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Towards a Smoother Transition to Organic Farming

Organic farming, mainly for export markets, has made significant progress in many parts of India. However, this ecological form of agriculture faces several obstacles. Institutional support by the government can help overcome the hurdles and promote faster growth of this sector.

Towards a Smoother Transition to Organic Farming

Organic farming, mainly for export markets, has made significant progress in many parts of India. However, this ecological form of agriculture faces several obstacles. Institutional support by the government can help overcome the hurdles and promote faster

growth of this sector.

KASTURI DAS

D
espite standing apart from the mainstream of agricultural development, organic agriculture is penetrating the farmlands of India, slowly but surely. It is indeed remarkable that the organic model in its modern form (i e, “certified organic”) has found acceptance among diverse categories of agriculturists operating in different parts of India, under varied agro-ecological and financial conditions and often with diverse objectives. Equally diverse are the organisational frameworks that have facilitated the growth of this ecological farming technology.

The organisational structures supporting smallholder organic agriculture in India fall into four forms: (1) farmers organised by a company, (2) farmers operating under NGO initiatives, (3) farmers organised or facilitated by government, and (4) farmers forming their own organisations (cooperatives, associations, self-help groups, etc). However, in many instances, these basic organisational forms coexist with one another, giving rise to more complex structures.

Since organic farming has been successful under varied institutional arrangements, it is hardly possible to prescribe a “one size fits all” organisational framework for its further development. Nevertheless, some form of support structure has turned out to be very important especially for the resource poor small farmers to successfully venture into organic agriculture. The foremost reason for this is the financial and other obstacles confronting farmers in the initial phase of a switchover from non-organic to organic farming. This rather difficult phase is called “conversion” in” the terminology of modern organic agriculture, which is a highly regulated form of ecological agriculture that adheres to legally defined standards and norms of production, processing and labelling.

In order to qualify for the “certified organic” label, a farm must not only conform to the stipulations laid down in organic standards, but it also has to acquire a certificate from an independent certification body (recognised in the targeted market) to establish the authenticity of its produce. The “conversion” period is basically the time span between the start of the organic management and the certification of crops or animal husbandry as organic.

The “conversion” period is the time taken for neutralisation of the chemical residues, if any, left in the soil by the hitherto practised agricultural techniques. This intermediate phase is also meant for building up the overall health of the individual farm’s soil – microbe – plant

– animal system through techniques of organic farming.

Notably, unlike conventional agriculture, wherein standardised chemical inputs are used, organic farming management does not depend on a uniform strategy. Instead, appropriate field management practices need to be developed and improvised depending on the particular case and the nature of locally available inputs, because organic farming aims at creating a closed system wherein most of the inputs are generated either from within the farm or from locally available resources (preferably renewable). Organic agriculture is therefore often termed knowledge-based rather than input-based agriculture. It is this knowledge-intensive nature of organic farming that calls for systematic training of the farmers undergoing “conversion”.

The standard duration of the conversion period for annual crops is 24 months, whereas for perennials, it extends up to 36 months. However, the certification authority has the discretion to extend or reduce the duration of the conversion period depending on the ecological conditions of the farm undergoing conversion, which is often contingent upon the agricultural technology followed in the pre-conversion phase.

Difficult Phase

The conversion period may turn out to be a difficult phase for the farmer owing to several direct and indirect costs involved in process.

As far as the yield behaviour of farms undergoing conversion is concerned, it largely depends upon the agricultural practices followed before conversion. Conversion from a traditional low external input system of cultivation rarely results in lower yields. However, when switching from external input intensive forms of agriculture, the yield may decline significantly, at least in the initial years of conversion – until the natural soil tilth and fertility are sufficiently developed. After that it may stabilise at a comparable, lower or even higher level depending on the efficacy of organic management, quality of organic fertilisers applied, etc.

The replacement of external inputs (under conventional farming) by internal farm derived resources generally leads to a reduction in the variable input costs of an established organic farm. However, the initial stages of conversion involve several new investments (in machinery, storage, establishment of soil fertility building mechanisms, etc). Moreover, since organic techniques often turn out to be more labour intensive, wage costs may rise. Costs may also arise from information and knowledge gathering and in acquiring certification and labelling from an established certification agency. The latter could be prohibitive for small farmers unless there exist some alternatives like small farmers’ group certification and internal control systems of farmers. Another hassle in the certification procedure is the enormous amount of mandatory documentation involved, often too cumbersome especially for illiterate small farmers.

What often makes life more difficult for a converting farmer is his inability to sell his produce at a premium price, because

Economic and Political Weekly June 16, 2007 during this official transition period products cannot be sold as “organic”.

