Fatima Begum leans over to pluck a tomato from a vegetable patch. Without washing it, she begins to chomp on it rather theatrically, as if to make a point. “You can eat this just as it is,” she says. “No pesticides.”
It is a scorching hot March day in Neredgunta, a village about 100 km north of Hyderabad. The farm that Begum plucked the tomato from is part of the largest pesticide-free agricultural experiment in India. At 30 lakh acres, this experiment, known as non-pesticidal management, reaches 12 lakh farmers in villages across Andhra Pradesh. Begum, 35, coordinates the non-pesticidal management efforts in five villages, helping farmers adopt the system and advising them on the best practices.
Begum’s enthusiasm is palpable as she reels off tiny facts about the practice of non-pesticidal management. “These are called vaavil aakulu,” she says, handing me a bunch of leaves with serrated edges that she has plucked from the roadside. They are a component of a tonic which is excellent at warding off crop pests, she points out. Occasionally, she shouts out a stern word of advice or a wisecrack to the farmers we pass by. Begum’s zeal and loquacious endorsement of the system make her something of an evangelist.
Non-pesticidal management is being promoted in Andhra Pradesh by the Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP), an organisation under the state’s department of rural development. As organic farming becomes increasingly popular in India, this Andhra experiment has gained prominence in the minds of environmentalists. For its scale alone, it is being hailed as proof that farming without pesticide is possible and viable. Perhaps the strongest evidence of non-pesticidal management’s popularity is that it was featured in June 2012 in actor Aamir Khan’s television talk show, Satyamev Jayate, as the answer to the evils of pesticide overuse in India.
Proponents of the system, whether SERP or the environmentalist groups, are hardselling it; they claim that crop yields under this system are similar to that of conventional farming. Further, because farmers do not spend anything on synthetic pesticides, their costliest agricultural input, they end up with much larger profits. With so many upsides, proponents believe, non-pesticidal management is the way to go for all of India. Given the right governmental support, they argue, it is a model that can replace conventional agriculture altogether.
Yet, the Andhra experiment is today at the heart of a bitter debate. While, on one hand, it is being hailed as a paradigm shift, on the other, it is regarded with scepticism by agricultural scientists. Even more interestingly, while the department of rural development promotes the practice across the state, Andhra’s department of agriculture rejects it.
The debate hinges on two issues. First, even though SERP claims that the system doesn’t affect crop yields, there is evidence of substantial drop in crop outputs in areas where this method is practised. It is a documented fact that organic farming, in general, suffers from this problem. This is because levels of nutrients, such as nitrogen, tend to be lower in land that is not artificially fertilised. Second, some of the methods widely used under non-pesticidal management haven’t been tested in controlled conditions yet. Whether panchagavya, a mix of the five cow-derived products (cow dung, cow urine, ghee, milk and curd), or brahmastram, a composite of neem leaves, custard apple, papaya, etc, scientists do not have enough data to state that these traditional formulations are as effective as the pesticides they seek to replace.
The yield disagreement
Figures from SERP show that non-pesticidal management has actually led to marginally higher yields in crops such as paddy, sorghum and cotton. This claim, though, is disputed. Although the farmers I met during my visit to Neredgunta and its neighbouring villages said their yields weren’t hurt after switching to non-pesticidal management, there were others who experienced a huge drop.
Manda Balarama Reddy, the head of a farmers’ association of Andhra Pradesh, is one of them. Reddy owns 6-7 acres of farm land on which he cultivates paddy, maize and vegetables. When he switched to pesticide-free farming a few years ago, his crop output dropped drastically. “If I get 10 tonnes from conventional farming, non-pesticidal management gives me only 6 tonnes,” he says.
Given such yield losses, there isn’t much incentive for farmers to switch to such alternative systems if they do not receive a premium price for their produce. According to the SERP website, though, only about 12 percent of farmers receive such premiums. Such a situation is not acceptable to ambitious farmers like Reddy. “Why would I work at a loss?” he says.
To Reddy, if non-pesticidal management is truly viable, farmers wouldn’t need prompting to adopt it. “Take the example of drip irrigation,” he says. “Nobody had to ask farmers to implement it because it was so obviously useful.”
Narahari Rama Sharma, another farmer and a great believer in organic farming, also accepts that lower yields are the bane of non-pesticidal management. Yet, for ideological reasons, he refuses to give up. It also helps that he doesn’t depend on agricultural produce as his main source of income. Instead, he owns a plant nursery that takes care of his financial needs.
