On the Front Lines of the Global Food Crisis

The Organic Farmer
Notes from different corners of the world.
Aug. 7 2008 6:48 AM

On the Front Lines of the Global Food Crisis

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The organic farmer.

Grewal's organic sugar refinery. Click image to expand
Grewal's organic sugar refinery

SIRSA, HARYANA, India—"Sit right here, sweetheart," croons Ricchpal Singh Grewal. A robust man with silver hair and a neatly trimmed beard, Grewal is one of India's pioneering organic farmers. I can't quite place the smoothness and inflection of his voice. His English is flawless but not in the usual Oxbridge-educated way one hears in Delhi.

"Can I get you something?" he offers. "Some tea?" he asks, gesturing to an armchair. The room is immense and rather dusty, with just a sofa and a couple of chairs in one corner. "Relax, baby," Mr. Grewal smiles, "we have all the time in the world."

It doesn't make sense. How can a farmer with some land off the national highway near the Haryana-Punjab border be talking to me in what is, without doubt, a "Hollywood, baby" style?

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On the wall are enlarged vintage black-and-white photos of Sikh farmers in a field of wheat. Grewal returns, followed by a young girl carrying a tray with tea things that she shyly places on a table in front of me.

"The sugar is our own," he says. I usually don't take sugar, but the mound of crumbling caramel tempts me. It is delicious in the tea. "Those are amazing photos," I observe.

"That is my grandfather. He bought 500 acres here with the pension he'd earned as an engineer for the British raj. He and my father knew the earth and how to coax life from it like no one else. I came to it too late," he sighed. He explained how as a youth he ran away from farming, hopped a freighter in Bombay and made his way to Mexico, then to Los Angeles.

"Hollywood, that's where I ended up," he beamed. I'd nailed it! "They loved India, but they didn't know anything about it. I was the first to import tie-dye. I became a huge success, with offices in Milan, and my line in Vogue magazine. But the drug scene was too much. One day, I told my partner in Milan, 'You want this? It's all yours.' I came back here. I knew I had to farm. I needed the soil, the earth. Everything is born of her," he declared, sounding like a California guru.

In the kitchen, I meet his wife, Amrith, a lovely woman who manages the processing aspect of their operation in addition to running their home, which includes cooking three meals a day for the family and their dozen employees. The food is cooked using biogas derived from cow manure. The hot water heater runs on crop waste and paper scraps. Except for electricity and gasoline, the farm is self-sufficient.

Grewal takes me out into the fields. He shows me how he practices inter-cropping, growing nitrogen-fixing legumes between the cotton plants. When we get to the wheat fields, he notes that a lot of weeds have come up. "Got to get some women out here. They'll weed this in a day. The best are from Rajasthan—very respectful and hard-working." And also inexpensive, I think.

Abundant cheap labor is one of the potential advantages India can bring to expanding organic agriculture. Picking off pests by hand, harvesting inter-cropped fields with a mix of plants ready at different times, eliminating weeds by frequent hoeing between tight rows, preparing soil with organic fertilizers, deploying micro-irrigation lines positioned to release water at the roots of each plant—these are all labor-intensive tasks.

But organic farming in India faces significant disincentives. Most government policies favor industrial agriculture, with heavy subsidies for India's chemical-fertilizer and pesticide industries. The focus, understandable in a developing country, is on maximizing yields and boosting exports. The mindset of the Green Revolution is well-entrenched, despite the widely acknowledged social and environmental damage those practices have wrought and the knowledge that they are simply not sustainable.

"The very rich and the poor eat organic in India," chuckles Grewal. "Seventy percent of the farmers in India are organic farmers. They can't afford to farm any other way. The chemical inputs are too expensive for them. But they don't know they are doing organic farming, and they aren't certified. Unless you're certified, you can't export, you can't get the confidence of the consumer," he explains.

"Another problem is that to export, you need to be able to provide a full shipping container of product. Foreign buyers want scale. They don't want a little from me, a little from the next guy," Grewal complains. His answer is to do his own product processing and packaging. He shows me a sample, a millet grown in the northwest Indian state of Himachal Pradesh where he plans to buy land and expand his operation. The small plastic packet is labeled, "Product of Grewal's Organic Agriculture Farms: Certified Organic." The back of the package is crowded with logos and organic certifications.

An ad for genetically modified cotton seeds. Click image to expand
An ad for genetically modified cotton seeds

India is now the world's biggest exporter of organic cotton, though many people I've talked to claim that by this point most Indian cotton has been contaminated with genetically modified seed. After Monsanto introduced its patented Bollgard cotton, which contains a bacteria toxic to the boll worm, enterprising Indian entrepreneurs concocted a range of legitimate and bootleg genetically modified cotton seeds, which they sold at lower prices. Small fields and the natural tendency of genetically modified material to migrate with the wind have ensured, I'm told, that no one can guarantee Indian cotton to be "GMO-free," an important criteria for certified organic products.

The domestic market for organic food is slowly increasing among India's health-conscious, affluent urbanites, but procurement, distribution, and retail networks are patchy. Organic farming in India is growing at a year-over-year rate of 40 percent, but it still represents a tiny portion of India's total production. By 2012, there are expected to be more than 5 million acres under organic cultivation out of a total of more than 419 million cultivated acres.

Meanwhile, a host of genetically modified crops are being fast-tracked to market in India.  The Indian government is encouraging private companies, including global genetic-engineering giants Monsanto, Syngenta, and Bayer Crop Science, to expand their activities. It sees this as a way to boost growth in the lagging agricultural sector of the economy and to position India as a key site for global research and development of new biotechnologies. The long-term health consequences of eating genetically modified food and the impact on the environment from genetically modified organisms have been dismissed as trivial concerns. Genetically modified eggplants will hit the Indian market this year. They will not be labeled.

The landholdings of small farmers are being aggregated by big players through long-term leasing schemes, with the farmers being hired as contract labor on the new factory farms. In India, as elsewhere in the world, organic and natural farming by small producers is on a collision course with large-scale industrial farming. Whether India can transition to a sustainable agricultural model that can feed its hungry millions while providing a dignified living for the farmers who are the majority of its workforce remains to be seen.

Mira Kamdar is a Paris-based senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and the author of Planet India: The Turbulent Rise of the Largest Democracy and the Future of Our World.

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