Tuesday, May 17, 2011

World Agriculture Trends

Finally, some good news in agriculture, via The Guardian:
India's struggling farmers are starting to profit from a budding interest in organic living. Not only are the incomes of organic farmers soaring – by 30% to 200%, according to organic experts – but their yields are rising as the pesticide-poisoned land is repaired through natural farming methods.

Organic farming only took off in the country about seven years ago. Farmers are turning back to traditional farming methods for a number of reasons.

First, there's a 10% to 20% premium to be earned by selling organic products abroad and in India's increasingly affluent cities, a move towards healthy living and growing concern over toxic foods and adulteration plaguing the food market.

Second, the cost of pesticides and fertilisers has shot up and the loans farmers need to buy expensive, modified seed varieties are pushing many into a spiral of debt. Crippling debt and the burden of loans are trriggering farmer suicides across the country, particularly in the Vidarabha region of Maharashtra. Organic farming slashes cultivation and input costs by up to 70% due to the use of cheaper, natural products like manure instead of chemicals and fertilisers.

Third farmers are suffering from the damaging effects of India's green revolution, which ushered in the rampant use of pesticides and fertilisers from the 1960s to ensure bumper yields and curb famine and food shortages. Over the decades, the chemicals have taken a toll on the land and yields are plunging.

"Western, modern farming has spoiled agriculture in the country. An overuse of chemicals has made land acidic and hard, which means it needs even more water to produce, which is costly," says Narendra Singh of Organic India. "Chemicals have killed the biggest civilisation in agriculture – earthworms, which produce the best soil for growth."

Umesh Vishwanath Chaudhari, 35, a farmer in the Jalgaon district in Maharashtra, switched to organic farming seven years ago after experiencing diminishing yields from his 8-hectare (20-acre) plot. He came across a book on organic farming techniques using ancient Vedic science. He started making natural fertilisers and pesticides using ingredients such as cow manure, cow urine, honey and through vermicomposting – the process of using earthworms to generate compost. Since then, his yields and income have risen by 40%, and worms have returned to his soil. He sells lime, custard apple and drumsticks to organic stores in Pune, Mumbai and other cities, while his cotton is bought by Morarka, a rural NGO.

He plans to convert another 2 hectares to organic cotton and buy 10 cows to make his own manure, rather than buying it. "Using manure instead of pesticides and fertilisers has cut my costs by half, and I get a premium on these goods," he says. "I used to drive a scooter, but in the past few years I've been able to afford a bike and car – and even two tractors."

Many farmers are reluctant to make the leap because they fear a drop in yields in the initial period; good results tend to show after three years. Moreover, the market is growing by 500% to 1,000% a year, according to Morarka, but it only represents 0.1% of the food market.

Kavita Mukhi organises a weekly organic farmers' market in Mumbai, where producers sell direct to consumers. She is trying to boost awareness about organic food. "The only way you hear about it is if you stumble on an organic shop," she says. "There's no widespread marketing or awareness of the benefits."

Once the awareness increases, organic agriculturalists believe more farmers will join the movement because it's favourable to small farmers. They already have the cows and buffalos needed to recycle biomass at the farm level, which is, essentially, the foundation of organic farming.

"Unlike Europe, India's modern farming revolution is not very old, meaning they still possess the knowhow for cultivation without modern chemical inputs," says Mukesh Gupta of Morarka.

While critics argue that organic farming is not the answer to India's rising food demands, those in favour say it's the only sustainable way out for impoverished farmers.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/may/11/organic-farming-india-future-incomes-yields

It's nice to hear some good news for a change. Hopefully, increased information exchange among farmers will help speed these techniques being adopted:
More than half of India's population live in rural areas and off-the-map villages.

Most are remote and too isolated to benefit from the country's impressive economic progress. Yet there's a growing desire among people in rural India to be part of its modernisation process.

"India is a country which has more than 600,000 villages and connecting these areas with internet broadband will have a paradigm shift," says Sachin Pilot, the minister of state for communications and information technology.

Those living in rural areas account for over half of the total population of India Increasingly the government is looking at better ways to reach remote, rural India. And it is hoping that technology will provide a solution.

"It's time for our IT roots to go further inland and make sure that those areas which are tribal, rural and far-off geographically are brought to the ambit of the IT revolution," says Mr Pilot.

"It's the last-mile delivery that's always been a challenge for India."
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-13414762

Meanwhile, in China, where farmers are still relying on toxic chemical-based farming methods:
Fields of watermelons exploded when he and other agricultural workers in eastern China mistakenly applied forchlorfenuron, a growth accelerator. The incident has become a focus of a Chinese media drive to expose the lax farming practices, shortcuts and excessive use of fertiliser behind a rash of food safety scandals.

It follows discoveries of the heavy metal cadmium in rice, toxic melamine in milk, arsenic in soy sauce, bleach in mushrooms, and the detergent borax in pork, added to make it resemble beef.

Compared to such cases of dangerous contamination, Liu's transgression was minor, but it has gained notoriety after being picked up by the state broadcaster, CCTV. The broadcaster blamed the bursting of the fruit on the legal chemical forchlorfenuron, which stimulates cell separation but often leaves melons misshapen and turns the seeds white.

The report said the farmers sprayed the fruit too late in the season and during wet conditions, which caused the melons to explode like "landmines".

Environment groups say the overuse of agricultural chemicals is a problem that goes beyond growth stimulants.

Pan Jing of Greenpeace said farmers depended on fertilisers because many doubled as migrant workers and had less time for their crops. This dependency was promoted by state subsidies keeping fertilisers cheap. "The government is aware of the environmental problems caused by chemical fertiliser, but they are also concerned about food output."

Many farmers grow their own food separately from the chemically-raised crops they sell. "I feel there is nothing safe I can eat now because people are in too much of a hurry to make money," said Huang Zhanliang, a farmer in Hebei.

Concerns about food safety have lingered despite government promises to deal with the problem after six babies died and thousands became ill because of melamine-tainted milk in 2008.

In the past week, the People's Daily website has run stories of human birth control chemicals being used on cucumber plants in Xian, China Daily has reported Sichuan peppers releasing red dye in water, and the Sina news portal revealed that barite powder had been injected into chickens in Guizhou to increase their weight.

More alarming still was a study by researchers at Nanjing Agricultural University that estimated a tenth of China's rice may be tainted with the cadmium, a heavy metal that can affect the nervous system. This caused a stir when it was published earlier this year in the pioneering Caixin magazine.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/17/exploding-watermelons-chinese-farming

Epilogue: Why this matters: In India a farmer commits suicide every 30 minutes because of debt.

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