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How is India’s organic-only farming experiment in Sikkim going? Peering past the propaganda, not so sustainably.

| August 15, 2018

India’s farm sector is in massive flux and strife right now. After a massive ten-day strike in June, Indian farmers are entering into a general strike in coalition with army veterans across much of the country. The strike included massive demonstrations and dumping of products – milk and produce – to demand that the government to update price supports and waive farmer debt across the board. Meanwhile, one farmer’s union is using social media to demand access to genetically engineered crops, with farmers broadcasting the message “Bheek nako, GM biyana dya” across Facebook and WhatsApp. (Don’t give us your alms, give us GM seeds instead)

Reporting in The Washington Post, Annie Gowen filed a dispatch from Soreng, a small town in the West Sikkim district of the north-east india map showing sikkimIndian state of Sikkim on efforts by the regional government there to convert all agriculture to organic by banning synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

After years of over use of pesticides and fertilizers the state of Sikkim had seen increased cancer rates and polluted waters. Sikkim began its program to go all-organic in 2003 by reducing government subsidies on synthetic inputs by 10% each year coupled with education and investments in compost collection. A full ban on synthetic inputs went into effect in 2014, with Sikkim becoming India’s first “100 per cent organic” state in January 2016.

The cloud-wreathed Himalayan state is starting to see the dividends. Overall health has increased in the state, leaders say, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has embraced Sikkim and organic farming throughout India, pouring about $119 million into supporting organic farmers nationwide. India is betting that Sikkim can be the global model for other jurisdictions around the world that want to go all-organic.

Officials are able to point to some tangible benefits from the program. Bee populations rebounding with yields of pollinator dependent cardamom increasing more than 23 percent since 2014. Tourism to the region has increased by 25% since 2016, with the state beginning to market itself as wellness destination. Reports from individual farmers are far less rosy and the move at the end of March to ban imports of conventional didn’t go smoothly. Nevertheless, the minister overseeing the program see the problems as teething issues for a program in its infancy.

The executive order in March to ban the import of inorganic produce from neighboring states threw the state into turmoil, with prices of cabbage tripling in the markets, traders in revolt and the opposition party marching in protest.

Chamling dismissed these most recent events as “teething problems” and said he was confident the chaos would sort itself out. The state government is introducing seasonal price caps on organic vegetables for consumers to keep prices affordable.

I’m not sure how price caps on organic vegetables are going to help farmers struggling to make ends meet in this new environment. Just the opposite. Nevertheless, editorial writers all over India have been touting Sikkim’s transition to all organic as a model their local state governments should emulate.

Chaos in the markets

Local reporting on these issues has been far less optimistic.cBack in October, the Indian Express reported on farmer’s frustrations.

“We aren’t obtaining any fair price for our produce. Nor are the bio-pesticides now being used helping to contain recurrent pest and disease attacks,” complains Khatiwoda. He identifies whiteflies, cutworms and stinkbugs, along with powdery mildew fungal disease, as causing major damage to his tomato crop.

Echoing similar concerns is Roshan Chettri, another farmer from the same village who grows tomatoes and cauliflowers. “The state government is not doing enough to boost marketing of organic produce. As a result, the price we are getting is not much different from what non-organic fetches,” he says.

… Khatiwoda points out that the same open field plot which gave about 40 quintals (quintal = 100kg) of tomato before he switched to organic farming eight years ago, now yields just 18-20 quintals. And the realisations aren’t significantly higher to compensate for the lower yields.

“Not only are the realisations inadequate, we are also suffering due to the influx of cheaper non-organic vegetable produce from Siliguri (in neighbouring West Bengal). Our organic produce should fetch far higher price, as it is good for health and the environment. But that’s not happening. And why is the Sikkim government not stopping vegetables from outside entering the state?” asks Chettri.

On the eve of the ban on the selling of non-organic products imported from outside of Sikkim, produce traders were beside themselves.

“We will continue to bring non-organic farm produce and sell them. Since the government failed to understand our problems, we will continue to do what we have been doing for decades,” said vice president of the All Sikkim Traders Association (ASTA) Lakpa Sherpa.

“Sikkim’s farmers cannot meet the total local demand for fruits and vegetables. This demand goes up during tourist seasons. More than 95% of fruits and vegetables consumed in Sikkim comes from Siliguri in West Bengal,” said Sherpa. “The ban can only lead to a crisis,” he added.

