Till only a century ago natural farming was the norm everywhere. Then the Green Revolution happened in the mid-twentieth century. It created the era of mass food production, of modern, conventional agriculture. To increase food production, we use chemicals and invade forest lands. But now we see a small but a significant shift back towards organic agriculture. Does this portend its re-emergence? Why is this happening? What’s its equation in Meghalaya and the world?
Positioned in Meghalaya, we at Zizira take a look at these questions from our perspective. Is organic farming sustainable for us? Can it save our environment? We also look to see if organic agriculture is a safe way to produce food for life and health.
In Meghalaya, we’re Organic by Tradition
Meghalaya is organic by tradition like the entire northeast. This puts the region at an enviable advantage. It makes the task of transitioning from chemical into the no-chemical organic farming easier. Farmers need only to establish and follow organic farm operating protocols and procedures.
How Organic-oriented is Northeast
Northeastern traditional farming communities are always poised towards natural farming. It is common to find these features:
- Traditional community granaries and seed banks. Good seeds make healthy crops
- Natural composting. They are food for microorganisms that help replenish the soil
- Natural water harvesting and irrigating using bamboo and bunds. These are judicious water management techniques
- Small landholdings, family farms and homesteads that:
- ensure sufficient and healthy food for the family
- help eradicate hunger
- help reduce rural poverty
- help protect natural resources
- Farmyard and green manure—plant food that’s eco-friendly, eco-balancing, renewable and sustainable.
These traditional methods make no use of synthetic inputs yet they provide enough sustenance to small homesteads. Yet outputs are high-value organic produce. What’s significant is these same techniques are also applicable on a large scale.
With soil conditions still largely untouched by chemicals, the entire Northeast region can turn to a goldmine of organic farming. No other region in the country can make such a claim.
Mission Organic, Meghalaya
In January 2015 the Meghalaya government launched its Mission Organic. There it showcased its vision to convert at least 2,00,000 hectares into organic farmland by 2020. As a precursor to that, all agro-chemical fertilizer subsidies were stopped in 2014.
Why It’s Easy for Meghalaya to Switch to Organic Agriculture
These are some compelling factors:
- Very meagre use of agrochemicals – only about 17kg/hectare. That’s the clearest advantage.
- The Farm production system is presently low-input, low-risk and also low-yield. This is an advantage because it shows that there’s still ample scope to up the yields by better farm management.
- Every farmstead has some kind of livestock. This gives the farm free and high-quality organic farmyard manure.
- Rainfall is high. This is great for creating rich and diverse biomass such as shrubs, weeds and herbs. These can be exploited to enhance organic food production.
- High-demand spice crops: turmeric, ginger, black pepper, and cardamom grow extremely well in Meghalaya. Also tea, pineapple and orange. One common feature is all these crops are naturally grown.
Thus, it makes economic sense to transition to a sustainable organic agriculture framework. Look at what this transition can do:
- Reverse climate change
- Protect the environment
- Preserve agro-biodiversity
- Ensure sustainable rural livelihoods
- Guarantee constant supply of safe and healthy food
Challenges to Tackle
Weighing the advantages, going organic seems the natural way forward for Meghalaya agriculture. But the state has to address these challenges first:
- Technical Knowledge and Inputs. It isn’t easy for traditional farmers to suddenly go “officially” organic. They need the training to be thorough about trending methodologies and protocols.
- Support Price and Marketing Infrastructure. Demand is high and increasing but organic food is expensive and highly perishable. For most buyers, such stuff is not affordable. If the farmers don’t get enough assurance of business they will go into losses. Eventually, they might stop their organic agriculture practice.
- Benchmarking and Certification Systems. Modern organic farming demands strict observance of laid-down procedures and protocols. Presently, costs for certification are almost as high as production costs. Besides, there’s no guarantee of a ready market. If the government pays for the certification, the farmer’s burden lessens.
- Small Family Farms. The majority of Meghalaya farmers hold tiny landholdings of only about a hectare or less. These are enough as family farms but not enough for livelihood or business. They also have neither the expertise nor the financial capacity to take advantage of the huge potential in organic agriculture. Here's where the government can step in with smart strategies and assist farmers with whatever they require.
But there's good news.
The government seem ready going forward through a four-pronged approach. This is envisaged in its Mission Organic. And this is what it’s Vision Statement promises:
- Facilitation and Convergence
- Post Production Facilitation
- Certification and Market Linkages
- Research and Development
If the government doesn’t renege on its promise, Meghalaya, like Sikkim, will be a fully organic state sooner than later and now is the best time because ...
The World is Clamouring for Organic Food
It is no coincidence that people are steadily becoming wary of harmful chemicals they ingest along with their food. Even in India, more and more consumers are veering towards organically or naturally produced foods. These kinds of foods aren’t easily available. Demand still outpaces supply.
