Return of the Native

Toxic consequences of the Green Revolution are encouraging farmers to embrace traditional methods, reports Paromita Sen

  • Published 24.07.17
Back to basics: A weekly haat at Baguiati where farmers sell organic produce
Picture: Amit Datta

Five decades after the Green Revolution helped India feed itself, farmers are beginning to shun some modern agricultural methods — the use of hybrid seeds, chemical fertilisers, and pesticides — and move towards organic farming.

It’s not that the farmers have suddenly turned environment-friendly; rather, it has become something of a life-and-death choice for them. Some have begun to believe that in the long term, the Green Revolution brought more harm than good. The fertilisers killed off friendly insects that kept pests under control so now pesticides have to be bought to keep plants pest-free. These pesticides not only kill off pests but also useful insects, birds which ate them; and even livestock if they happened to sample the grass around a farm that had been sprayed with pesticides.

“Just a spoonful of pesticide is enough to kill a person in minutes and that is what farmers use when they want to commit suicide,” says Dipankar Chakrabarty, Assistant Controller at the Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology (formerly Bengal Engineering College) at Shibpur. “So you can understand just how harmful it is to the environment and consumers of farm products.” Especially since the excess washes into the groundwater and pollutes it too.

“It is time we went back to traditional methods of farming, now called organic farming. Chemical fertilisers are turning the fields infertile,” says Rishi Krishna De, assistant director, agriculture who is enthusiastically growing organic produce in a part of Bidhan Shishu Uddyan in Calcutta’s Ultadanga.

Plants need 16-18 basic nutrients for growth, the most important being NPK or nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. All of them are available in compost fertiliser but not in the form the plants need. “There are variuos types of bacteria in the soil. They break down the organic material to inorganic salts that the plant can absorb. Chemical fertilisers are simply these inorganic salts that reach the plant directly. The bacteria eventually die from lack of food and the soil turns infertile,” says Udaybhanu Roy, managing director of Biodiverse Farming Limited. The firm runs an organic farm at Tona village near Lauhati in Bhangar, North 24 Parganas.

The concept is called zero waste integrated agriculture — no chemicals, no hybrids. Farmers are going back to traditional seeds and traditional composts such as cowdung and leaf compost. And using earthworms to improve soil quality. In the days of traditional farming, farmers put away a part of the grain yield to use as seeds the next year; but high yielding, rust resistant varieties  need to be bought each year.

Durgapada Bhattacharya is the founder-chairperson of Purba Medinipur Farmers and Welfare Association. He is a school teacher and he believes the only way to sustainable development is to catch them young. “Since 1990 I have been teaching my students farming concepts so that they do not lose their connection to Mother Earth. And I have been teaching them vermiculture because they are nature’s farmers. Charles Darwin proved that the earthworm could improve the fertility of soil.”

Vermiculture also helps cut greenhouse gas emissions. When kitchen waste decays, it gives off methane. If you dig a hole in the ground (or line a bucket with some soil), throw the kitchen waste into that and put in a few earthworms, you will have top quality compost with no emission of gas or bad smell in one and a half months.

Taking up just one aspect of organic farming — such as vermiculture or growing vegetables — however will not guarantee success. How do you know that the so-called organic fertiliser you are buying is really organic? And you have to know this if you want organic certification. Also, if you are dependent on someone else to buy up your product or market it, your business may fail for no fault of your own. So the best thing is to do integrated organic farming, where you keep your own earthworms for vermicompost, keep livestock for their manure and to feed them parts of the crops that you cannot sell, stock fish in the pond that supplies water for your crops, grow crops using compost made on the farm and even set up a system of selling your products, perhaps by renting a stall at the organic haats the government is putting up these days.

“On our farm, workers are rotated through departments every month. So if a person is looking after the livestock this month, he can be posted to farming the next, one of the food processing units after that and finally to a supermarket to market our products. We have 27 of these youngsters and they are all so well trained that each of them could set up another Tona somewhere else under the right conditions,” says a proud Roy.

The reason youngsters leave villages is because they not only do not make enough from farming but also because they are ashamed of it; they’d much rather work as a security guard in someone’s house in the city than farm their own fields. “If children are taught about the soil and how to grow things as part of work education in school, they will begin to appreciate the work farmers do and will not look down on farming as a profession,” says Chakrabarty of IIEST in Shibpur. “It is sad that in a farming dependant country like ours, the education system is so urban based. There are no courses that teach you how to farm well or how to take care of your fields.”

It is a dream of Chakrabarty — an officer of public administration — to start a series of courses that can be taught to the young in villages and even cities if they are interested. These courses will teach you not only how to farm well but also how to market your products. If he can make it a reality, not only will we have healthier food to eat but also far fewer unemployed youths. And he’s talkin’ about a real revolution.