Tag Archives: Organic Farming

Drawing inspiration from Dharani (Organic) Coop, supported by Timbaktu Collective

I had the good fortune to be present day before yesterday in the 6th AGM/anniversary of Dharani Cooperative, supported by Timbaktu Collective in Anantapur district. I wanted to share a few things that really inspired me and struck me as unique, worth emulating in other places. I kept thinking that this is one place which has really addressed the (organic) farming reality quite comprehensively and holistically and the lesson to take back home is probably just that – that this will not work in bits and pieces.

One has seen organic farming efforts where only production-end facilitation is done by someone or the other, some group or NGO or the other. In such cases, farmers feel, quite naturally, and sooner or later, disheartened by lack of marketing support. This is not to say that we have not come across organic farmers whose produce is ‘pre-booked’ by even fellow farmers from the same villages – however, there are also quite a few organic farmers who are really struggling to find good identity-preserved organic markets. The ones who begin only with marketing end support may probably have farmers who do not always imbibe the ‘values’, if you like (for want of a better word), of organic farming so that the effort sustains itself more deeply. And then there are these huge organic farming/produce entities which do nothing in terms of truly empowering farmers and their collectives. In fact, no farmers’ institutions have been created in some of these efforts.

It is in this context of some groping and some grabbing in the name of organic, that here is a case where numerous important strands were sought to be integrated and I want to list out some of them:

– production end support in the form of trainings, some inputs (drums for making some inoculants and botanicals, some seed cake for soil health management, NREGA integration for tank silt application etc.), extension in the form of farmer field schools etc. There are extension workers at three levels and if this is what it takes, this is what it takes….

– basing the effort on crop shifts, diversity and diversification (very often, we find organic farming efforts continuing with some crops which are probably not suitable or are risky even in the organic farming set up) – while bigger shifts are yet to be seen (62% of what Dharani procured last year was groundnut), a large shift is already underway from groundnut monocropping to millets-based farming, that too “coarse” millets. This is achieved through careful crop-planning before the season, procuring and readying adequate and appropriate seed etc.

– infusion of livestock into the project. Very often, we talk about the integration of livestock with eco-farming. However, except for some organic farmers here and there, very few projects have systematically done this at a project level, I think. Here, native breeds like Hallikar have been introduced – there was a farmer who shared that he got tens of thousands of rupees just from the sale of FYM.

– collectivising the farmers – there are block level cooperatives and a larger level cooperative in the form of Dharani.

– investing on a variety of processing facilities – the number of products that are being created for sale by the Cooperative is increasing very very rapidly, including ready to cook millets-based foods for busy urbanites etc. The next lot of machines will be installed not in the existing facility/campus but in places that are closer to the producers in different blocks.

– putting in efforts to recognise the roles and contribution of women farmers.

– effort at seed self-reliance – a large part of this is happening simply by the cropping shift itself (monsantos of the world are not interested in selling these folks kodo millet seed or foxtail millet seed as yet, thank goodness!).

– infusion of fund in the cooperative by falling back on people’s own thrift, credit and enterprise activities: for its running costs, Dharani Coop is borrowing from other thrift cooperatives that have been in existence for a long time with a sizeable corpus (some of the coops have single, dalit women in leadership roles) – self-help! the whole effort itself started with friends of Timbaktu investing in the effort of course.

– transparent and participatory processes – all accounts were read out, and resolutions passed in this big gathering. In the past, I have been part of processes where findings from evaluation studies were shared in such big meetings and a collective future course charted. Further, prices are pre-fixed and announced beforehand. Like kodo millet price for an organic farmer here will certainly be RS. 30/kg as announced at the beginning of the season. This means that farmers can make some rational choices depending on their growing conditions as well as price guaranteed.
– exploring, establishing and expanding domestic market opportunities for the organic produce – Dharani did not look for export markets for its organic produce, but sought to find domestic markets, with good success at that. The “trust” factor comes from PGS.

Two years ago, Dharani broke even with a seven thousand rupees profit. Now, with sales touching around 1.3 crores, the latest profit figure announced was around 8 lakh rupees!  🙂
What’s more – while about half of this went back to the farmers as bonus, some amounts were also paid to all employees of the Coop as a bonus, and importantly, also to the daily wage workers as their bonus.

Dharani Coop has around 1800 members now, and the effort is to ensure that all of them would be fully organic, on around 9000 acres this season.

The organic farming effort here is of course supported by some ‘project’ too. Some of the machines were purchased through the project support. Some others were invested upon by the Coop from its own funds. And the point is why not? If this is what it takes, all the above ‘components’ or aspects to be addressed, with equity, diversity and sustainability as the central elements, why not?
And finally, let us not forget the culture part, in one sense of the word culture. When some of the employees of the Cooperative were being introduced on stage, whenever a popular folk artist who also happened to be an employee came on stage, there was a popular demand from the 1200+ farmers gathered in CK Palli yesterday (they all came on their own cost in colorfully decked bullock carts and so on) – these artists broke into a song and narrative from the Mahabharat, with loud applause greeting them.
Friends, this is a story from an arid pocket of India, known for its suicides, migration and trafficking, ridden by the problem of groundnut (chemical) monocropping. Here is where hope is blooming, based on collective, organic, holistic, diversity-based farming.

Like I said, very rarely does one come across so many necessary strands woven together seamlessly. Pundits can question the investments made for something like this to emerge etc. – the only response is, whatever it takes, is what we should ask for. Thanks to Mary, Bablu, Murugesh, Sannaippaiah, Vineet, other staff and all the farmers there for the work that is happening there.


ps: Akulappa pointed out in his speech that there is a need for greater participation and leadership by women, and for the communities to also shift their diets to some of the millets that they are growing; Mary Vattamattam exhorted the Cooperative to become the voice of the dryland smallholders and take up advocacy work too, as needed.


