Ardent promoters of organic farming consider that present day organic agriculture, which is a mix of traditional wisdom and modern science, can herald the complete development of rural areas, especially in developing countries like India where the large chunk of farmers are small, with minimal resources and limited access to water. As per the International Federation for Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) “Organic agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people; combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved”. Organic agriculture is thus based on four principles:
Principle of health: It should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plant, animal, human and planet as one and indivisible.
Principle of ecology: It should be based on living ecological systems and cycles, work with them, emulate them and help sustain them. Principle of fairness: It should build on relationships that ensure fairness with regard to the common environment and life opportunities. Principle of care: It should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well-being of current and future generations.
The World of Organic Agriculture: According to latest FiBL-IFOAM survey by H Willer, et al., 2013, ‘The World of Organic Agriculture: Statistics and Emerging Trends’, organic agriculture is being practiced on 37.2 mha in 162 countries (0.9 per cent of total agricultural land). Apart from agricultural land, there are further organic areas, most of these being areas of wild collection—aquaculture, forests, and grazing areas on nonagricultural land. They constitute 32.5 mha. In total, 69.7 mha (agricultural and non-agricultural areas) are organic. There were 1.8 million producers in 2011. Thirty-four per cent of the world’s organic producers are in Asia, followed by Africa (30 per cent), and Europe (16 per cent). The countries with the most farmers are India (547591, 2012), Uganda (188625, 2010), and Mexico (169570, 2010) (ibid.). Organic food and beverage market was worth 63 billion US dollars in 2011. Demand for organic products is mainly in North America and Europe; these two regions comprise more than 90 per cent of sales with US being the single largest market.
Organic Agriculture in India: By March 2012, India had brought approximately 5.56 mha land under organic certification process with major share of 4.48 mha under wild harvest collection in forests and 1.08 mha under regular cultivation, spread over almost all states and union territories. In all 5.47 lakh farmers and wild collectors have produced approximately 2.8 mt of more than 250 organic commodities valued at Rs. 5000 crores. Organic cotton and its value added products, basmati rice, soybean, sugar, tea, honey, spices and dry fruits are important categories being exported to other countries. During the year 2011, India was the second largest exporter of organic tea, after China, 6th largest exporter of organic soybeans and 7th largest exporter of organic sugar.
Organic Agriculture and Productivity: Since the advent of organic farming in the recent years there had been concerns on the production potential of the system. But the results of long term experiments released during the last 10 years from world over have proved otherwise. In irrigated conditions organic farming may be yielding 5 to 12 per cent less than their conventional counterparts but under rain-fed and water deficit conditions organic system yields 7 to 15 per cent more.
Six years of experimenting, comparing two models of organic management with only-chemical and chemical-and-organic combination under 4 crop husbandry systems was undertaken at International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). The study titled ‘Evaluation of crop production systems using locally available biological inputs’, by O P Rupela, et al. in 2006, published in Biological Approaches to Sustainable Soil Systems, revealed that although, maximisation of yields can be achieved by the combined use of chemical fertilisers and organic inputs/practices (integrated agriculture), but this combination may not be affordable for small and marginal farmers in rain-fed areas (Fig. 1 and 2).
The low cost organic approaches can be an attractive choice, particularly when their strategic application results in yield levels at par with conventional system. The two organic models studied in the experiment yielded comparable results, and were in fact 25 per cent more profitable than the conventional system. Pest and disease management was also effective and low cost with biological approaches. Soil fertility and soil nutrient balance was certainly on a significantly higher side in organic system and offer longer sustainability under Indian conditions, typical of small and marginal farmers.
Reviewing 154 growing seasons’ worth of data (B Halweil, 2006, ‘Can Organic Farming Feed Us All?’, World Watch Magazine) on various crops grown on rain-fed and irrigated land in the United States, University of California, agricultural scientist Bill Liebhardt found that organic corn yields were 94 per cent of conventional yields, organic wheat yields were 97 per cent, and organic soybean yields were 94 per cent. Organic tomatoes showed no yield difference. More importantly, in the poorer nations where most of the world’s hungry live, the yield gaps completely disappear. University of Essex researchers Jules Pretty and Rachel Hine looked at over 200 agricultural projects in the developing world that converted to organic and ecological approaches, and found that for all the projects—involving 9 million farms on nearly 30 mha, yields increased an average of 93 per cent.