A wholesaler of fruits, associated with the Lall Bazaar Traders Association in Gangtok said: “The state capital alone requires 35,000 kilos of potato and 50000 kilos of banana each day. Local farmers simply cannot meet the demand.”

Traders in Sikkim feel that most vegetables will soon be in short supply. Only organic cabbage, cauliflower and beans may meet the local demand since these are produced in large quantity in the state.

“But the difference in price is huge. Organic cauliflower is being sold at Rs 120 a kilo against Rs 20-25 for the non-organic variant,” said a trader at Gangtok’s Lall Bazaar.

Traders in Siliguri are equally worried.

Tapan Saha, former president of Siliguri Onion and Potato Merchants Association said: “Though the Sikkim government has the right to do what it feels will be good for the state, the ban on sale of non-organic products will affect many lives.”

“More than 70 tons of vegetables and fruits are sent to the hilly state every day from Siliguri. It will take Sikkim a long time to become self-sufficient in organic farming,” Saha said, adding “hundreds of traders and wage labourers in Siliguri will suffer due to this ban.”

In the near term at least, their fears appear to be justified, with prices rising, illegal produce being dumped, and local officials immediately in retreat, taking a number of items of the prohibited list.

On April 3, around 10 metric tonnes of vegetables were seized from Lal Bazar Market in Gangtok by officials, put in four trucks and dumped at a landfill near Rangpo, East Sikkim.

However, accusations have followed of the government being ill-prepared, especially with prices seeing a spike and triggering public anger. For instance, organic cauliflower is being sold for Rs 100-120 per kg, against Rs 15 for the non-organic variety at the nearby Siliguri market; the respective rates for cabbage are Rs 30 and Rs 5-10 per kg.

While the banned list initially included 26 agricultural and horticultural products, the market crisis has since forced the government to take carrot, green chilies, onions and tomatoes off the list.

On April 17, the government announced it was fixing prices of organic vegetables. Price lists were put up at major markets, including Lal Bazar, and the government announced it would procure directly from farmers to transport goods to retailers.

Prem Das Rai, Sikkim MP and a leader of the ruling Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF), calls the price rise a “temporary disruption”. “There is no shortage. But prices are high and it is a factor. We have formed a committee to look at this… The move is like a big surgery, but the temporary pain will only make the people of Sikkim happier. It is like demonetisation — after some trouble, some period, there are assured benefits,” he says.

The government assures everyone that all the kinks will soon be worked out, but this is a program that began in 2003 and was supposed to implement gradually up to this point with kinks worked out along the way. In November of 2016, the Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) visited 16 farms spread over the four districts of the state—North Sikkim, South Sikkim, West Sikkim and East Sikkim.

In Poklok-Denchung gram panchayat near Namchi, the headquarters of South Sikkim district, 85-year-old Nar Bahadur Rai is a disappointed farmer. With his son, Rai grows maize, ginger and cardamom on their two-hectare (ha) farm. Since 2011-12, when they stopped using synthetic chemicals, their ginger production has plunged to only a third of the amount they used to grow when chemical use was permitted in farming. A fungal disease called sheath blight has affected their ginger crop and Rai has received no assistance from the government. “Why are we not given any medicines for our crops? The government gave us only some manure for a short while. What is the point of the officers going for trainings if the farmers do not learn anything?” he asks.

Around six kilometres away, farmer Revathy Sharma faces other challenges. He grows pulses and maize on his small farm of about 0.6 ha. His pulse yield has fallen drastically since he switched to organic farming. “When chemicals were allowed, I could grow 280 to 300 kg of pulses and now, after 4 years, I barely manage to grow 80 to 85 kg. This year, I am expecting a slight improvement with a yield of around 100 kg,” he says. Sharma cites low productivity and the susceptibility of crops to pest attacks as the reasons for this fall in yield. The experience of farmers like Sharma and Rai shows that despite earning the “100 per cent organic” tag, Sikkim’s transition to organic farming is yet to become successful.

… The phasing out of chemicals has not been complemented by a simultaneous increase in the availability of and access to organic manure. The CSE survey shows that while government-owned farms are well-stocked with bio-fertilisers and bio-pesticides, seven of the 14 private farmers interviewed have received neither of these inputs from the government. The government has also spent too little on enabling farmers to make their own organic inputs. The Mission’s Comprehensive Progress Report, 2014, shows that between 2010 and 2014, it spent only 5 per cent of the total expenditure of Rs 54 crore on training farmers.