Worldwide demand for organic food is climbing at a hectic pace. There’s even more demand now as the covid-19 pandemic rages on. As per reports, it’s unlikely to scale down.
In the USA, sales of organic food are double that of the last decade.
The Netherlands records the highest consumption. 13.3% of the market share is hogged by organic food. The Dutch government actively supports organic farmers with free certification.
Switzerland has the highest per capita consumption at Euro 288 per person.
The world at large is certainly going organic!
But, Why Go Organic?
Because organic food is way tastier and healthier. And organic agriculture is natural and sustainable. Also, organic food might be the panacea against bludgeoning diseases.
But it’s not that organic suddenly landed on our plate at this time and age ...
... Let’s look back in time.
Only a century ago, much of agriculture was organic, though not in a certified way as now. Yet the farms' systems were sufficient to feed the earth’s one billion people then.
Now the population has ballooned to six billion (and rising). So the clamour for more food is understandable. That’s compelling enough reason to transition to mass-production, governments thought. The only way to increase production was through the application of agro-fertilizers and widescale monocropping, they opined.
Blame that on the two World Wars that destroyed almost every standing economy and also changed entire geographies.
But once the conflicts ended the new urgency was how to rebuild the tattered world. Science and technology stepped in and began to reign supreme in this rebuilding effort.
The results were more than encouraging.
Economies resurrected and boomed. Death rates declined and birth rates increased. Food production and food security quickly became every country’s top agenda.
Mass food production became a craze. So swathes of virgin forests and lands became mute sacrificial lambs to that craze. They made way for thousands of acres of farmlands. Even the ‘lungs of the earth’– the Amazonian forests – weren’t spared.
Almost overnight the so-called ‘green revolution’ changed entire landscapes into monster farms. They spread tens of thousands of acres of a single cropping plantation everywhere.
But everyone was happy: the food producers, marketers, consumers and giant fertilizer corporations. Food came in plenty and cheap. The business was never better.
India’s Green Revolution?
India too didn’t lag. The green revolution took the country by storm and fed the country’s rising millions from the 1960s onwards. Traditional methods of farming went passé and modern conventional agriculture became the norm.
The result was more than encouraging: food production went surplus!
A couple of decades down the years, however, the strains began to surface. The soils which had never failed the farmers before began to show signs of wear and tear. They turned into voracious monsters. They began clamouring for more fertilizers, chemical pesticides and more artificial support. Input costs went north and output gains south.
Worse, poisons began to lace the foods. Through chemicals that sustained production to keep food security intact.
Because of chemicals, food safety became suspect. The health of consumers and farmers alike has now come under threat. Still, pesticides and weedicides didn’t seem to work as well as before.
Then it dawned on the policymakers: the green revolution wasn’t a good idea after all despite the good intentions.
Negative Outcomes of Mass Food Production
If we looking closely around we’ll notice it’s not so much the food production that is the problem. It’s the method we employ.
Mass food production demands huge areas of cleared lands. To farm these lands huge inputs must be in place.
- The negative outcomes are there for all to see:
- Invasion of forests and wastelands to convert to farmlands
- Natural habitats of myriads of animal life get destroyed through the use of harmful chemicals and unabated human encroachment
- Increase of contact and conflict between man and animal due to the latter’s habitat loss
- Burning of fossil fuels
- Increase of carbon footprints
There’s more bad news.
When animal habitats are invaded the space between man and beast narrows. Diseases hitherto unknown to humans now have a foothold. Like the coronavirus. Devastation ensues.
True. But how can organic agriculture help correct the situation?
Organic is Better?
Firstly, we can try and understand what organic farming is all about and what soothing effect it can have on our planet’s well being.
Ask the indigenous farming societies the world over that still practise natural farming. Including the Khasis and Garos of Meghalaya. This type of farming is organic except that it does not have the certification as per modern organic agriculture protocols.
Ask the prominent agricultural scientists that have studied these methods in-depth. They’ve documented outstanding benefits that modern agriculture can’t outmatch.
Let’s look at some pioneers of organic, or natural, farming.
Sir Albert Howard, a British botanist known as the father of modern organic farming observed this about Indian farming:
“The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible”.
As early as 1906 he extensively documented Indian agricultural practices and determined them to be superior to conventional agricultural science of the time.
Then there was Masanobu Fukuoka. In 1940 he was a young Japanese microbiologist and agricultural researcher. He later became so disgruntled with modern agriculture that he ultimately renounced it. It was doing more harm than good, he believed.
For the next 30 years, he worked and developed what’s now called the “Fukuoka Method of No-Till farming.” This method allows for no disturbance of the soil by tilling. Crops are grown without disturbing the soil.
It worked wonderfully well. How?
When the soil is not disturbed, these things and more happen automatically:
- Soil carbon content remains intact
- Precious topsoil is not disturbed by erosion
- Soil biome and biodiversity improves
- Soil moisture content becomes sufficient
- Soil supports beneficial microbes, fungi and animals
- Soil nutrients accumulate and break down into organic food matter for plants
The Later Years
Fast forward to the 1990s. Now the ill-effects of modern chemical fertilizer dependent conventional agriculture have become full-blown.
