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Organic farming: A boon or a bane?

High-cost organic food industry is plagued with issues such as low productivity and fabricated data. Hence, is government right in spending public money on subsidising rich man's food?

Rakesh Rao  |  Mumbai 

Organic food: Is it worth it?
Organic food: Is it worth it?

Organic food market is one of the fastest growing businesses in India with increase in demand due to the perceived advantage of such food. Even the Indian government is promoting organic food in the country through National Project on Organic Farming (NPOF) scheme. Launched in October 2004 with an initial outlay of Rs 57 crore, NPOF scheme continues till date with substantially enhanced budget.

While the government is spending crores of rupees on organic farming promotion, there are various facts about organic agriculture that many do not know.

Low-yielding organic farming: Ideal to fed growing population?
Organic cultivation, ie farming without using chemical fertilisers and pesticides, is not a state-of-the-art technology developed in recent times. In fact, it was the only way of farming followed in the bygone era – until 1960s - an era known for food shortages and hunger deaths. The area of organic farming has reduced drastically over the decades – accounting for less than 1 percent of the global agricultural land at present (in India it is about 0.28 percent).

One of the reasons for this shift has been the failure of organic agriculture to raise the productivity to keep pace with the growing population. Studies, according to a latest report in The Wall Street Journal, have shown that organic yields are far less than yields of conventional farming. As per the 2011 survey data of National Agricultural Statistics Service, a branch of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic farming would require 14.5 million acres more to equal conventional farming’s production of 14 staple (human-focused food crops).

ALSO READ: Bursting the myths on Indian agriculture

Hence, for India (the world’s second most populated country and where land is increasingly becoming scarce) adoption of only-organic route of farming could be disastrous. It is only by using modern agriculture techniques and inputs (in terms optimum utilisation of fertilisers and crop protection products) farmers can increase food production to meet the requirements of growing population.

Organic foods are more nutritious?
Proponents of organic food claim that organic foods are more healthy and nutritious compared to non-organic ones. Here again studies have shown that there is no effect on the nutrition content of the food if it is grown organically. In nutshell, spinach is a spinach, an apple is an apple; irrespective of the way the food is grown (whether organically or conventionally) the vitamin content will be the same.

A comprehensive study of Stanford University, USA, in 2012, which reviewed many of previously conducted studies comparing organic and conventionally grown food, found little evidence that organic foods are more nutritious. The study came to the same conclusion about organic meat products.

It is a well unknown fact that freshly picked produce (organic or non-organic) have high nutrient content - that is, the amount of vitamins and minerals that remain intact when one actually eats it. So the longer the agri-produce is kept in a store shelf or home refrigerator, the more nutrients will be lost, regardless of how it was grown.

On the contrary, some experts feel that food from organic farms can be prone to bacterial contamination since they do not use crop protection chemicals and put crops at greater risk of contamination from the bacteria from the farm manure. This risk was manifested to the world when E. coli outbreak (which killed over 30 people) in Germany in 2011 was found to be linked to organically grown bean sprout.

Organic food for human or animal consumption?
While there has been a massive campaign for incorporation of organic food in human dietary plate, the fact remains that majority of organic feed is used by the livestock industry. With two third of world organic agricultural land growing fodder, the livestock industry is the main growth driver of organic agriculture. In many western economies, organic meat is growing rapidly. For example, in 2012, Germany produced 39,200 tonnes of organic beef, while in Australia the share of organic beef was as high as 24 percent.

Share of animal feed in India's organic product exports has been increasing over the years. In 2012-13, India exported 1,65,262 tonnes of organic products - in which share of feed-grade soybean was 41 percent. Organic products exports jumped to 1,94,088 tonnes in 2013-14 with feed-grade soybean accounting for 70 percent. This clearly shows that animal feeds lead the organic product export from the country, which is in contrast with the public perception about India’s organic exports.

Crores spent, but no desirable results on the ground
The XI plan (2007-12) recommended Rs 2,500 crores to convert 5 million farm lands into organic farming. But latest data shows that India has only 0.5 million ha under organic farming. Just 10% what was planned with huge budget. According to official data, India’s organic production has declined from 3.88 million tonnes in 2010-11 to 1.24 million tonnes in 2013-14. Apparently there is no explanation given by government agencies for this drastic decline.

Fabricated data about organic farming

Table 1: Organic farming in Delhi & Odisha
Table 1: Organic farming in Delhi & Odisha
A detailed analysis of data produced by NPOF on progress of organic farming in India brings out deep and widespread data fraud in implementation of organic farming scheme. For example, in Delhi (refer Table 1), which has total geographical area of 1.48 lakh ha, over l lakh ha was brought under organic farming in 2011-12 (almost 70% of the total land), according to NPOF data. While area under organic farming zoomed from 266 ha in 2010-11 to 1 lakh ha in 2011-12 in Delhi, production surprisingly crashed from 2172 kgs in 2010-11 to mere 10 kgs in 2011-12. As per NPOF data, Delhi produced 4756 tonnes of organic products in 2009-10 – almost double than Assam (2329 tonnes). One fails to understand, how Delhi (a metro city) can produce more organic food than whole of Assam.

ALSO READ: Indian exchequer lost Rs 2,500 crore due to bogus claims on organic farming: CCFI

Similarly, NPOF data about organic farming in Odisha shows disconnect between area and production. In just three years between 2009-10 and 2011-12, the organic production in Odisha leaped from a mere 62392 tonnes (ie, 0.06 million tonnes) to over 29 million tonnes. These are just a few discrepancies mentioned here.

These findings should make the current government rethink on the strategy adopted by previous regime to promote organic farming in India until a proper investigation is done on the subject, according to Crop Care Federation of India (CCFI), which has also wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in October last year seeking investigation in this high-profile data fraud.

Why subsidies food for rich?
Since organic foods are considered to be premium (hence costly, beyond the reach of majority of populace), subsidising organic agriculture amounts to subsidising rich man's food. Policy makers should consider this before spending public money and subsidising organic agriculture.

In addition, huge subsidies to promote organic agricultural area may contribute to more data fraud and misappropriation of funds in future.

Sikkim’s organic agriculture: A failed growth model?
Of late, agriculture in Sikkim, which has set for itself to go fully organic by December 2015, hogs the limelight in the media with lots of eulogising. Consequently, many in India and outside feel that Sikkim’s agriculture practice is worth following by the rest. Well, nothing can be more disastrous. Perhaps Sikkim is the only state in India that has registered a 30 percent decline in food grain production in the last two decades. Table below shows a steady decline in production of food grains since 1990.

Table 2: Food grains production in Sikkim
Table 2: Food grains production in Sikkim
The only crop that has registered respectable production growth is maize, which is a feed grain more than food grain.

Between 1991 and 2011, Sikkim’s population has increased 50 percent from 4.06 lakh to 6.07 lakh. But during this period, its food grains production decreased significantly from 134 million tonnes to 102 million tonnes. Sikkim is chronically food deficient state and it is highly dependent on supplies from other states to feed its people. The average rice yield per ha in Sikkim is far below India’s national average. Its off take of rice from central scheme has sharply increased from 45,000 tonnes in 2009-10 to over 54,000 tonnes in 2011-12.

Commenting on the precarious state of food production, North East Council in its 12th plan report (2012-2017) plainly said that self-sufficiency in food grains would be unattainable in the foreseeable future.

This data clearly shows that if Sikkim model is followed across the country, it could put in jeopardy the food security of the country.

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First Published: Fri, August 28 2015. 14:12 IST