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Organic practitioners celebrate outstanding agriculture techniques

The South Asia Conference on "Outstanding Organic Agriculture Techniques", held from 10th to 11th September 2009 (see mailout of 20 October 2009) provided an opportunity for organic practitioners from the South Asian region and other developing countries to demonstrate how organic farming could be a viable alternative to current Green Revolution techniques.

The article below reports on the Conference and was published in Third World Resurgence No. 230 (October 2009).

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Third World Network

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Organic practitioners celebrate outstanding agriculture techniques

A recent two-day conference held in Bangalore, India on organic farming provided an opportunity for practitioners from the South Asian region and other developing countries to demonstrate how organic farming could be a viable alternative to current Green Revolution techniques which continue to damage land and water resources while yielding diminishing returns.

Shefali Sharma

THE auditorium at the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS) in Bangalore, India was packed on 10-11 September as double the numbers expected attended the South Asian Regional Conference on ‘Outstanding Organic Agriculture Techniques’. Organised by the Organic Farming Association of India (OFAI) and Third World Network (TWN), the meeting celebrated the myriad efforts by the Indian organic farming community and other developing countries that are providing alternatives to chemical fertilisers and pesticides, patented seeds and carbon-intensive methods of farming that are leading to low yields, damaged land and water sources, indebtedness, loss of food sovereignty and environmental and health problems.   

Claude Alvares, Director of OFAI, reminded the gathering that small farmers of the developing world have been practising organic farming for centuries and that India remains the largest organic region in the world.  While Australia leads in certified organic produce, according to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), 95% of that is grass, he asserted. In contrast, in developing countries such as India, a large proportion of organic produce goes unnoticed because it is uncertified.  Entire production of tropical fruits such as jackfruit is organic in India.  Seven million producers from India's tribal community constitute about 10% of organic producers worldwide.  There is no need to adhere to European standards of certification, he said, but to perpetuate our own standards.

The Vice-President of IFOAM, Andre Leu, commented that though the majority of the world’s farmers are organic, it is difficult to be a good organic farmer and that smallholders are some of the poorest on the planet. However, by working with traditional farming practices and improving soil, using organic techniques to control disease and pests, yields can be increased by 116% on average and higher.

Chief guest at the conference, SK Patnaik, Joint Secretary in the Indian Ministry of Agriculture, congratulated the gathering for its effort and spoke about India's existing problems with loss of soil fertility and increasing use of pesticides and fertilisers,which are leading to rising costs and a debt trap. 2.5 million hectares of land are currently organically certified, according to Patnaik, and this figure is increasing. 

The two-day conference saw a mix of presentations from practitioners and practical workshops and demonstrations on methods that ranged from effective seed-saving techniques, preparing organic fertilisers and pesticides to organic practices that deal effectively with salinisation or recovery of land after disasters such as the 2004 tsunami.

Current Green Revolution techniques that India embraced in the 1960s adhere to the ‘feed the plant, forget the soil’ adage, according to Alvares, although 95% of the nutrients that plants use come from ‘living’ soils and an environment that mimics the natural forest. Inorganic agriculture has focused on the plant and its roots and the application of large amounts of chemical inputs which deplete soils of life and saturate them.  As a consequence, as much as 40-60% of the chemical nutrients end up in water bodies and poison both land and water resources. As much as 6% of the greenhouse gas emissions come from Green Revolution practices in India.  This is equivalent to the emissions of cement plants in India, says Alvares.

In contrast, organic farmers such as Kailash Murthy in Karnataka state and Deepika Kundaji in Tamil Nadu state are using techniques such as mulching to protect the soil from the sun and conserve water.  Kundaji converted a plot of severely degraded and unproductive land into a rich site of organic produce of a wide variety of vegetables such as brinjal (eggplant), tomatoes, chillies, cucumbers and squashes over eight years.  Drs Sujata and Anurag Goel have also allowed their own 25 acres of land to become a rich forest ecosystem over time, with the biodiversity needed to manage pests and plants. Together, they run the Worldwide Association for Preservation and Restoration of Ecological Diversity (WAPRED) and use their farm to experiment with various organic techniques.   They grow crops such as organic cardamom, pepper, vanilla and coffee. 

Dr Sultan Ismail, managing director of the Ecoscience Research Foundation (ERF) and an expert in the science of earthworms (vermiculture), demonstrated in detail how vermicompost can bring life back into depleted soils - ERF's motto being 'Earthworm is the pulse of the soil, the healthier the pulse the healthier the soil'. This living soil, in turn, produces a healthy farm. 

Sue Edwards of the Ethiopian organisation, Institute for Sustainable Development, shared how hardy traditional plant varieties such as finger millets have been utilised to revive organic farming with composting in pits.  PV Satheesh of the Deccan Development Society (DDS) also shared his two decades of experience working with the ‘miracle seeds’ of various millets in drought-prone Andhra Pradesh state.  He spoke about the large amount of plant varieties that cultivate on their own and/or serve as green manure while being able to feed families and provide income.  For instance, 25 varieties of edible greens grow on their own in a field with crop diversity, while pulses such as black gram, green gram, pigeon pea and crops such as sesame, chickpea and sorghum can be sold in the market or used at home. The leaves of the pigeon pea serve as effective green manure, while a cropping system that integrates nitrogen-fixing crops and those that attract different birds and predatory insects such as marigolds, castor, coriander and safflower enables a farming system that deals with pests and rejuvenates the soil. 

Sangita Sharma, Director of the Annadana Soil and Seed Savers Network, demonstrated how the organisation has perfected its own seed-saving mechanism and reproduced several hundred traditional plant varieties.   Dr Sujata Goel talked about root diversity and the ability of certain plants like mustard to release anti-fungal compounds. Several speakers stressed multi-cropping at various levels, allowing for plant diversity and predator habitats that serve as natural pest and disease control.

The two-day conference came at a time when agriculture is widely being accepted as the third major cause of climate change. Currently, India faces drought in over 240 districts, leading to distress in farming communities nationwide. Locally available and free seeds for nutrient-rich crops that grow in drought conditions, such as various millets, are scarce in most communities.  As such, many districts face the spectre of food shortages this harvest season.  

This conference demonstrated how the use of organic techniques, composting, seed-saving and cultivating practices for hardy traditional plant varieties, and diverse cropping systems that aim for maximum biodiversity in the smallest parcel of land result in a healthy food production system. In addition, such practices not only serve to reduce carbon from the atmosphere, but also rejuvenate our natural resources.  Taking back control from multinational agrochemical and seed companies, such practices enable us to reclaim our natural resources, our seeds and food into our own hands.                               

Shefali Sharma is a senior research officer with the Third World Network.

 


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