A living system
The 19th Organic World Congress was organized in New Delhi in November 2017. The irony was palpable. The conference, which focused on expanding sustainability, health and equity in agriculture development, came amidst the worst ever episode of air pollution in the city brought about partly by the burning of paddy residue in the neighbouring states. The event also coincided with protests by farmers experiencing immense socio-economic distress.
Organic agriculture has been in focus of late because of the Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana, which aims to promote organic production in India. It takes forward the work of such earlier initiatives as the National Programme for Organic Production and the National Project on Organic Farming, which are focused on developing institutional frameworks and supporting the production of organic inputs, respectively. PKVY continues with the previous objectives but, additionally, seeks to develop farmer clusters, provide relevant training, enable a farmer-friendly certification system and facilitate market development.
Organic agriculture is witnessing a revival. Reports suggest that certified organic agri-production is practised in 1.18 million hectares. At 5.85 lakh, India has the maximum number of certified organic producers in the world. India has established export markets for organic produce. There is also a nascent domestic market that is likely to receive a boost because of the recent FSSAI regulations aimed at improving public confidence with regard to the integrity of organic produce.
Organic farming can improve sustainability in Indian agriculture. Its principles challenge the dominant narrative of input and energy-intensive industrial agriculture systems that make farmers dependent on expensive commercial inputs and damage soil, water and biodiversity, inducing grave socio-economic adversity. Organic agriculture visualizes the farm as a dynamic ecosystem where biotic and abiotic components interact and harness local resources, such as farm residue, biodiversity and natural processes, to deliver optimal agricultural production and stability. It promotes agronomic practices that are adapted to local conditions, thereby negating the reliance on external chemical inputs, even though it does allow the use of commercial organic inputs. Organic agriculture respects the indigenous knowledge of farmers and builds on it by using the science of agro-ecology. It thus empowers farmers, encourages innovation, and uses traditional and modern sustainable practices to fulfil the needs of farm production.
Organic systems can improve soil health, biodiversity and even help combat climate change. It can improve farm incomes, livelihoods, food and nutrition security over time, reduce exposures to pesticides and enhance community bonding. This is not to say that there aren't any challenges. The economic benefits are heavily dependent on farmers' skill, knowledge and the availability of farm labour. While low input systems (widely prevalent in India) can experience substantial production increases in a short duration, input intensive systems can witness yield losses till systems stabilize. The presence of adequate market linkages that can provide farmers with a premium price and profit is vital.
Investigations suggest that the average yield gap between organic and conventional systems is only around 20 per cent, and can be lowered using best management practices. The nation has numerous farmer and civil society organizations with the capacity to take the organic movement forward. What organic agriculture needs is a comprehensive, balanced and effective policy with adequate investments and institutional support. This will allow it to compete with energy-input intensive farming, which enjoys subsidies. Organic agriculture must be adequately supported for it to deliver on its promise.