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THE ORGANIC ADVANTAGE

By Vikas Chadha

Over the last few decades the approach and outlook towards agriculture and marketing of food has seen a quantum change worldwide. Whereas earlier, the seasons and the climate of an area determined what would be grown and when, today it is the "market" that determines what it wants. The focus is more on quantity and "outer" quality (appearance) rather than intrinsic or nutritional quality. Pesticide residues in food and an overall reduced quality of food have led to a marked increase in various diseases, mainly various forms of cancer. That's not all.

This blind commercialisation of agriculture has also had a very negative effect on the environment. The use of pesticides has led to enormous levels of chemical buildup in our environment, in animals and even our own bodies. Fertilisers have a short-term effect on productivity but a longer-term effect on the environment where they remain for years after leaching and running off, contaminating ground water and water bodies. The use of hybrid seeds and the practice of monoculture has meant a severe threat to local and indigenous varieties, whose germplasm can be lost for ever. All this in the name of productivity!

In the name of feeding the earth, we have taken the wrong road of unsustainability. The effects already show - farmers committing suicide in Andhra Pradesh and the horrendous effects of pesticide sprays by a government-owned plantation in Kerala are only two instances. The bigger picture that rarely makes news however is that millions of people are still underfed, and where they are, the food they eat has the capability to eventually kill them. Yet, the picture painted by the agro-chemical companies and governments is as rosy as before.

Another negative effect of this trend has been on the fortunes of the farming communities worldwide. Despite this so-called increased productivity, farmers in practically every country around the world, have seen a downturn in their fortunes. The only beneficiaries of this new outlook towards food and agriculture seem to be the agro-chemical companies, seed companies and - though not related to the chemicalisation of agriculture, but equally responsible for the farmers' troubles - the large, multi-national companies that trade in food, especially foodgrains.

This is where organic farming comes in. Organic farming has the capability to take care of each of these problems. Besides the obvious immediate and positive effects organic or natural farming has on the environment and quality of food, it also greatly helps a farmer to become self-sufficient in his requirements for agro-inputs and reduce his costs.

There are a number of myths that surround organic farming, which go both ways. Some of the more common ones are :

Yields in organic farming are lower than chemical farming: Not so. When properly followed, yields in organic farming are in the long run, far greater than those obtained by chemical farming. In horticulture crops, the effects are even better. A look at agriculture in Punjab will tell the full story. The origin of the "Green Revolution", Punjab's yields have remained the same for the past many years while the quantity of agro-chemicals required to maintain these static yields have steadily increased.

In the case of a chemical farm converting to organic however, there is a loss in yield and it takes a few years before yields increase and stabilise at a level often higher than that achieved under a chemical regime. It is therefore recommended to convert gradually over a period of 3-4 years if income from the farm is a key issue.

Organic farming is not economical : Again, not so. While certain practices such as composting and mulching do entail greater costs on labour, overall the costs of cultivation are usually lower than chemical farming. An important point to note here is that the farmer has to be self-sufficient in his requirement for composts and pest control measures (easily done as explained below), otherwise economics do get skewed.

You can't supply enough nutrients by using composts : This is a common argument put to use by all detractors of organic farming, especially academicians. If one calculates the percentages of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous in fertilisers and composts, the difference is indeed vast. Going by these "scientific" calculations, one may find that in lieu of say 200 kgs. of mixed fertilisers, one needs over 30 tonnes of composts, fairly impossible to supply 2 or 3 times a year. In organic farming however, the concept of feeding the plant does not exist. The attempt here is to feed the soil, keep it healthy and living and keep a PROCESS in motion. The various practices of organic farming ensure that soil fertility is maintained and this process is kept alive and vibrant The analogy I can think of is meeting your day's entire nutritional requirements (calculated for you by a dietician) by swallowing a few tablets and capsules. Your nutritional needs are met, but will you remain healthy?

