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CHAINA, India — For two decades, Mahender Singh grew his vegetables without chemicals on his 10-acre plot of land in Pipal Mangoli, a village in southeastern Punjab. Then in 1967, an official from India’s Agriculture Department arrived in the nearby city of Patiala with a bag of chemical fertilizer, and farming in Punjab changed radically.
With the introduction of chemicals such as urea, phosphate and pesticides as well as new farming technologies and irrigation systems, this fertile northern Indian state quickly became the seat of the country’s agricultural revolution in the 1970s and 1980s. And farmers like Singh, now a vibrant 69-year-old with a snow white beard, started to see their harvests multiply.
But alongside this burst of prosperity came the harrowing side effects of pouring chemicals into the ground: People’s health deteriorated rapidly, as did water and soil quality, and neither the government nor consumers took action. In the past decade, however, farmers like Singh have taken matters into their own hands and returned to the chemical-free, organic farming practices they used before fertilizers showed up.
“I had confidence in my own method and my own labor,” he said. “I’m convinced that organic farming works.”
Singh is not alone in switching to organic. Punjab now has approximately 1,500 hectares of certified organic land, and India has emerged as a global leader in organic farming, with 600,000 certified producers. The countries with the second- and third-largest outputs are Uganda and Mexico, according to a report based on 2012 data, both of which have fewer than 200,000 organic producers.
Motivated by growing international demand, the Indian government has encouraged the shift toward organic. In 2004, India introduced the National Project on Organic Farming, and within 10 years the amount of certified organic land (land free of chemical residue) increased from 42,000 hectares to 4.72 million hectares.
At the beginning of 2013 the government launched a nationwide organic certification program to help India increase its organic exports. During the year, organic exports rose 7.73 percent, and the country produced 1.24 million metric tons of organic produce, according to an arm of the government responsible for overseeing agricultural development. India collected $403 million in revenue from these exports, out of a $63.8 billion global organic market.
While government interest in organic is largely market driven, for independent farmers in Punjab, the choice is about more than the economics; it’s about grappling with the legacy of the Green Revolution, an agricultural overhaul that began in the 1940s and reached the state more than 50 years ago.
Seeds of a Revolution
India’s Green Revolution began in 1967, when then–Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took 18,000 tons of hybrid Mexican wheat seeds to Punjab. At the time, starvation plagued much of the country, and the introduction of high-yield seeds and chemical fertilizers resulted in a massive increase in the production of wheat, rice and pulse. India produced 50.8 million tons of food grain in 1950; by 1990, that output jumped to 176.3 million tons, creating a surplus.
For a while, there was no end to Punjab’s success stories. In the 1970s and ’80s, thanks in large part to the Green Revolution, the state boasted one of the fastest-growing economies in the country, with gross income rising almost 8 percent from 1985 to 1986 — nearly double the national average. Public investment helped Punjab produce two-thirds of the country’s wheat and rice throughout the 1980s and ’90s, which helped curb India’s hunger problem. Punjabi farmers became the richest in the country and contributed to India’s reputation as a global economic powerhouse.
But the Green Revolution also brought a host of problems. Rice fields, introduced in Punjab during the overhaul, required heavy irrigation and threatened the state’s water supply. Farmers poured dangerously high levels of government-subsidized phosphate and urea into the soil and water to grow more food.
Punjab’s public health crisis became public knowledge in the 1990s after the discovery of toxic chemicals in the state’s soil and waterways. The region now has the highest cancer rate in the country, and J.S. Thakur, a researcher at the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigahrh, has linked these chemicals topremature aging, skeletal issues and threats to children’s health.
Because of this history, switching to organic isn’t just about farming, said Umendra Dutt, the executive director of Kheti Virasat Mission, a nonprofit organization that promotes organic farming in Punjab. “This is an issue of health, of environment, of future generations.”
Taking the Leap
In Chaina, a village of 3,000 people in central Punjab, Amarjit Sharma stepped carefully through the crops in his field on an early April morning, praying that a coming storm wouldn’t ruin his harvest. He began practicing organic farming 10 years ago after he ruined his entire cotton crop by using too many pesticides.
At first the transition proved a challenge. Sharma was working without the government subsidies normally provided for chemical fertilizers, and he watched his neighbors enjoy larger harvests while his dwindled. Then he learned about crop rotation techniques, balancing the soil by planting crops that leave behind nitrogen for crops that consume it.
