Navdanya: Supporting organic farming in India

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By Lauren Finzer

Check out this guest blog post by Lauren Finzer from Navdanya. Navdanya is a network of seed keepers and organic producers spread across 16 states in India.

In the hills near Dehradun in northern India, Idris Bhai still stores ash from his cookstove to use as fertilizer for his fields of wheat, lentils, and mangoes. Idris has been farming organically as long as he can remember. Over the past decades, though, many of the farmers around Idris have started buying chemical fertilizers and pesticides rather than using manure to enrich the soil or planting neem trees to repel pests. Idris’ neighbor Anil, just five minutes down the road, started out by applying 8 kilos of diammonium phosphate (DAP) fertilizer to each of his acres of wheat, sugarcane, and peas. Now, Anil says, each acre demands 12-13 kilos of DAP. Anil has to pay more and more for chemicals, but what he makes from selling his crops is barely enough to get by. He’s so desperate that he’s even considered selling his land to the commercial developers that have already built factories on many of the surrounding fields.

Navdanya cleans and sorts organic grains and lentils grown by farmers like Idris, then packages and sells them in small shops in Delhi. (Photo credit: Navdanya)

Both Anil and Idris know that chemicals like DAP can harm health. “If I used chemicals to farm,” Idris says, “I wouldn’t have perfect vision today.” But the enticingly low prices of chemicals supported by government subsidies, and the short term increases in yield from chemical farming, have lured Anil and many of the other neighboring farmers.

Why has Idris stuck with organic farming?

Idris attributes a large part of his decision to farm organically to Navdanya, a nonprofit that has worked to preserve organic farming practices and indigenous seed varieties in India since 1987. Navdanya’s 54 seed banks across India lend seeds to farmers like Idris. If Idris has a good crop, he returns 1.25 times the amount of seed he took from Navdanya’s seed bank for other farmers to use in the future. If the crop is bad, he faces no pressure to return the seed.

Navdanya’s seed bank gives farmers like Idris an alternative to buying genetically modified seeds from corporations like Monsanto. It also helps them avoid the vicious cycle of debt blamed for the epidemic of farmer suicides in India: an average of two Indian farmers a day have killed themselves for the past fifteen years.

What’s more, when Idris plants indigenous seeds, he helps ensure that future generations will have access to a diversity of seed types. Many of these varieties are resistant to drought or other problems likely to increase with climate change.

In addition to preserving seeds, Navdanya also reaches out with trainings and advice to organic farmers like Idris as well as those who are considering shifting away from chemicals. Navdanya claims to have trained 500,000 farmers in organic farming over the past three decades. Dr. Bhatt, Navdanya’s co-Director, shares the story of a group of farmers who recently had trouble storing onions they had grown using pesticides. Six of the farmers volunteered to try using organic practices on small pieces of their land. When growing the onions organically solved the problems and brought good returns, all the farmers in the region converted to organic.

Idris and other nearby farmers sell their organic crops to Navdanya for about 10% more than they would get for conventional crops in the market. Navdanya collects the harvest directly from the farmers to sell it in a few small shops in Delhi. Most customers are relatively wealthy, since Navdanya organics sell for 20 to 30% more than conventional grains and pulses.

Dr. Bhatt would like to eliminate this price difference not by paying organic farmers less, but by eliminating government subsidies that make chemicals artificially cheap. To that end, Navdanya proposes policies to promote organic farming both regionally and internationally. Navdanya is also working with the government of Bhutan to support its aspiration to be the first fully organic nation. Navdanya’s founder, Vandana Shiva, is an outspoken advocate for “seed sovereignty” and food rights on an international level.

Shiva’s ideas about globalization and food sovereignty are controversial, and Navdanya doesn’t meet all farmers’ needs: Idris wishes Navdanya provided credit, for example. Neither does it address all the issues threatening farming in India. Nevertheless, Navdanya’s work is showing that, at least some cases, the solution to feeding the millions of hungry people in India may come not from bioengineered seeds or fancy fertilizers and pesticides, but from indigenous seed varieties and farming practices.

Up in the hills, Idris’ neighbor Anil–who currently uses chemicals–is increasingly attracted to organics. He plans to start experimenting with organic farming, and is considering joining Navdanya’s network of farmers. “Once farmers try out organic farming and see the benefits for themselves,” says Dr. Bhatt, “they don’t go back to chemicals.”

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.


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