There is big money in organic farming : A myth propagated by over-enthusiastic supporters perhaps. So far in India, most organic farmers have turned (or in some cases remained) organic because of their beliefs. The "organic market" exists for a small number of farmers who have access to a few specialised outlets. Otherwise, till people wake up, it is difficult to see every organic farmer getting a premium for his (superior) product.

An option for exports has opened in the last few years which organic farmers can explore only if they are "Certified" as organic. There are a few internationally-recognised agencies operating from India who inspect and certify organic farms.

The last important myth is that simply avoiding the use of chemical fertilisers & pesticides is organic farming. That is not so. While organic farming is all about maintaining soil health ("feeding the soil" rather than "feeding the plant"), it entails producing the highest yields possible, in a sustainable, eco-friendly manner using a number of techniques. Indeed, for any agriculture system to succeed, it must take a responsibility towards feeding the earth.

These techniques and practices are detailed below. This list is not complete in itself, and many farmers innovate and adapt to suit their surroundings. That is what organic farming should be : the answers to a problem should come from the farmer, his fields and his surroundings rather than from a chemical factory or village pesticide shop.

1. Crop rotation & polyculture

2. Biological / natural pest control

3. Composting

4. Use of indigenous seeds

5. Integration of systems

6. Mulching, green manuring & cover cropping

7. Other newer techniques - Biodynamics & Effective Microorganisms

8. Miscellaneous techniques

Crop rotation & polyculture

One of the most important aspects of organic farming is the strict avoidance of monoculture, whether annuals or perennials. Besides the proverbial "putting all eggs into one basket", monoculture systems are unhealthy for the ecosystem they are a part of. The prime requirement for any natural ecosystem to thrive is diversity.

Traditional farmers till date follow the systems of crop rotation, multi-cropping, inter-cropping & polyculture to make maximum use of all inputs available to them, including soil, water & light, at a minimum cost to the environment. The home gardens of Kerala are an excellent example.

Crop rotation is the sequence of cropping where 2 dissimilar type of crops follow each other - a few examples include cereals & legumes, deep-rooted & short-rooted plants and where the 2nd crop can make use or the manuring of irrigation provided some months earlier to the first crop (e.g.. rice + wheat, rice + cotton). The combinations possible are endless, and will depend to a great deal on the local situations.

Multicropping is the simultaneous cultivation of 2 or more crops. In Indian tradition, farmers have been known to sow as many as 15 types of crops at one time. An example of multicropping is Tomatoes + Onions + Marigold (where the marigolds repel some of tomato's pests).

Inter-cropping is the cultivation of another crop in the spaces available between the main crop. A good example is the multi-tier system of coconut + banana + pineapple/ginger/leguminous fodder/medicinal or aromatic plants. While ensuring bio-diversity within a farm, inter-cropping also allows for maximum use of resources.

All these are forms of polyculture and bio-diversity and help in keeping pest populations away. Leaf fall and other crop residues in combination add more value to the soil or compost heap they become a part of, again because of the nutritional mix.

Biological / natural pest control

In a well-managed organic farming system, pests and weeds are considered to be part of the system itself as they do not usually get out of control. As in nature, even in agriculture eco-systems, predators appear and seem to do a good job if they are not disturbed (which is what pesticides end up doing - the target species develops resistance, it's predator species is killed, and the result is a huge increase in the pest population in the absence of any natural check).

Many organic farmers believe, and perhaps rightly so, that any pesticide, even natural or biological, should not be used. Many farmers use prophylactics such as diluted cow urine and vermicompost (the fluid from a vermicompost tank - see composting below) both of which can also be used in greater strengths as pesticides. Bio-dynamics and EM systems (see other newer techniques below) also offer excellent prophylactics, all of which a farmer can make on his own farm.

