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Sreelatha Menon: Low water farming

A new report underlines the benefits of organic farming in the age of climate change

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While addressing a conference on the this week, Prime Minister underlined the brewing water crisis.

It could as well have been called the ‘National Water Weak’ — for this precious commodity for life is struggling to survive. The maximum blame for wastage of water is often put at the doors of agriculture. The Prime Minister also pointed out that agriculture consumes three-fourth of our water resources. He says, “Given the limitations of increasing supply, a large part of any effort to narrow the demand-supply gap must focus on increasing water use efficiency. The National Water Mission sets a target of 20 per cent improvement in water use efficiency. This is particularly critical in the agricultural sector where water use efficiency is low compared to international standards.”

However, even while harping on these facts, especially the need to conserve ground water, there was no mention of as a means to improve water efficiency or the need to encourage low water crops, such as millets.

An NGO, on Dams, Rivers & People, in its report published last week, namely ‘Water Sector Options for India in a Changing Climate’, cites case studies of two groups of farmers who practise organic farming to illustrate its direct link with conservation of water.

Gorus, a farmer cooperative consisting of 25 farmers, each with a small patch of land totalling to six acres, grow more than 30 types of organic vegetables. And, they market these in Pune to a dedicated group of consumers.

Gorus’ farmers have another 12 acres or so under pulses and cereals. Gorus work in Mulshi, a rain-fed area. Author Shripad Dharmadhikari cites their experiences to explore the advantages of going organic. He also studied a farmer in a low rainfall area called Nimad in Madhya Pradesh. The reasons that brought farmers in both high and low rainfall areas to organic cultivation were the same, he says.

It was low water consumption and higher moisture retention by soil in the case of organic fertilisers, as compared to chemical inputs.

They say use of organic manure, compost, etc, over a period of time increases the water retention capacity of the soil. As the soil holds moisture for a longer period of time, less external water supply is needed. This is of importance in a scenario where higher evaporisation is projected. Another important reason is that chemical fertilisers need higher quantities of water to dissolve them.

Gorus needed about 25 per cent less water in summers and winters than by inorganic methods, the author says.

On low yields in organic farming, the author reports that even if the yield of grain reduces, the total biomass productivity will increase on the field, or at least it will not reduce. This is also a well-known criticism of the Green Revolution, that its practices focused only on increasing the yield of the grain at the cost of other biomass. If we can use the diverse biomass produce (in the form of fodder, other food products, etc), organic farming systems will not suffer from the yield disadvantage, he says.

However, the report adds while organic farmers can make their inputs and don’t need subsidies, the latter should stop in the case of chemical inputs to create a level-playing field.

While these are the experiences of actual farmers, the benefits of organic farming is the reduction in carbon emissions, according to activist group Greenpeace.

It says manufacture and use of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers represent six per cent of India’s total emissions. Shifting to organic farming could bring this down to two per cent, points out Greenpeace.

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