Despite 93 countries having organic regulations, organic land by 2017 accounts only 1.4% of the world’s total agricultural land.
In the past few decades, Himachal Pradesh has revolutionized its rural economy by introducing fruits and vegetables cash crops. In the late 1940s, Himachali farmers were limited to traditional Rabi and Kharif crops with isolated sights of Apple trees. Subsequently, farmers in Himachal gained a bountiful economy through orchards.
From 1990 onwards, apple belt started shifting to higher altitudes. The changes got evident when lower Kullu valley farmers started abandoning apple for its failed yield. The lower zones no longer supported chilling temperatures (7 °C) – ideal for most apple varieties. Apple needs 500-1,000 chill hours.
Warming winters increased hailstorms incidences and shifting rainfall patterns compelled farmers to grow ‘low chill’ fruits one like pomegranate. For a localized climatic change we cannot ignore hectic developments in the valley.
Roads construction, soaring tourism and other associated infrastructure increased timber demand in the valley. Subsistence farms substantially diverted to cash-crops increasing water pressure in the region.
The first decade of the 21st century started facing ever-growing water scarcity, slowly natural springs and hand-pumps started drying out. Dozens of streams and brooks in many regions have dried up. Rising heat in the valleys accentuating cloud bursts, flash flood and more pest attacks.
Over the decades, farmers diversified into commercially valuable crops like plum, pear, apricot, Japani, kiwi, garlic, tomato, peas, cabbage, etc. In the later stage, exotic vegetables like broccoli were grown around rivulets and river beds. Subsidized water pumps lifted river water to high altitudes and traditional water channels were diverted for cash crops. Subsidized fertilizers and pesticides were used indiscriminately for higher productivity deteriorating soil and water quality.
Fertilizers in a watershed easily runoff from higher niches to lower valley parts. Excessively applied synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are the world’s prominent culprit for groundwater contamination. The drained traces of Phosphorus and Nitrogen accumulate over lakes and river sediments to enrich and escalate algae growth resulting in oxygen-deprived “dead zones” for fishes.
Heavy pesticides kill non-target pollinators like bees. Bees have been traditionally cross-pollinated in apple orchards of Himachal resulting in seed formations and better yield. Bee species like Apis cerana lived in logs or wall hives called “daad”. With declining feral and orchard bees and diminishing fruit productivity, Himachali farmers are renting honeybee colonies for apple pollination from other states.
Today Himachal’s Rs 4,500-crore apple economy faces stagnation with 1.20 lakh apple farmers stuck in dilemma. Pomegranates as alternative crop demand 10-14 sprays per season as opposed to 5-6 sprays in apples. Increased chemical demands burdened farmers and the environment.
Apple orchards inducting in the farmland of Kullu Valley in 1996. On similar trends “High-Density Apple Orchards” are growing in Bhatwari block, Uttarkashi in Uttarkhand State. Uttarakhand still has chemical-free many pristine pockets.
Probably remote hill farmers are unable to afford chemical fertilizers. Basant from Pithoragarh (Uttarakhand) can change perception for organic farming. Basant grows water- demanding cucumbers in commercial amount by practising rain-water harvesting, and organic manuring using farm-biomass, cattle-urine and dung.
Uttarakhand has passed the Organic Agriculture Act 2019 that criminalizes the use of chemical fertilizers in selected areas, so far. This act will be effective when more farmers get encouraged to ensure the economic benefits of organic farming, comparing those using chemical fertilizers.
Kurnool district-Andhra Pradesh, a drought-prone area has worsened in the past decades. Due to negligible rainfall, groundwater wells increased from 8 lakhs to 22 lakhs in the last 30 years. Over extraction of water for irrigation emptied ground reservoirs.
Kurnool farmers shared their plight. Mahesh dug 330 feet bore-well, and another 450 feet well looking for water. Sanjeev Reddy from Uyyalawada village had to drill 5 bore wells between 1995 and 2011 as one dried after another. Kethavaram village has more than 100 bore wells, half of which have dried. Some villagers have invested major earnings drilling 700-1000 feet bore well with no trace of water.