Where prophylactics do not work, and pest populations reach proportions where economic loss is a surety, there are a number of non-chemical methods of pest control. These include, among others : cover

1. Picking off the pest by hand (where the pest is a large caterpillar)

2. Use of pheromone traps 3. Use of light traps (for moths & other insects)

4. Use of predator species (a point of debate)

5. Growing trap crops (Mustard with cabbage, Maize around cotton)

6. Use of microbial pesticides and biological agents like Heliothis, Spodoptera, Trichogramma, Trichoderma, etc.

7. Using easily prepared natural pesticides

For preparing natural bio-pesticides, a number of plants can be used. Neem, ginger, chilli, vitex negundo (Indian pivet tree), custard apple (seeds), pongamia pinnata (pongam/karanj), asafoetida, turmeric, garlic, tobacco, sweet flag, nux vomica, tulsi and Persian lilac are among the many plants that are commonly used in pest control. Each pest requires a specific preparation.

Composting

A huge quantity of crop wastes/residues and animal wastes are always available on a farm. The common practice is to burn plant wastes which besides being an environmental disaster, is also a waste of the huge potential of these residues. Properly recycled, these residues form excellent compost in 1-6 months, depending upon the composting process used. Every farm can choose or even develop a suitable compost process depending upon its own needs and resources, including availability of labour and investment potential.

Vermicomposting is one method of composting farm wastes, employing earthworms to do the hard work. It is somewhat labour-intensive and requires some infrastructure but all this pays off as the end-result is an extremely high quality compost. While a small farm can use this method to compost all it's wastes, a larger farm may find it economical to compost only part of it's wastes this way. An extra benefit of vermicomposting is the production of vermiwash which can be collected after a weekly or bi-weekly watering over the bed if there is a tap at it's base. Vermiwash can be used as a prophylactic for pests, for pest repelling and as a foliar spray.

An important point to note in case of vermicomposting but widely ignored is to carry out proper sieving of the compost before applying it in the fields. The most efficient and widely used earthworms are not indigenous and if the worms and casts find their way to the fields, they will quickly colonise and dominate the local species.

Composts can be fortified using rock phosphate and enriched/improved by using Bio-dynamic & EM preparations (see other newer technologies below).

Use of indigenous seeds

One of the most negative results of the commercialisation of agriculture is the total dependence by the farmer on external sources for all his farming inputs, including seeds. Whereas earlier, farmers used to save and share their seeds, today they depend wholly upon seed companies for their requirements. Indigenous seeds are more suitable to a particular region or situation than any hybrid.

While the issue of seed conservation, seed sharing, genetically-modified seeds, bio-piracy, etc. is best tackled separately, it is important to note the issues that would be relevant to any natural farmer. |

Hybrid seeds are developed for very specific situations and have precise water and nutritional requirements, normally on the higher side. Besides being costlier, hybrids cannot be saved or shared with any benefit to the farmers. In fact, even where improved varieties are not hybrids, it is usually illegal for farmers to save or share such seeds. In some western countries, it is now illegal for farmers to share or sell even their local seed varieties on the grounds that the seeds are not certified.

However, all this does not mean that any indigenous seed should be freely used by farmers. As in hybrids, all varieties are not suitable for commercial cultivation. Many farmers save seeds selectively after seeing the vigour and growth of individual plants. This is an old tradition and needs to be continued.

Integration of systems

As mentioned earlier, the key to the success of any natural system is diversity. The concept of polyculture should not be limited to plants only but extended to cover the whole farm. This way, one system's wastes and by-products are another's inputs, or one system is comprised of more than one component which allows for efficient use of available resources.

Examples of such integration includes : rice-fish/prawn systems where the fish/prawn mature in the waterlogged fields and are harvested before the water drains away (making use of available resources). They have a symbiotic relationship with the main crop in 2 ways - manuring and pest control.

A larger and more permanent example of integration could be : annual crops + tree crops + dairy + honey bees.

The crops and tree crops are benefited by the honey bees (pollination); crop residues and tree prunings are useful as cattle feed, green leaf manure (see below) and in composts; the dung from the cattle is useful at the bio-gas plant, after which the slurry finds use in the fields as manure and in the compost heap.

