Organic farming – tough road ahead

I went on a trip to Sikkim, with a pal who works for organic farming certification in that state. And while I was doing my sightseeing, managed to enquire a bit about how organic farming is structured and marketed in the country.

Quite an interesting case study it is.

Organic farming

Organic farming involves complete dependency on natural products during the agricultural cycle, which means organic seeds, no fertilisers, no pesticides, no weedicides- all these chemicals replaced by organic/natural stuff. It is claimed that organic farming restores the “natural” composition of the soil and keeps it productive for a sustained period- unlike fertilizers which will give higher productivity in the short term but spoil the soil so that eventually it would be unfit for agriculture.

While I have no doubts on the benefits of organic farming (better health, soil conservation etc) I developed some really serious doubts about its adoption in a country like ours. Here’s why:

– The financial motivation to the farmer is not very strong. This is primarily because the end consumer demand for organic products is low, which means there is not a big enough market for the farmers to go to where they might get a handsome premium.

–  Organic farming is a slow process as in takes almost 2 years for the soil to come back to its same productive levels that you would have seen with moderate use of chemicals and its only in the 3/4th year that you see substantial incremental benefits of refraining from using chemicals. Most Indian farmers would not have enough security to afford a cut in production/revenues for 2-3 years. And I guess thats why some of the govt entities are trying out ways to subsidise this.

– The true  local effects of organic farming can be seen only if its a community level initiative. One of the ways Organic farming is “sold” to farmers is by telling them that the chemicals are not only spoiling the soil but also contaminating the ground water that your children and family consume. Now even if I have some financial security to take in a cut in production- how will the ground water be un polluted if the farmer next door doesnt adopt Organic farming techniques. So i guess in a way its like starting a revolution- creating an awareness in villages so that people start using it simulatenously.

–  Complex implementation process. Now comes the tricky adoption bit. It seems for your farm’s produce to sell under organic umbrella, you need a certification. Sounds acceptable. But in order to get the certification one needs to practise it for 6 years and maintain a log-book which carries all the relevant details of what has been added to the farm on which date in what quantities. This overhead means that the farms cannot be too widespread or remote. Logic is thus- the co. which will deploy a dedicated resource to maintain this field book would be able to recover costs only if the resource is shared between enough number of plots. So organic farming will flourish only in big enough villages till some tech smarts are implemented.

–  Access to markets . From what I understand perishables are most in demand when it comes to organic produce BUT given the complex logistics its tough to guarantee profitability unless the farm is close to the market itself. In most cases where it isnt, its the staple crops like pulses, grains etc that are cultivated the organic way- where in the inherent demand is not too high..

The way I would have attacked this is:

–  Extensive lobbying  with state governments for subsidies where demand for organic products already exists. I would assume metros and centres with cosmopolitan lifestyles.

– Start  doing branded stuff/span in small niche areas and use technology in demand estimation. That way atleast the spoilage losses would be minimised and one would be able to mature the logistics as the demand picks up.

– Since awareness for organic products its benefits is low- create a forum of stakeholders who collectively manage PR around this. Look at high profile evangelists who can easily make this an in thing 🙂

– Make  certification move towards self-assesment/span with regular checks. This would bring the cost of certification down.

–  Build data models/span which can plug in local factors to come up with estimates of harvest for each plot under organic farming- aggregate the same and find buyers well before the stock moves out of the fields.