It is mid-morning, and Amrit Pradhan is repositioning the tomatoes on his market stall in Gangtok, capital of the Himalayan state of Sikkim in north-east India. “People always want the biggest, reddest fruit,” he says. “I try to tell them, the flavour is in the smaller ones, but they don’t want to know.”
Pradhan is one of 66,000 farmers from Sikkim who are part of a far-reaching experiment. Since last year, the state’s farmers have become 100% organic – their produce is free of chemical pesticides or genetic modification. It also means their fruit and vegetables are smaller, less colourful, and more expensive than the imported, non-organic produce from the city of Siliguri in the neighbouring state of West Bengal.
Last year, prime minister Narendra Modi lauded Sikkim for its organic farming, a programme that had gradually been rolled out across the state since 2003 by its chief minister, Pawan Kumar Chamling. Winning a fifth term in 2014 allowed him to oversee the organic project from start to finish.
In 2016, Sikkim’s state government made the use of chemical pesticides a criminal offence, carrying a heavy penalty of 100,000 rupees (£1,170) and up to three months in jail. According to Dr S Anbalangan, executive director of the government-led Sikkim Organic Mission, it is part of Chamling’s wider vision for sustainable commerce in Sikkim. “He had a vision for chemical-free farming in Sikkim and he foresaw the damage that using pesticides can cause”, Anbalangan says.
In India, where at least half of the country’s 1.25 billion population rely on farming as a primary source of income, and more than 15% of inhabitants are undernourished, according to the global hunger index, experiments with organic farming could come at a huge human cost.
Chamling’s organic mission in Sikkim is the antithesis of the 1960s green revolution, when the Indian government, desperate to avoid a repeat of the catastrophic Bengal famine of 1943 – in which some 3 million people starved to death – imported grain and farming techniques from the west. These promised year after year of bumper crops.
The farming techniques produced dramatic increases in yield, and new prosperity for farmers, especially in northern states such as Punjab and Haryana. India went from being a food-deficient country to a leading agricultural power. Food prices fell, but the farming methods took their toll on the environment – increased water use, soil degradation and chemical run-off – raising questions about the sustainability of such practices.
Chamling saw the long-term dangers of relying on pesticides and decided farming in Sikkim was much better suited to being organic. “Sikkim had certain inherent advantages,” says Anbalangan, repeating the line that Chamling put out in 2003. “It maintained a traditional system of agriculture, and its average chemical use was already very little compared to the national average in 2003. Its soil is rich in carbon,” he adds, explaining that this would make the transition to chemical-free farming smoother.
Pradhan, and his farmer’s co-operative in the village in Rhenok, in eastern Sikkim, went organic in 2007, after participating in a government education programme about the benefits of organic farming. “The first few years were disastrous,” he says. “My entire crop failed. Every one in the village who tried organic farming was very worried. Even now, in 2016, we are still making losses. I lost around 1 lakh rupees [£1,180] this year. But the government initiatives educated us about this. They warned us that we may suffer initially, but in the long term, organic farming was better for the soil, better for the farms. So I support the government. I think it is a good thing.”
Scientists say the success of organic farming depends on various things such as climate, the type of crop and the quality of soil. Navin Ramankutty, professor of global food security and sustainability from the University of British Columbia, in Canada, says such crop failures are common when farmers switch to organic farming. “When a farmer transitions from conventional to organic agriculture, you are suddenly removing all the synthetic inputs you had previously been applying, but at the same time the soil does not have the native fertility it used to,” he says.
“With organic methods, the soil fertility takes several years to build back up. During this transition period, farmers can see yield losses. So it is really quite important for the government to support the farmers during this transition period.”
In Sikkim, years of failed crops could affect tens of thousands of families while the land adjusts to the new methods. Anbalangan says there has been no official survey yet to measure how the switch to organic
John Reganald, professor of soil science and agroecology at Washington State University, says that despite the initial yield drops, organic methods could be beneficial, if used with other integrated farming methods. “Organic agriculture has an untapped potential role in global food and ecosystem security because it has been able to provide jobs, be profitable, benefit the soil and environment, and support social interactions between farmers and consumers,” he says. “That being said, no one farming system alone will safely feed the planet. Rather, a blend of organic and other innovative farming systems, such as agroforestry, integrated farming, conservation agriculture, will be needed for future global food and ecosystem security.”
Pradhan says the organic crop he produces does not sell well in Sikkim, though he does manage to sell kiwi fruit for export at a premium price to American buyers. Few locals visit the organic market, which Pradhan says is because people don’t yet understand the benefits of organic produce. “The government needs to do more to explain the benefits of organic fruit and vegetables,” he says.
There is evidence of the state government’s efforts to raise awareness about organic produce. Huge posters hang at market stalls, and an annual organic festival has been launched. Organic farms receive special certification from state authorities, helping them to market their produce.
“It’s supposed to be better for you, but the imported vegetables are better and bigger,” says one shopper. Another says: “The organic vegetables are more expensive, and I have a family to feed.”
Pradhan supports the government’s organic initiatives, but fears the project will fail unless Sikkim’s residents start buying into the idea. “The problem is, the local people don’t want to support us. It will take a long time to change how people buy.”
First published by The Guardian