The agricultural sector in South Asia needs to massively raise crop yields to feed its booming population. India has long used chemical pesticides and fertilizers to do that. But organic farming is slowly making inroads.
Hunger, rising food prices and a booming population have created a major challenge for policymakers in many countries in South Asia – how do you ensure that agriculture produces enough yields to feed billions?
In India, the answer has been the “green revolution,” a plan first introduced in the late 1960s with the aim of making the country self-sufficient in important food grain production.
Through the widespread use of irrigation, high-yielding seeds and chemical pesticides and fertilizers, the government jumpstarted the country’s farmlands to alleviate poverty and hunger, ushering in a new era for India’s agriculture at the same time.
But that has come at a hefty price for the environment: the sustained use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides have depleted the soil, and ineffective irrigation practices have caused groundwater tables to plunge in many parts of the country. For many farmers, crop yields have fallen even as India's food demand has increased.
Today, India is home to 1.2 billion people – that's double the number of people when the green revolution kicked off. The population boom has brought with it poverty and hunger.
Not enough food without pesticides?
In India, agriculture remains a hugely important issue. More than half of the country’s population relies on agriculture for a living.
Yet hundreds of millions of Indians still face persistent food shortages and hunger: malnutrition rates of children under 5 is higher in India than in sub-Saharan Africa. The newspapers often report of struggling, indebted farmers committing suicides.
Still, industrial agriculture remains the government’s policy as it continues to heavily subsidize chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
Officials maintain that pesticides are a crucial tool in fighting insects that would otherwise destroy precious crops. Krishan Sharma, the press spokesman for the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), says chemicals are the only way countries with rapid population growth can manage to provide enough food for their people in the face of climate change.
Sharma says in India, farmers know just how much pesticide and fertilizer is necessary. “In the last six to seven years we have studied more than 70,000 crop samples. We found increased chemical levels in only two percent of them,” he says.
Implications for human health
But independent research shows otherwise. The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a Delhi-based public interest research and environmental advocacy organization, released studies in 2005 on blood tests from the state of Punjab.
The results indicated that people there carried high levels of the controversial pesticide DDT – a troubling finding, especially because Punjab is one of India’s most important agricultural regions, referred to as the “bread basket” of India. It was here that the 'green revolution' of the 1960s and 1970s was launched. Now, cancer rates in the northwestern state are on the rise.
In 2013, CSE researchers also found that pesticide regulation in India is especially lax. But IARI maintains that those studies have twisted reality.
“The NGO’s are just fear mongering, and in the meantime the studies have been confuted,” Krishan Sharma says. The higher cancer rates in Punjab are due to radioactive particles and traces of metal in contaminated drinking water, not pesticides, he maintains.
Farmers hit hardest
The Indian media too often runs reports of toxic levels of pesticides in food, allergies and anxious consumers. Is that all an exaggeration?
Of course not, according to CSE’s director Chandra Bhushan. “It’s very difficult to prove a correlation between chemicals and illnesses – we are exposed to more than 200 chemicals a day in our surroundings. But if a specific region uses a lot of pesticides and sees more cancer cases, you can make a connection,” he says.
Bhushan says farmers are the hardest hit because they come into direct contact with the pesticides and fertilizers. Many choose to forgo protective clothing in the searing heat, even though such gear is an essential part of working with toxic substances.
Most farmers are unaware of which pesticides to use when. Most farmers are illiterate, Bhushan points out, and thus follow the recommendations of the traders and fail to take the necessary safety precautions.
Beyond India’s borders
Concerns about the rampant use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers aren't confined to India. Across the border, Nepal, too, is struggling with the extensive use of pesticides.
Activist Sushma Joshi, who authors a popular blog on environmental conditions in Nepal, says there is a lack of proper certification for the chemicals. “People use fungicides, pesticides and rat poison haphazardly because they don’t understand how and when they should be utilized,” she says.
But some are indeed aware of the health risk posed by chemical pesticides and fertilizers. “Often, farmers sell the pesticide-laced crops and keep the organic products for themselves,” Joshi says.
Still, Nepal could offers some lessons when it comes to sustainable agriculture. Many farmers still use traditional, organic farming methods – though hat is changing.
“The country is suffering increasingly dramatic consequences of climate change,” Bedraj Paudel from Mountain View Eco Farm (MVEF), an environmental organization that champions sustainable agricultural practices, says.
Paudel says that increased droughts and flooding have pushed many Nepalese to migrate to big cities, shrinking the farming population. Those remaining in the countryside sometimes use chemical fertilizers and pesticides disproportionately.
Finding a solution
Education and training are a key part of ensuring that farmers know which pesticides to use and how much. But there’s more, Chandra Bhushan says.
“A lot of people know the chemicals are dangerous but that doesn’t stop them. It’s just like stealing: they know they’ll go to prison but if they have no choice, they do it anyways,” Bhushan says.
What's needed are alternatives, he adds. The government, he says, needs to promote and support organic and biochemical farming methods.
MVEF says in Nepal, where many farmers still cultivate land according to traditional and ecological practices, their goal is to ensure farmers stick to the practice.
Seeds of change
Indiatoo is gradually rethinking its excessive use of chemical pesticides with some farmers taking a back-to-basics approach. They're being helped by Navdanya, a Delhi-based NGO. Founded by Vandana Shiva, a renowned environmental activist, scientist and author, Navdanya promotes biodiversity and organic farming.
The organization claims on its website that it has trained more than 500,000 farmers in sustainable agriculture since it started in 1987. Navdanya has also built up impressive seed banks to help preserve indigenous crops.
The big question is whether organic farming has a future in India. The potential is certainly there but so far organic farming has hardly made a dent in food production. According to the Indian Agricultural Products Export Development Agency, only one percent of the country’s total crop output can be traced to organic farming methods.