Water crisis declined farm-yield pushing 30,000 farmers in the past few years to migrate to bigger cities. Around 4,500 farmers in Andhra Pradesh committed suicide from 1997 till 2006 due to debt endowed by failed bore wells resulting in crop failure. The Rythu Bharosa scheme 2019 launched in Andhra Pradesh, financially assists farmers holding up to 5 acres land as well to tenant farmers.
Scheme waives drilling cost of wells, provides free electricity up to nine hours a day and installing 50,000 solar pumps. Paradoxically, the scheme facilitated water extraction but ignored rejuvenation of ground-water reservoirs.
In Marathwada region of Maharashtra, farmers have committed suicide in the past, due to crop failure for water scarcity. Suicides accelerated with 2012 drought-the worst drought in 40 years. For some reason, 1,130 farmers took their lives in 2015 alone.
In 2016, Latur district of Marathwada suffered worst drought and drinking water was brought 350 km away from Sangli/Miraj by train.
Sugarcane attributes to 4% crop area of Maharashtra. Sugarcane requires irrigation and demands access to cash or credit, fertilizers and pesticides for a good yield. 2,500 litres of water produces just a kilo of sugar. Despite being drought-prone, Latur is predominated by 0.024 million hectares sugarcane cultivation.
Growing sugarcane in drought-hit areas is a perfect recipe for famine.
Sugarcane is snatching two-thirds of irrigation water of Maharashtra. Despite the obvious facts, the state has 205 sugar factories of which 34 per cent are in Marathwada. Latur alone has 13 sugar factories due to policy supports. Apart from tax incentives and subsidies on sugarcane, workers from sugar factory themselves harvest his cane and load them in their truck.
A strong sugarcane market is dissuading farmers from low-water maintenance crops like soybean, millets and oilseeds. The year 2014-15 witnessed crash in the domestic prices due to surplus sugar production.
Excessive chemical fertilizers before and after re-plantation of orchards can lower apple yield. Excess synthetic nitrogen stunts fruit maturity. Incorporating organic manure, on the other hand, will add required Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium naturally to the orchard soil.
In a European 40-acre organic apple orchard, the farmer sprays biological control agents in low doses weekly to kill coddling moth. This saves useful farm-biodiversity and pollinators like birds and bees.
Andhra Pradesh has allocated Rs 91.31 crore for Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF). It is tricky business to absolutely prohibit outside expenses on water, seeds, electric pump, manpower etc. The concept of giving “zero input” to the land from outside sources is challenging but achievable.
Subhash Palekar from Maharashtra, who coined the word ZBNF has received invites from six Indian states including Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. He tells 50 Lakh farmers are practising ZBNF after their chemical-based crops failed.
Latur farmer Mangala Waghmare grows robust Tomatoes in 0.35 acres. She feeds her meticulously stocked plants with vermicompost and uses maize straw from her border crops as mulch. She sprays enzymes fermented from her kitchen waste as an insect repellent and prepares waste decomposer solution using jaggery and water. The solution helps her farm-waste decompose within 40 days.
Some Latur farms are replacing conventional flood irrigation with drip irrigation. Water drips slowly reaching directly to the cane roots hence minimizing water wastage. The soil between plants is covered with a layer of cane residues and straws. This layer called mulch helps in moisture retention of soil, add organic content and suppress weeds.
Compost from sugarcane trash or farmyard manure made out of cattle faeces and fodder residues enrich the soil. Equidistant plant spacing allows maximum light exposure hence improving crop yield.
Marathwada is endowed with wide rainfall variations, swinging between excess rainfalls to droughts. This opens scope for collection and storage of rainwater for a lean period. Water reservoirs like ponds, trenches, bunds, check dams, etc. constructed over permeable base allow water to percolate and recharge aquifers. Trenches also help reducing surface run-off in sloppy places.
Study shows less water requiring crops like cotton, tur and groundnut are more efficient in economic productivity than sugarcane.
Organic farming promises reduced input expenditure and increased output. Despite quality production, organic crops struggle for deserved market rates. In 2016 Sikkim was declared fully organic state after 15 years of adopting organic farming in phases.
It strengthened its marketing channels creating organic brands. Profits and better taste augmented the demand for organic among customers and multiple organic outlets were created in every town. Organic fields were linked to boom eco-tourism supplying organic food.
The food security that will come with organic crops will depend either on a strong political will or the will of people to choose organic for quality of life and environment.