An ideological rift
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(This story appears in the 27 June, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)
The concluding paragraph of this article is the jewel in the crown. Why should farmers spend on pesticides or fertilizers if they do not get return on their investment? The other important question is : Do Indian farmers use excessive pesticides as often alleged in the media ? The data show just the opposite. India has 191 million ha under agriculture - gross cultivated area. And Indian agriculture consumes - as per latest data- pesticides worth Rs 130000 million ( about $2.1 billion). This means that the average spend on pesticides by Indian farmers is as low as $12 /ha/ year. Is there any agri major in the world that can match this cost effective use? Remember , India ranks second in the world in agricultural productionwith an out put of $349 bn (Source: IMF) Here is more data to establish how different is India in pesticides consumption. Japan that has a mere 4.5 milliion ha under agriculture but consumes pesticides worth $3 bn. Brazil that has 60 million ha under agriculture, consumes pesticides worth $11.4 bn. EU and US agriculture consume more pesticides than India. I fail to understand why these data in public domain do not come to light in popular press.on Sep 9, 2014
While comparing the organic vs conventional agricultural techniques, we should keep following in mind: - Agriculture is very risky business, with weather, pests, bad prices all can play havoc anytime. So, any way that keeps input costs low will help minimize the losses for the farmer. By using no/low fertilizers and no pesticides, costs are reduced greatly. Even if there is a natural disaster his losses are minimized. His exposure to local pawn lender comes down so much - Why should we keep on talking about increasing the yield? There is enough food in this world for all. The problem is one of distribution and greedy middlemen. If a government can honestly address these two issues, we dont need to keep flagging for \"more productivity\" for \"growing population\" - By avoiding deadly pesticides, the health of the farming population improves. Remember what happened to Kerala farmers due to Endosulfan? - Adapting hybrids, precision agriculture, genetically modified seeds are all like going on steroids. Of course a man on steroid looks well built but he will have health issues later. Same is the case of getting into the productivity threadmill - Though the productivity be low, there is a segment of population that is willing to pay higher prices for such produce in their own interests. Farmers can make possibly same amount in this!on Jul 16, 2014
It seems like the scientists denying such techniques, are being paid by the pesticide and fertilizer firms. These techniques need to be evaluated by the scientists in an unbiased manner. What\'s the harm? Maybe, testing the said techniques hurts their pockets as well as the bottom line of the corporations. And don\'t you think that if such techniques are successful and validated, there won\'t be any need to manufacture pesticides and fertilizers. Few billions will be wiped off the GDP. These corporations need to live on and sell more for the sake of GDP. We want to promote industrial agriculture, but India should promote family agriculture. A farm should be diverse and that means it should include some livestock units. Livestock will provide additional income, a safety net against crop failure as well inputs for pesticide and fertilizer free farming.on Jun 20, 2014
Very Interesting. Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),Indiaon Jun 18, 2014
If you do zero budget natural farming, net profit is substantially high due to zero cost of pesticides n chemical fertilisers. So gross yield is not a question - net profit farmer makes is high in natural farming. Further, year over year data shows steady increase in yield with natural farming as the soil fertility increases y-o-y and plant immunity also increases y-o-y. Further, farmer produce safe, chemical/pesticide free food which is very important in today\'s spoiled environment !on Jun 18, 2014
Everyone on this planet is directly or indirectly related to agriculture either as a consumer or a producer or both. we are very much part and participle of the food chains. hence, the way we produce our food affects the consumer too. it is not just a producer - pest interaction. it is unprofessional on the part of agricultural scientists saying these are not effective. when such examples are shown on a scale, it is not by chance but with a base. such scientists have to work on how to improve the efficiency of the system rather than denying completely. if pesticides are poisons, we are intoxicating our food and in the process our environment. i don\'t see any difference between dying due to shortage of food and dying due to poisoning of food. farmers in the process incurring more and more expenditure on health.on Jun 17, 2014
It is better to have less production than unhealthy products. the quality of production may be increased by using better seeds and by other methods.on Jun 17, 2014
you also might want to look the relative roles of labour and non-farm income when comparing the sustainability of organic-nonorganic. Nowadays, they make all the differenceon Jun 17, 2014
Keep the hard work team of SERP for working towards farmers sustainable development.on Jun 17, 2014