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Organic Farming Changes Everything for a Community in India
Cotton is one of India's most important cash crops, but it hardly felt like it to the farmers who were growing it conventionally in Gujarat, India. Chemical saturation depleted their soil of nutrients, hardened the land, lowered their crop yields and severely depleted their income.
"We used to spend 3,000 to 5,000 rupees ($70 to $115) on fertilizers and pesticides, which we had to pay at the time of Diwali," says organic farmer Kailash Burman, speaking of the annual Hindu festival honoring the goddess of wealth. "Now we don't have to do that. The pesticides are natural."
For the past five years, he and others in his farming village have gotten out from under the debilitating cost and health effects of pesticides. He is one of several hundred farmers in rural India who are part of an organic cotton farming project that teaches natural growing practices, supplies seeds and sells the organic cotton in the marketplace to Gaiam and other customers. This hand-harvested, 100 percent certified organic cotton from India is used in our baby collection, bed linens and clothing, creating a cleaner, sustainable source of revenue for communities on the other side of the globe.
The True Cost of Conventional Farming
This is a significant improvement from life as a conventional cotton grower; chemical costs accounted for up to 25 percent of a typical farmer's income. In villages that are still growing cotton conventionally, excessive debt and failed crop yields have driven farmers into bankruptcy, and some even to suicide, according to the Equator Initiative of the United Nations Development Programme.
The U.N. initiative puts the cost of chemical insecticides at up to 40 percent of the costs of production. This is exacerbated by the fact that overuse of pesticides has caused the cotton bollworm to become increasingly resistant to the chemicals. To be effective, farmers have to spray more, creating a vicious circle that pushes them into deeper debt with pesticide suppliers. The University of Greenwich's Natural Resources Initiative (NRI) reports that some farmers in India's cotton growing region spray their crops 10 to 12 times in a single growing season. Cotton fields account for just 5 percent of India's farmland, yet NRI says more than 50 percent of the pesticides used there are applied to cotton plants.
Of course, the real cost of the excessive use of chemicals is the harm caused to everyone who comes in contact with them. V. J., a technical advisor with the organic farming project, says the sprayed chemicals ultimately reached everyone in the village.
"When we were using chemicals in our fields, it was being introduced in the soil, in the environment, in the cattle feed," V.J. says. "And there we are feeding the milk to our kids. It poisons everybody."
Most affected were the farm laborers who applied the pesticides by hand and plucked the crop. These workers developed numerous skin diseases, according to another advisor, M. Tiwari. In addition, the agri-chemicals are often stored in homes; the containers are susceptible to leakage, which allows the chlorine-based pesticides to fumigate. When inhaled for a long period, the fumes are "more dangerous than chloroform," he adds.
Now that the land has been chemical-free for more than five years (a condition of organic certification by international agencies including SKAL and IMO is for land to be chemical-free for three growing seasons), one farmer says he can "smell the freshness of the soil."
Desperate Times Call for Organic Measures
These lush fields are a far cry from how things were several years ago, which is what prompted members of the farming project to step in and work with the farmers to find a solution.
"The land was becoming infertile, and generally it was a very pessimistic scenario all around," says S.K., another technical advisor with the project. "We felt that we needed to create a system to help the farmers earn a livelihood for themselves. It just made more sense to take a step back — on one hand helping us develop better quality cotton, and on the other hand helping the farmer have a sustainable livelihood."
Organic farming was the solution they were looking for. Consultants with the project taught these farmers natural methods for everything from creating pest-resistant seeds to amending the soil with nutrients. The project has also helped the village become completely self-sustainable. Nothing gets wasted, not even oxen dung — it's put in a biogas chamber, which turns it into methane gas that provides power to the whole community. Oxen urine also has a use. It is applied to the seeds, along with bacteria cultures, to make them pest-resistant.
Organic farming is more labor-intensive, but the technical consultants with the project say the hard work is paying off with lower farming costs, higher prices for organically grown cotton and a better life for everyone in the community. They're even enjoying an increase in the number of cotton cycles they get out of a single plant. They used to get only one. Now, because they use non-genetically modified seeds, they get up to five.
"Ever since we started organic farming, we have found the nutrient value of the land is returning," S.K. says. "We are finding the production numbers are going up. People have more income, and they are healthier."
This 2-part series also includes:
Escaping the Chemicals