In West Sikkim district, Dawa Cssering Lepcha, a farmer who lives near the town of Rinchenpong, confirms that his ginger yield has halved since he stopped using chemicals. “Pest attacks are common and we have not received sufficient training on how to deal with them. The department taught us how to make some medicine for pest attacks in ginger, but that was not effective,” he says. Sharma from South Sikkim says he has reverted to the traditional practice of using cow dung and cow urine to fight pest attacks, but they are not as effective as chemicals.

… Sikkim’s organic tag has not delivered on the promise it made to the state’s farmers some 14 years ago. To make the organic plan a success, the state had brought all farmers on board by assuring them that organic produce would fetch higher prices. But eight of the 14 private farmers interviewed by CSE said they were not able to charge a premium price. For example, one of the farmers told CSE that ginger used to sell for Rs 1,500 per maund (1 maund equals 37 kg), but now fetches only Rs 1,000-1,200 per maund. The reasons for this drop in price are varied: some cite a general decline in market prices, while others say organic produce commands a lower price than conventional produce as it tends to spoil faster. Farmers also complain that they still depend on middlemen for the sale of produce and these middlemen often pay low prices.

Chumsang Lepcha, a farmer in North Sikkim, owns 7 ha of land and grows maize, cardamom, millets, buckwheat, squash and some vegetables. He also has a vermi-composting pit. Lepcha says that though his crop yield has stabilised since he shifted to organic farming in 2010, it still does not earn him a higher price. The middlemen he sells his produce to claim that they do not care whether the food is organic or not.

Government officials respond not with a denial of the problems, but with assurances that with the exception of mandarin oranges, average yields have been increasing, while plans for building processing and marketing capacity will in place when the time comes.

Government data shows that apart from Sikkim mandarins (a native orange variety of Sikkim), the productivity of every crop has either remained stable or improved slightly from 2010-11 to 2015-16 (see ‘Mixed bag’). But CSE found that only two of 14 private farmers reported an increase in yield and one said that his ginger yield had stabilised after an initial decline. Seven farmers who grew rice, maize, ginger, cardamom, pulses and vegetables said that their yield has worsened since they stopped using chemicals.

… The state government admits that marketing initiatives are lagging behind due to the paucity of funds. It has now zeroed in on four high-value crops—large cardamom, ginger, turmeric and buck-wheat—for profitable domestic sale and export. “Under the Mission for Value Chain Development for North East Region (MOVCDNER), the plan is to process these four crops, package them, brand them and send them to other parts of the country or export them. Our objective is that after 2018, only processed products will be sent out of Sikkim,” says Khorlo Bhutia, principal director-cum-secretary of Sikkim’s Horticulture and Cash Crops Development Department (H&CCD).

What happened with yields as Sikkim transitioned to organic?

What to make of the gap between the official yield data and the on the ground reporting? It’s hard to tell. There are a number of possibilities that come to mind.

Related article:  High-yielding wheat boosts chemical use? Study busts popular farming myth

In the research I did, there are reports of farmers having their yields and profits plunge to the point that gave up farming. Those would generally be the most under-capitalized and possible least skilled farmers, so their exits would be contributing to increasing average yields, but perhaps decreased system capacity.

It could be that due to the journalistic bias towards reporting conflict with journalists gravitating towards outlier farmers with clear grievances who may be unlucky, unskilled, under-capitalized, or some combination of the three. Readers certainly gravitate towards stories making the case that the world is going to hell in hand basket.

It could simply be that the various government programs, though under funded, are paying off in the aggregate. The impression one gets from Sikkim’s department of agriculture’s annual progress reports is that the decision to go organic did spark a real commitment to get resources to farmers so that they could thrive. Or at least through 2014, the last year they published what had been annual progress reports. The story those reports tell is of a government committed to education through extension programs, to building capacity to provide improved and high yielding seed varieties to farmers, to providing soil testing, small scale irrigation and composting equipment. It shouldn’t be surprising if those efforts weren’t paying off in some ways.

However, scanning across four years of annual progress reports (2008/92009/102010/112013/14 PDFs) and tabulating what I think are fair indicators where the data seems consistent across reports, the story is of much more mixed results. And hard to draw much in the way of conclusions as the data ends in 2014 before the most crucial years of developing this program occur. Still it’s worth sketching out what’s in there.

Rice and maize are by far the crops planted across the most acres in Sikkim so those were the two I pulled data for. Here are yields.

