The earth beneath Lakshmi Karre’s sparse cotton crop is hard and dry. Dressed in a flowery orange sari, she squats in the large gap between two plants and tugs at some brittle leaves, turned speckled brown by a fungal disease known as cotton rust. “When I was young we used to get 100 cotton bolls per plant,” she says. “There was no gap between the plants. Now they give only 9 or 10 bolls.”
In recent years Lakshmi has seen pests and disease increasingly damage her small cotton field in Telangana, a state in southeastern India. To protect her yields she did the only thing she knew how, and bought more and more costly pesticides and fertilizers. But it was no use. “We sprayed chemicals so much to get rid of insects that our crop was destroyed, too,” says Lakshmi. “Farming has become a burden.”
Lakshmi is one of millions of smallholder farmers struggling to make a living in India. Andhra Pradesh, the larger state from which Telangana was split off in June 2014, has long been one of the country’s major producers of rice, cotton and lentils, but by the 1990s yields began to stagnate.
The overuse of agrochemicals by some farmers was depleting soil health and promoting pesticide resistance among insects, as well as contributing to high costs, pollution and illness among farmers. In addition, irrigation was poor and credit was often extortionate.
By 2005, 82 percent of the state’s farmers were in debt. Smallholders with less than two hectares of land, most of whom were women, were the worst hit.Clearly, something needed to be done, but many farmers felt trapped: Their primary sources of farming advice and credit were the commercial dealers who sold them pesticides and fertilizer, and bought their harvest. It was only when rural women were empowered to take charge that things began to change.
A niche experiment in eco-farming that started with a few hundred smallholders has now spread to include more than 2 million smallholders. Today they cultivate around 15 percent of the arable land in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana without using pesticides.
The story begins in the late 1990s when poor women in rural areas started forming self-help groups to reduce their debts, save money and pull themselves out of poverty. During a particularly bad year in 2004, when farmer suicides peaked, they decided they had to do something about agriculture.In India, Profitable Farming With Fewer Chemicals (New York Times) "By 2005, 82 percent of the state’s farmers were in debt." Maybe hidden in this story is the real reason for pushing pesticide/chemical/GMO-based agriculture to "feed the world."
In the same year, news spread of a small village called Punukula, where all 200 farmers had ditched pesticides — and were reporting good yields as well as financial savings. The change was led by a rural development organization under the guidance of a group of agronomists now known as the Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
A government antipoverty agency that was already supporting the women’s groups thought the techniques used in Punukula could be just what they were looking for. “The women demanded two things. “One: make farming profitable. Two: help us take the poison out of our food chain,” says D.V. Raidu, an official at the Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty. So the society recruited some of the organizations involved in Punukula to start training self-help group members to farm without pesticides.
The methods Yerolla teaches are based on the well-established theory of integrated pest management, which emphasizes understanding and strengthening the farm ecosystem. But if that line of defense fails, Yerolla teaches the women to make their own cheaper bio-pesticides from local resources, rather than spraying chemical pesticides. On the day I visited, they made a solution from cow urine, cow dung and ground leaves from neem trees, which produce azadirachtin, a substance that interferes with insect reproduction, as well as inhibiting growth and nutrition.
Once they’ve mastered pest control, farmers progress to other agroecological techniques designed to use local resources to improve the health of the farm. These include using compost, dung and nitrogen-fixing plants like the aquatic fern azolla to improve soil fertility, as well as rainwater harvesting and seed saving. Put together, these techniques are known as community managed sustainable agriculture. In addition to ditching pesticides, farmers who reach this stage often cut their fertilizer use, commonly by half.
“In the beginning my neighbors laughed and didn’t believe, but now that we have good yields they are following this practice too.” says one farmer, Lalithamma Ayidala, as she collects cow urine from a special container by her cowshed. “Economically it’s also good, we are making our own pesticides and seeds, we don’t need to use the outside dealers....”
The fact is, said Dr. Lengnick, everyone is interested in soil health these days:Why are mainstream farmers giving up the plough? (Treehugger)
"There is definitely more cross-pollinization of ideas between industrial and sustainable agriculture than there once was. The full-on model of industrial agriculture — meaning replacement of ecosystem services with fossil fuels and other chemicals — has been degrading the landscape to a point where resilience has been undermined. As farmers have begun to experience climate change disturbances, they are seeing diminishing returns and they are looking for solutions."
One example of this cross-over is the growth in interest in no-till, conservation tillage and the use of cover crops, techniques which don't just reduce soil erosion or prevent nitrogen run-off, but actually help sequester carbon and slow global climate change too. Indeed, some argue that better soil management could not just slow, but actually reverse global climate change. As detailed in a New York Times piece about the dramatic spread of cover cropping, the basic idea behind these methods is to always have something growing in the soil, creating an ecosystem for soil microbes and adding organic matter and nutrients back to the soil when the cover crops are eventually killed.