“Organic in conversion” products can at best fetch prices slightly higher than those of conventional produce.

Another major difficulty arises from marketing, especially for an export market. The mechanism of organic marketing is quite different from that of regular marketing. Careful selection and development of target markets and distribution channels are of utmost importance. Such marketing requires not only additional costs, but also specialised skills, knowhow and experience, all of which unorganised individual farmers would mostly be incapable of developing. Moreover, reliable market information (on organic products, trade, trends, quality requirements, and prices), very often outside the reach of the farmers, would also be another obstacle.

Around 85 per cent (according to a rough estimation) of the total organic production of the country heads for export markets. The domestic market for organics is thus undeveloped in India. The lack of domestic marketing channels adds to the difficulties faced by organic or under conversion farmers in accessing the export markets.

Institutional Support

India has tremendous potential, largely untapped, for a major breakthrough in organic agriculture. Some of the major obstacles to faster growth of organic agriculture in this country have been described above. Given these problems, a strong organisational support structure is a prerequisite for further penetration of organic agriculture in India. Some areas which warrant appropriate institutional support are:

  • (1) Systematic training in organic agriculture management and an effective extension network capable of providing adequate technical advice to the farmers;
  • (2) A low cost and hassle free certification process and technical assistance for record keeping;
  • (3) An enabling scenario for small farmers’ group certification, internal control system, etc, wherever necessary;
  • (4) Dissemination of market information and establishment of marketing channels, both domestic as well as international;
  • (5) Managing the contacts and transactions with processors, exporters, and other intermediaries.
  • While some of these support systems may come from NGO initiatives or from companies undertaking contract farming, the importance of government intervention in some form cannot be overemphasised.

    The initial expenses of conversion, especially from chemical intensive farming, may be easy to overcome if some financial support is given to the small farmers. Hence, well-thought-out subsidy and other support schemes need to be designed.

    Until now, government supported research initiatives and extension services in India have displayed blatant bias towards green revolution technology. This needs to change in order to create a level playing field for organics. Rigorous scientific research should be promoted under the Indian Council for Agricultural Research institutions to develop better management techniques and crop varieties suitable for organic farming. Special emphasis should be given to research in the context of dry land and mountainous regions of the country, where organic farming has a huge potential to increase agricultural productivity.

    While some capacity building initiatives have of late been undertaken by the ministry of agriculture under the National Project on Organic Farming (NPOF), they appear to be too insignificant to make any

    Economic and Political Weekly June 16, 2007

    pronounced impact. Organic agriculture has predominantly been viewed by the government as a means of earning export revenues rather than an alternative model of agricultural development. Hence it is primarily a subject under the purview of the ministry of commerce rather than the ministry of agriculture. This fallacious approach needs to change.

    Moreover, substantial public investments are needed to generate awareness about organic products and to explore various domestic marketing channels (weekly farmers’ markets, buyer-seller meets, organic fairs, etc).

    Roles for the State

    Even where organic farming is facilitated without any direct government initiative, the state may still have some important roles to play for the following reasons.

  • (1) NGOs may not always have the necessary business skills to succeed in marketing. In such situations, collaboration between NGOs and governments may be effective.
  • (2) Companies involved in contract farming arrangements with organic farmers are extremely effective and skilful at reaching organic markets. However, there may be a trade-off involved between the profit motives of the private companies and the best interests of the farmers. Hence, it is extremely important that the state creates an appropriate legal framework to enforce contracts and provide for trustworthy and effective arbitration in the best interests of the poor and unorganised farmers.
  • (3) Formation of farmers’ organisations has been found to be extremely beneficial for upholding the farmers’ interests. However, it requires considerable support on a number of levels, including start-up costs, operational expenses, training and marketing. The state government or the NGO sector may assist in these respects.
  • Organic agriculture may also flourish under direct government involvement. While it has suffered downright neglect by the central government, a number of state governments have already made significant strides in organic farming. The governments of the mountainous states of Sikkim, Mizoram and Uttarakhand have undertaken significant initiatives to turn their states into fully organic. State government initiatives in some form have also been taken in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Punjab, etc.

    In the “Uttarakhand organic” initiative, a multi-pronged strategy, the organic model has been promoted not only as an agricultural technology, but also as an integral part of several rural development projects. Moreover, while export is not outside the purview of this initiative, significant emphasis has been placed on domestic market development as well. Although it is too early to comment on this programme, it seems that if implemented successfully, the project could become a role model for state driven organic development in India.

    EPW

    Email: kasturi.das@gmail.com

    [The views expressed in this article are personaland do not reflect the opinions of the organisationwith which the author is associated.]

    Economic and Political Weekly June 16, 2007

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