Crop 2008/9 2009/10 2010/11 2013/14
–––––– Yield Kg/Ha –––––– ––––––
Rice 1709 1705 1727 1815
Maize 1677 1637 1647 1724
–––––– Area planted Ha –––––– ––––––
Rice 13,000 12,270 12,140 11,160
Maize 39,000 39,500 40,170 39,930
–––––– Area planted Ha –––––– ––––––
Total Cereals 65,900 67,760 62,990 58,620
Total Pulses 5880 39,500 40,170 39,930

It does look like they were making progress on yields, while the amount of land under cultivation either dropped off or shifted into production of higher value products.

But that was a few years back, with early adopters. Recent reports of yield declines go as high as 30%. The sense you get from reading various accounts is chaos. The kind of chaos that governments try to bandage over with price ceilings to protect low income consumers who aren’t interested in buying more expensive organic produce and price supports for farmers who are saddled with lower production and lower demand.

But maybe the improvements in the health of local eco-systems and the increase in eco-tourism makes it worth it. I have to wonder if nutrient leeching into local waterways will actually be lower with manure and compost than from synthetic fertilizers. I would have recommended a serious push for soil testing and adjustment and away from guessing and over-fertilizing to be on the safe side yield wise. The Chinese government earlier this year released the results of trying this with thousands of farmers and the results were spectacular.

As someone who doesn’t see organic farming as synonymous with sustainable farming, I initially saw Sikkim’s decision to use organic certification as a vehicle for making their agriculture more sustainable as a huge missed opportunity. But as I think about it more, perhaps what they’ve done is create an opportunity that didn’t exist prior to what they’ve accomplished thus far.

Organic and ‘naturalness’ do not equate with sustainable

One of the major obstacles in establishing a sustainable certification system that is based on evidence, best practices, and metrics – rather than on the arbitrary concept of ‘naturalness’ – is that the organic label already has established a de facto monopoly on the idea of sustainable farming for the vast majority of consumers. And that monopoly is very hard to displace because ‘naturalness’ is a very intuitive, if misleading, proxy for sustainable or low impact farming.

The state of Sikkim is now in possession of two unique assets from which to create an eco-farming label that can stand on it’s own without having to overcome the baggage of consumer expectations about organic farming and sustainability.

The first is that they’ve built up a reputation for being a government committed to sustainable farming (whether you agree that they are accomplishing that or not). They’ve got some credibility built up that they can spend on a little heresy.

The second is that they’ve created their own certification for the domestic market. In trying to make certification less onerous for farmers the state has done two things. The first is that they subsidized certification fees for farmers selling into export markets (global and exports to the rest of India). Next they created their own certification system that was cheaper and simpler for farmers growing exclusively for local markets. For farmers exporting, they have to be enrolled in a certification system that is universally recognized. But get them over the hump of initial certification and then their products fetch the organic price premium. For farmers selling solely locally, there is no organic price premium – only an organic yield penalty. The price and rigamarole of full certification makes no sense, so the government created their own certification.

That means they get to decide what the requirements and allowances of certification include. It also means that most consumers don’t care what certification signifies, and of those that do that leaves a manageable number of consumers the government needs to win over to their label through marketing.

A bold proposal

So here is a bold proposal of two simple tweaks for the Sikkim local eco-farming label:

  • Include biotech crops.
  • Allow herbicides if they are used in a no-till system.
  • Allow for Bt brinjal for brinjal farmers.
  • Allow Bt corn for corn farmers.
  • Allow maize farmers to use Round Up Ready corn for no-till farmers.

That’s a modest start with what available. But it’s only a matter of time before Golden Rice is available. And there will certainly be disease resistant versions of local crops available as time goes on.

These simple tweaks would make farming easier and more profitable for farmers, while making it more sustainable for the environment.

If I was starting from scratch, there’s a lot more I’d do differently to design a certification program for an eco-farming label. But I think with these things it’s important to keep them simple, don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good, and remember that you can’t depart too far from consumers conceptions of what constitutes sustainable farming. Bt brinjal and no-till farming shouldn’t be that tough to explain.

You might even allow subsidized synthetic fertilizer back contingent on soil testing and an approved nutrient management plan … there I go ruining everything by over thinking it. K.I.S.S.: Keep it simple, stupid.

Marc Brazeau is the GLP’s senior contributing writer focusing on agricultural biotechnology. He also is the editor of Food and Farm Discussion Lab. Follow him on Twitter @eatcookwrite.

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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