Without artificial inputs, the soils are no longer productive or sustainable. Farmers are experiencing the strain – financially, physically and mentally. The stress on high yield and mass production has taken its toll. Soil fertility is declining, and it hungers for more and more energy inputs of:
- Synthetic fertilizers
- Chemical pesticides
- Fossil fuels
In contrast, organic farming’s demand for energy and artificial input costs per unit of land is nowhere near the demand by conventional farming.
Because in organic farming, the model is like a food forest. Every square foot of farm area is like a cube that supports three-dimensional farming —laterally, horizontally and vertically.
That’s not possible with conventional agriculture.
Glaring Flipside of Conventional Farming
Apart from the increasing encroachment into animal habitats by humans, there’s also the rampant use of chemicals. This is poisonous for all animal species. For example, we lost many bird, bee and butterfly species that were essential pollinators and predators that make a healthy eco-system.
Thus, we take away and destroy their natural spaces. We also disturb the delicate ecological balance by depleting their natural food sources. Since every creature, big or small, is interlinked to the food chain, breaking a link means breaking the chain.
It is then only natural for animals to invade our spaces bringing along viruses and diseases we’ve never learnt to be immune from.
And what happens ultimately? These poisonous chemicals return to us. Via the food chain. As the animals and plants ingest these chemicals, they seep into their systems. We humans, as the final consumers, end up eating the very chemicals we fabricated to grow more food.
To conclude, agriculture that seeks to sustain only human beings will ultimately bring an end to the human race.
But there is hope – in organic agriculture.
Organic Farming - Aims and Extent
A foremost organisation of the organic world is IFOAM – Organics International. That’s the Germany-based International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement.
It has affiliates in 120 countries and has always been at the forefront of sustainable agriculture promotion. IFOAM established a succinct definition of Organic Agriculture which says:
Organic Agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic Agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationship and a good quality of life for all involved.
So, organic agriculture means the growing food crops and plants and processing them under a strict set of protocols. That production will then get the "organic" seal.
This means no chemical or synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. No genetically modified seeds, growth hormones, or antibiotics. And no artificial methods of ripening, preservation, and flavouring.
Moreover, farms that grow organic food must be certified as such by accredited certification bodies.
We know this form of agriculture has existed since people learned to grow their food. But now the concept of organic farming has further evolved combining three essentials:
- Innovation and
The most important aim (and resultant outcome) is to achieve human welfare without harming the environment.
To achieve that, IFOAM posits organic agricultural practice on these four principles:
- Health – Healthy soil, plants, animals and humans make a healthy planet
- Ecology – Emulating and sustaining the natural systems
- Fairness – All livings beings deserve equity, respect and justice
- Care for all including the soil – makes a perfect legacy for future generations
In effect, modern organic farming combines tradition with science and innovation to truly:
- Enhance natural resource base
- Continually renew soil nutrients without external inputs
- Judiciously manage water resources
- Reduce environmental pollution
- Holistically maintain human health
- Perfectly balance ecological and agricultural sustainability
Organic food then means food that is safely produced and safe to eat.
How’s the Organic Food Market?
It's growing and there’s no turning back.
In 2017 end, the statistics worldwide are:
- Countries going organic – 181. This is 5% more than in 2016 and the yearly growth rate is 20%.
- Number of producers - over 2.9 million
- Land area - over 69.8 million hectares of farmland and 41.9 million hectares of non-farm/forest land.
- India has the highest number of producers (835,200). Uganda comes second (210,352) and Mexico is third (210,000).
- Australia, however, has the largest percentage of organic land (2.4 %) while India has only 0.4%.
- The USA tops as the largest organic food market surpassing $45 billion, followed by the European Union and China.
The total world organic food market is a whopping 93 million Euros and growing.
Even as the demand is on the rise, the organic food market is a meagre 1% and organic farmland is only a measly 1.4% of total farmland.
At present, farmers are still at the losing end because organic agriculture is still a risky proposition. But as brands partner with farmers, the market’s slowly is looking up.
We know that going organic is a great way to go. It means healthy food and easy on the environment. This is why we actively partner with our farmers in Meghalaya. Because not only do we know, we also see with our own eyes the healthy foodstuffs that they grow.
We value your health and wellbeing as we value ours and our farmers’, including their welfare and progress. We believe you value your own too.
So why don’t you patronise our products and become indirect partners of the farmers of Meghalaya? That way you’ll get to partake of their naturally grown and safe products and know for yourself how good they are. That’s besides giving you unbounded satisfaction and value for money. See our product range here.
If you liked this story about organic agriculture (we sincerely hope you did), please share with us any comments you might have? Or, maybe you have a story to tell too?