approach of public-sector agricultural research and development, which has been to take responsibility for setting priorities, mobilising resources, research, development and dissemination. He then explained that agricultural extension – the education of farmers in new techniques and technologies, which has been neglected for several years – is ‘no longer appropriate’. Instead, he urged the adoption of public-private partnerships, through which public-sector institutes (such as those in the ICAR network) can ‘leverage valuable private resources, expertise or marketing networks that they [the farmers] otherwise lack’.

The so-called area, production and yield (APY) model of measuring agriculture in India has long been the dominant one, focusing on growth in irrigated area, crop production in tons and yield per hectare. In following this model, central and state planners, leveraging the reach and influence of the national agricultural research system, have automatically tended towards technology as an enabling factor and the economics of the organised food industry. This strong bias exists as a legacy of the successful years of the Green Revolution, when the massive laboratory-led creation of high-yield varieties proceeded in step with massive irrigation programmes and farm mechanisations schemes. In the process, they have turned the needs of small and marginal cultivating households into programmes and schemes, so that these small-scale farmers become ‘consumers of technology’ rather than being recognised as holders of traditional agricultural knowledge.

How the price of tomatoes is determined

These sustainable agricultural systems contribute to the delivery and maintenance of a range of public goods such as clean water, carbon sequestration, flood protection, groundwater recharge and soil conservation. But since they cannot help to achieve short-term profit-oriented goals, both the commercial effort of the National Agriculture Research System and the private sector ignore them. Finally, the cost-benefit of conservation of resources can be determined by the scarcity value of those resources. For instance, will urban food consumers be willing to pay for watershed protection in a district from which they import food?

The only way to get a positive answer from this question is by investing in public education, and by building it into public policy at an institutional level – where it immediately runs into political and business interests. The development of community-supported organic agriculture in India can provide an alternative, which will depend more on the ability of associations of organic farmers to organise, rather than on state support.

India’s organic farming systems. These grow a variety of cereals, tubers, leafy vegetables, fruits and tree crops without chemical fertiliser and pesticide and largely depend on saved seed. There are well-established biological and energy benefits of organic and agro-ecological farming that, under the growing shadow of climate change and energy scarcity, become even more compelling for farming communities.

There’s more in the full article which can be found here.