These days, Sharma’s land is lush with wheat and seasonal vegetables that he sells throughout the year, and he no longer spends money on pesticides. “We don’t need chemicals now,” he said.
About 200 kilometers from the northern Punjab city of Amritsar, Vinod Jyani also practices organic farming. He started in 2005 after getting fed up with what he describes as a vicious cycle of chemical-based farming. He used to spend close to $1,300 annually on seeds, pesticides and fertilizers that he said made his crops and soil weaker and required him to buy more chemicals.
With some guidance from Kheti Virasat Mission and other organic farmers, Jyani now grows 15 types of organic grains, legumes, vegetables and other crops in a careful rotation so the soil remains healthy. He doesn’t use the chemicals he relied on in the past, and his entire family works on the farm, including his mother, who makes clarified butter from cow’s milk.
Because organic produce sells at higher rates than nonorganic, Jyani said, his income has increased from about $391 per acre to at least $469 per acre. Plus he saves the $125 per acre that he used to spend on fertilizer and pesticides.
He said that what makes him truly satisfied is the independence he derives from farming without government subsidies and seeds. Instead of catering to global demand for organic food, he sells his produce to surrounding towns and villages directly from his farm.
“We’re selling on our faith and trust in local people,” he said.
The Government Catches Up
In addition to promoting organic from a market perspective, the government is starting to understand that encouraging natural farming techniques might help reverse the effects of decades spent dumping pesticides and chemical fertilizers into India’s water and soil. In February, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley offered support for the Ministry of Agriculture’s organic farming plan, which is partly focused on improving soil health. Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Soil Health Card scheme this year as a way of encouraging farmers to curb excessive use of chemical fertilizers.
At his Chandigarh office, Suresh Kumar, one of the chief secretaries at the Department of Agriculture, Water Supply and Sanitation, said that Punjab’s top priority is to promote the safer use of chemical fertilizers. “Over the years, the use of chemical and agro fertilizers have become excessive. So first and foremost, we are trying to ensure judicious use.”
It’s hard to tell, however, whether the government is fulfilling its promises to financially support organic farmers. While programs such as the National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture offer to cover 50 percent of the costs of organic farming, there are no easy ways to track whether these funds have been distributed. Devinder Sharma, a well-known researcher and writer on agricultural issues, said that even though nine Indian states, including Punjab, have organic farming policies in place, there aren’t any examples of the government’s effectively subsidizing organic farming.
“There is no subsidy, no shift,” he said. “No one is thinking on how to subsidize organic farming and move away from chemicals. There’s just no political will.”
Sharma added that if a large-scale shift in commercial farming happens, producers and the government won’t be the ones to bring it about. Instead, he thinks organic food will become standard when consumers start asking for it in their markets.
While some farmers are reluctant to go organic until they have more confidence in the demand, many take the initiative when it comes to their own gardens — and when there’s pressure from families. According to Amanjot Kaur, a coordinator for Women Action for Ecology, “women are the ones who motivate farmers to slowly start trying organic.”
Karirwali housewife Amarjeet Kaur knows how many bags of urea go into the family’s 10-acre farm. But she is more focused on the patch of land in her courtyard where she composts manure-based fertilizer to grow her family’s vegetables.
With a traditional Sikh dagger slung at her hip, Kaur said she started her kitchen garden six years ago and now grows about eight or nine kinds of vegetables. The eggplant, cabbage and spinach were almost ready to pick. In about 40 villages across Punjab, organizations such as the Kheti Virasat Mission and the All India Pingalwara Charitable Society promote chemical-free farming and teach women to grow kitchen gardens like Kaur’s. It takes more time to compost manure and collect buffalo dung, but Kaur is motivated by the taste of the food and the knowledge it isn’t contaminated.
For Mahender Singh, who made the long journey from present-day Pakistan to his village of Pipal Magoli shortly after India gained independence from the British, organic farming has given him a new sense of freedom.
Sitting on a rope cot outside an organic farming workshop on a cool spring afternoon, Singh said he takes pride in healing a strained relationship with the soil. And he takes satisfaction in knowing that he controls what he plants, produces and consumes.
“Everything we’ve gotten,” he said, “we’ve done ourselves.”
Reporting was supported by a South Asian Journalists Association fellowship.