A seven-year study from Maikaal project in Khargone District in central India (J Frank et al., 2009, ‘The Impact of Organic Cotton Farming on the Livelihoods of Smallholders – Evidence from the Maikaal bioRe project in Central India’, Organic Farming Newsletter) involving 1,000 farmers, cultivating 3,200 hectares found that average yields for cotton, wheat, chili, and soybean were as much as 20 per cent higher on the organic farms than on nearby conventionally managed ones. Farmers and agricultural scientists ascribed the higher yields in the dry region to the emphasis on cover crops, compost, manure, and other practices that increased organic matter, helping the retention of water in the soils apart from providing adequate nutrients.
Organic Agriculture and Profitability: Recently a study was conducted in Maharashtra to assess the impact of organic farming on economics of sugarcane cultivation in Maharashtra (K G Kshirsagar, 2007, ‘Impact of Organic Sugarcane Farming on Economics and Water Use Efficiency in Maharashtra’, Artha Vijnana). The research was based on primary data collected from two districts covering 142 farmers, 72 growing organic sugarcane and 70 growing inorganic sugarcane. The study found that organic cultivation enhances human labour employment by 16.9 per cent and cost of cultivation is lower by 14.24 per cent as compared to conventional farming. Although the yield from the organic crop was 6.79 per cent lower than the conventional crop, it was more than compensated by the price premium received and yield stability observed on organic farms.
In a paper by Tej Pratap et al., 2009, titled ‘Organic Farmers Speak on Economics and Beyond’, Westville Publishing House; based on a nationwide survey of organic farmers indicates favourable economics through a cost-benefit analysis. Farmers in 5 out of 7 states are better placed so far as organic farming is concerned. The returns are higher in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. In Karnataka organic farmers had 4-35 per cent higher returns. In Kerala the differentials ranged between 4-37 per cent in favour of inorganic farmers. In Maharashtra the difference in net profit was more than 100 per cent in case of soybean. Cotton farmers were enjoying a comfortable profit margin. The profit differential in Rajasthan ranged from 12-59 per cent in favour of organic farmers. In another study by Ramesh et al., 2010, ‘Status of organic farming in India: Productivity vs Profitability’, Current Science; it has been reported that, although the productivity of crops in organic farming is lower by 9.2 per cent compared to conventional farming, there was a significant reduction in the average cost of cultivation by 11.7 per cent compared to conventional farming.
Conventionalisation of Organic agriculture: Since its re-emergence during the last decade of the twentieth century, organic agriculture was promoted as a self generating and self sustaining enterprise with total reliance on on-farm resources coupled with practices like crop rotations, inter-cropping, multi-cropping, integration of legumes in cropping systems and integration of cattle. But of late, in its quest to compete with the conventional agriculture in terms of productivity and to make the practices relevant to present day scenario, the system has started accepting the importance of off-farm inputs and use of industry produced inputs in the form of commercially produced composts, biostimulants, botanical extracts, biofertilisers and biopesticides etc. To cater to the growing demand, a new set of organic input industry has started to grow. The trend might have added to the acceptability of the system by farmers and policy makers, but it is a matter of concern for the original promoters of the organic, in whose wisdom it is a natural cycles based, natural resource dependent and self generating production enterprise.
Ardent promoters of organic farming term it as conventionalisation of organic agriculture and caution that with such developments, organic farming may transform into a slightly modified version of modern conventional agriculture, replicating the same history, resulting in many of the same social, technical and economic ills. Conventionalisation of organic farming is now increasingly seen as problematic, since organic farming has received public support for its potential to contribute to environmental protection and rural development. However, if organic farming increasingly comes to resemble conventional farming and this potential contribution is jeopardised, organic farming may lose the support it currently receives from both consumers and policy makers.