Organic farming in India

The new farmers of Bangalore

Soils can be replenished, yields can be increased without the use of chemicals. Organic farmers around Bangalore in India show how it’s done sucessfully.

Christine Möllhoff
Money Sharma

Boxes of vegetables, lettuce and fruit are piled up beside the entrance to the sandy yellow courtyard. It is a bright winter’s day, the green fields and palm trees stand out against the soft blue sky. Helpers are busy loading up a small truck, which will later transport the goods 40 kilometres to Bangalore. The men are wearing lungis, a type of sarong common in India’s warm south.

N. R. Shetty is on a visit from the neighbouring farm. He points with pride at the stacks of bananas, peppers, tomatoes and cauliflowers. ‘All of them are organic,’ says Shetty excitedly, who like many Indians abbreviates his first names. His eyes sparkle as he talks enthusiastically about cow urine, earthworms and the benefits of the Neem tree. He was once an engineer working for the state-owned telephone company. Today the 71-year-old is president of the farmers’ cooperative Sahaja Samrudha (‘rich nature’), which has been campaigning for more environmentally friendly agriculture for ten years.

Rich pickings: farmers in southern India have switched to organic vegetable farming. This has also brought financial benefits.

Passing on organic farming techniques to others

Shetty runs a small model farm which passes on organic farming techniques to other farmers. In the Bangalore region, between 600 and 1,000 farmers have now converted their farms to organic crops. Germany has been supporting this move. Alongside NABARD, the Indian development bank, which has made funding available, KfW Development Bank has been providing interim loans and GIZ advises borrowers on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. GIZ also provides farmers’ cooperatives with expertise on growing and selling organic produce.

As in Europe, the market for organic goods is also increasing in India. Although business involving chemical-free produce still represents less than one per cent of total sales in India, a growing number of Indians, particularly those from more prosperous backgrounds, now want to eat organic food. ‘We can only satisfy about ten per cent of the demand,’ says Shetty, who is strongly committed to organic farming. ‘I’m a farmer’s son. We used organic methods when I was a child,’ he says. ‘The food we eat today is not healthy.’ Worse still, he continues, with artificial fertilisers destroying the soils, farmers need to use more and more fertiliser and water.

Some still favour pesticides

The harmful effect of chemicals on the environment and health is one of the principal arguments against their use. Others include inadequate pesticide legislation and improper use. In the summer of 2013, 23 children in the state of Bihar died as a result of eating a school dinner, because the cooking oil had been stored in an old pesticide container. And yet India believes it cannot feed its population of 1.2 billion without pesticides. Half of all children under the age of five are considered malnourished, and every day hundreds die of starvation and its consequences. But the politicians responsible in New Delhi continue to give assurances that pesticides are safe when used correctly.

Former engineer N. R. Shetty is today an enthusiastic organic farmer.

Organic farmers like Ramaiah HG prove that success can be achieved without pesticides – in fact sometimes the outcome is even better. Like many southern Indians, the 60-year-old does not have a family name as is common in western countries. H stands for his village, Halehalli, in the south of Bangalore, G for the name of his father, Gundappa. Ramaiah HG has lived from agriculture for 30 years. He has converted half of his farmland to organic crops and now grows beans, cauliflowers, potatoes and tomatoes in compliance with organic standards. Instead of artificial fertilisers he uses compost made from cow manure that is wriggling with earthworms. He substitutes pesticides with a mixture of cow urine, Neem leaves and other natural substances.

Wider range instead of monocultures

It works just as well, he says. More importantly, he only needs half the volume of water, now an increasingly scarce resource in India. In addition, instead of farming monocultures, he produces a wider range of fruit and vegetable varieties. And he has shifted milk production from ‘turbo’ cattle back to the traditional breeds, which are much better suited to the climate.

Ramaiah HG is happy. He used to spend 30,000 rupees per season on fertilisers, pesticides and seeds. Today he gets by on just 15,000 rupees. While yields have remained unchanged, he earns 30 per cent more for organic produce. According to his calculations, his bottom line is around 60 per cent more as a result of the switch to organic farming. He has a mobile phone, a refrigerator, a television – and a year ago he built himself a nice new house. ‘I am happy with my life,’ he says. And he is not alone: other organic farmers in the Bangalore region have similar stories to tell.

Small loans to help farmers through conversion phase

Yet many farmers are still reluctant to make the switch to organic farming. One reason is the difficult conversion phase: soil that is accustomed to fertilisers takes several years to recover, and farmers face losses during this period. ‘Profits are down during this transition phase, which lasts three to four years,’ says Hansjörg Neun, a GIZ expert in New Delhi. That’s why KfW Development Bank provides small loans to help farmers make ends meet.

Not just in Bangalore in Karnataka state, but also elsewhere in India, the country’s farmers are rethinking their ideas and turning to natural farming methods. The small state of Sikkim has particularly ambitious plans: it aims to switch completely to organic farming by 2015.

Contact: GIZ India

published in akzente 1/15


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Project: Sustainable Management of Natural Resources
Country: India
Commissioned by: German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development
Partner: National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, India
Term: 2007 to 2015

The project comprises over 190 different measures, which aim to conserve India’s natural resources and simultaneously improve living conditions for the rural poor. GIZ supports various approaches, including new farming methods such as drip irrigation, the use of renewable energy and ecotourism. These measures have so far directly benefited around 300,000 people. The basic idea behind the project is to promote investment in rural areas, through companies, development banks or the farmers themselves. In the state of Karnataka in southern India, GIZ is working with its Indian partners to promote organic farming. The Sustainable Management of Natural Resources project not only seeks new approaches to financing development projects, it also supports the fight against poverty and encourages a more responsible use of natural resources – which is extremely important in a resource-poor country such as India.
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