With so many benefits, one almost forgets that this farm also produces food grains, fruits, vegetables, firewood, timber, milk and honey!

There is no limit to the extent and diversity of integration possible on a farm, however large or small. It is important to remember that nothing on the farm is waste or useless. Greater integration or diversity also calls for better management.

Mulching, green manuring and cover cropping

All these techniques are different but somewhat interrelated.

Mulching is the use of organic materials (plastic mulch is expensive and non-biodegradable) to cover the soil, especially around plants to keep down evaporation and water loss, besides adding valuable nutrients to the soil as they decompose. Mulching is a regular process and does require some labour and plenty of organic materials, but has excellent side effects, including encouraging the growth of soil fauna like earthworms and also preventing soil erosion to some extent.

Green manuring is an age-old practice prevalent since ancient times. A crop like dhaincha (Sesbania aculeata), sunnhemp or horsebean is sown usually just before the monsoons. A mix is also possible. Just around flowering (30-45 days after sowing), the crop is cut down and mixed into the soil after which the season's main crop is sown. Green manuring is beneficial in 2 ways - firstly it fixes nitrogen, and secondly the addition of biomass (around 5-10 tons/acre) greatly helps in improving the soil texture and water holding capacity. Green leaf manuring can also be carried out where green manuring is not possible for any reason, and if plenty of leguminous tree leaves are available.

Cover cropping is normally carried out also with nitrogen fixing crops that grow fast and require little or no inputs like water or additional manuring. While cover crops can yield some returns, they are mostly used for covering the soil in the fallow months, adding nitrogen to the soil, suppressing weeds, preventing soil erosion and later used as biomass or fodder. Velvet bean is an example, and it finds use as a fodder & biomass generator.

Some other newer technologies

While farmer innovations and local discoveries are part and parcel of organic farming, there are some distinct branches or schools practising a specialised form of agriculture, keeping the basic principles of organic farming the same. Two of these methodologies are Bio-dynamics (BD) and Effective Microorganisms (EM).

Bio-dynamics was conceived by Rudolf Steiner of in Germany in the 1920s. BD is a vast subject but has 2 basic components - farming operations on the basis of an astronomical calendar, and the use of some very special preparations, numbered 500-508 which are used as sprays and in the compost heap. Biodynamics addresses soil and plant health and includes pest control and composting.

Effective Microorganisms originated in Japan only some decades ago. As the name suggests, it makes use of microorganisms. These microorganisms are available as ready cultures and can be used not only in agriculture but also animal husbandry. Reports exists of EM finding applications in automobiles and other areas of engineering where moving parts are present!

EM, like BD can be useful in many different ways on the farm, including soil health, as a pest repeller and prophylactic, composting, and also in animal feeds, animal health and hygiene, aquaculture, etc.

Among the many other practices and techniques that an organic farm can practice and benefit from are :

Live fencing : having a living fence around the farm has multiple benefits. Besides protection from trespassers and cattle, a living fence also provides a buffer, and with sensible choice of plants, even some revenue. It does however take 2-3 years to develop.

Reduced tilling : reduces costs, soil erosion and maintains soil health

Growing multipurpose trees on farm bunds and less fertile or problem areas of the farm : Trees offer a wide range of benefits including erosion control, fodder and cattle feed, food, fuel wood, green manure and manure (oil cakes), honey, timber, pulp, tannin, gum, dyes, medicines, pesticides, posts & poles, shade and shelter, and help in soil improvement (including nitrogen-fixation).

Water and soil conservation : for any long-term success in a farming operation, water harvesting and soil conservation are necessary; Over a small area, contour bunds. gully plugs, small percolation tanks, well rechargers are some of the technologies available.


Vikas Chadha can be contacted at v_chadha@satyam.net.in; starling@cal.vsnl.net.in
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