How scientific are GM proponents?

Mark Lynas’ publicised conversion ignores compelling evidence on the hazards involving this technology
Kavitha Kuruganti / Feb 01, 2013, 00:40 IST

Mark Lynas, a proponent for transgenics, may have flamboyantly declared that the debate on genetically modified (GM) crops is over but he has actually re-ignited the debate, though his supposed conversion from an anti-GM activism is two years old (which makes you wonder why the media thinks it is newsworthy now, unless there is careful PR work behind the curtains)! Debate is not bad at all. The fact that the debate is not being limited to scientists alone is a wonderful thing, too. Being scientific, however, is important. This requires us, first, to admit upfront the complexity of many issues that confront us today without getting into simplistic solutions. Lynas described people resisting GM crops as explicitly anti-science. Proving him wrong were some noteworthy developments in the last few days.

On January 23, the European Environmental Agency released a report called “Late Lessons from Early Warnings: Science, Precaution, Innovation”. The report covers a diverse range of chemical and technological innovations and has been prepared by a broad range of external authors and peer reviewers. It showcases through case studies “how damaging and costly the misuse or neglect of the precautionary principle can be” (the same that was mainly used by Jairam Ramesh when imposing a moratorium on Bt, or Bacillus thuringiensis, brinjal), and when early warnings are not heeded. The report asks for maximising innovations while minimising harm.

On GM crops specifically, it points out that they provide no direct benefit to consumers, are over-hyped, not necessarily safe and largely unsuitable for most of the world’s farmers (The Guardian’s summation). The report says GM crops are largely unsustainable in their reliance on external, non-renewable inputs. Further, intellectual property rights regimes around transgenics stifle investment into a broader diversity of innovations. On the other hand, “science-based agro-ecological methods are participatory in nature and designed to fit within the dynamics underpinning the multifunctional role of agriculture in producing food, enhancing biodiversity and ecosystem services, and providing security to communities”.Another recent paper from the European Food Safety Authority found an unexplained, undiscovered viral gene in 54 commercialised GM “events”. Interestingly, science-based regulators and industry entities did not reveal (or even know of?) its existence all these years. The authors concluded that functions of this gene “might result in unintended phenotypic changes” (meaning hazards can’t be ruled out).

Now, let us look at some of proponents’ claims.

Mixing of genes between unrelated species: They say this “gene flow” happens all the time. Can we have one scientist show that stringing together bacterial, viral and other alien genes into a “genetic cassette” that inserts itself into another organism happens “all the time” in nature? Also, the precision of genetic engineering has been shown to be a myth by many scientific studies.

Pest-resistant cotton and maize need less insecticide: This is a theoretical half-truth. Bt crops might control one set of pests requiring less chemical sprays for those pests. Other pests, however, emerge (a 2006 study from China shows this). Also, we should talk about pesticides and not insecticides. The US has officially recorded increased chemical usage by 183 million kg after the adoption of GM crops. In Brazil, too, chemical usage went up. Environmental health problems from using more herbicides on GM crops (the use of which is increasing with “superweeds” emerging) have also been reported.

One often neglected fact: Where are we accounting for the in-planta insecticide being produced 24×7 in Bt plants throughout the crop season? A recent paper calculated that this is equal to 625 to 1,930 treatments with DiPel, a Bt biopesticide’s registered dosage for its maximal bio-accessible content. What about the scientific evidence that this poison is affecting soil microbial activity or that continuous, high toxin production in the plant is against Integrated Pest Management principles? To think that pest management across crops will be successful through monocultures of Bt genes is unscientific. The science of pest management has evolved beyond chemical pesticides and Bt crops.

GM is essential for food and nutrition security. A quick exercise to assess the food security of countries that have adopted GM crops on a large scale shows that their indicators on a hunger index have actually deteriorated or decelerated after the advent of GM crops. Hunger is a complex, structurally rooted issue, which techno-fixes cannot solve. India’s overflowing, rotting foodgrain and hungry millions epitomise this phenomenon.

Coming to organic agriculture, it is clear that critics have no understanding of what constitutes organic farming (which cannot be simplistically equated with traditional farming). Organic farming rests on biotechnology. In India, the only Padma Shri-honoured farmer is an organic farmer, Narsimha Raju Yadav of Andhra Pradesh, who holds impressive records of productivity across crops. The Krishi Karman awards given away this year by the President in the presence of the naysayer Sharad Pawar show the potential of organic farming and agro-ecological principles.

Impressive yield growths in different states are being achieved through non-GM interventions. It is unscientific to not pay full attention to: (i) non-GM breeding techniques and non-breeding-based technologies in farming; (ii) non-technological innovations including newer institutional approaches to ensure that the right innovations and technologies are optimally utilised; (iii) inequities that disallow access to food including to people partaking in the food production process.

In a country like India, transgenics and PR industry-created personalities like Lynas are an unneeded diversion from solutions that already exist. What else can describe the fact that he gets so much coverage? Why did Nana Patekar, who first sold Bt cotton for Monsanto and then apologised in 2006 when the Vidarbha crisis became starker, not get more than a mention than in the Marathi daily Deshonnati? Why don’t we like conversions of this kind? The

S K Sopory Committee’s indictment of the public sector research establishment and the regulatory regime should be enough for the agriculture ministry to learn a few lessons.

The author is one of the national convenors of the Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture( ASHA), a network of more than 400 organisations working on issues of food, farmers & freedom