COVER STORY: Go Naturewise by Najma Sadeque
Published in DAWN Science; March 01, 2008
Welcome to a generous selection of articles from DAWN’s Weekly Sci-Tech
The concept of organic farming is slowly catching on with farmers world over, even though the number is not much to write home about, yet. Najma Sadeque explores the issue
When Fidel Castro recently retired, the world in general crowed over being rid of him while avoiding mention of his greatest achievements for humanity. For many years, successively under the US and the Soviet Union hegemony, Cuba adopted their intensive chemical farming methods. When the Soviet Union broke up and could no longer support Cuba with cheap oil and other inputs, the rest of the world (including those who had no quarrel with it) blockaded and isolated Cuba as well.
Left to its own devices, the country faced food shortages and possible famine. Castro then resorted to organic farming, mobilising the country’s highly educated workforce to restore the lost knowledge and put it into practice at once. Within five years, the country was self-sufficient in food. The feat could have been achieved sooner, but it takes three years or more to restore depleted, chemical-saturated soils to fertility. Today, Cuba teaches organic farming to the world and extends scholarships to the deserving and poor, including from America.
For 10 to 15 thousand years or more according to recorded history, people adapted nature’s methods to invent farming. Until a century ago, give or take a few years or decades, the entire world’s farmers, grew food and other crops in much the same way. Farming knew no other qualification. Today, this time-tested method has been labelled natural or organic farming to differentiate it from industrial methods applied to massive acres growing single crops, replacing manure with chemical fertilizers, and employing heavy machinery and laboratory-modified seeds designed not to reproduce.
The family farm was born when people realized plants sprouted from seed with some help from moisture and manure, and the next automatic step was to gather seeds and sow them in a cleared space close to home. When it succeeded, it led to doing the same with more crops on bigger plots until they reached a size that a family or group could care for, and manage on its own.
More discoveries followed. Unusable parts of the crop decomposed and became part of the soil in a few months, and new seed did well in it. It meant that crop waste as well as dead creatures recycled into fresh nutrients and fertilizer. Since all creatures retain only about half their nutrient intake, excretions are always nutrient-rich. This was the most important discovery of all. There was no waste in nature! It was an unending cycle.
Nature never needed any help; after all, it has been thriving for billions of years on its own in mind-boggling diversity according to climate, soil and scores of other conditions.
Early experiments discarded monoculture as a bad idea. If one or a few plants of the same crop caught disease, it was likely to spread and destroy the rest. Mixed crops in the same plot not only made this unlikely – pests tend to be crop-specific — the same disease did not catch on to different plants either.
Mixed cropping was also the best insurance: even if one crop failed, there were many others to fall back on. With crop variety, harvesting and sowing times were staggered, and there was never too much work at any time. The ancient Mayans of South America, for example, planted some forty different types on the same plot. Today New Guineans still plant around a hundred varieties.
There is enough information about organic farming to fill a multi-volume encyclopedia. Sadly, peasants mostly handed down the treasure trove orally from generation to generation. Much was lost during the colonial years, but fortunately in India, Bangladesh and elsewhere, it is being recovered. Today, in America, Europe and India, where decades of chemical monoculture has impoverished the soil, communities and small farmers are increasingly returning to organic farming, not only to produce safer and healthy food, but also to maintain healthy soils and high productivity indefinitely.
In the early 20th century, scientists came to the erroneous conclusion that plants needed only three elements for growth and development (nitrogen, potash and phosphorous), and if the soil was too poor to provide these, artificial substitutes could be used. (Actually they need almost 40 elements in varying combinations and proportions).
The end of the First World War perhaps had something to do with this decision since the arms manufacturers suddenly found themselves stuck with mountains of surplus, unsold chemicals that no one wanted anymore. They were then marketed in different ratios for various crops and sold for ‘scientific farming.’ A naive public swallowed the bait.
In the West, industrialists and businessmen had penetrated every field except agriculture early last century. Investors tried to grow seed on scale for sale, but since seed came free from nature, and farmers preferred to select from their own for the next planting, they were not ready to waste their money. Finally, a hybrid seed was developed in the laboratory that promised to double or treble the crop. Essentially, a gene that produced far more grains was extracted from a related species in a different geographical area, and incorporated.
The yield was indeed greater; but since it was developed in an artificial environment, those artificial conditions with artificial fertilizers had to be duplicated everywhere too. It also kept the farmer dependant for life on seed, fertilizer and pesticide companies. The farmer was told he was saved from the tedium of seed-saving, but he was not told that the seed stopped performing after some years, and new seed had to be developed every five to 10 years.
Another major problem was that chemical pesticides did not just kill pests; they killed off all beneficial micro-organisms and insects in and above the soil as well, so that organic farming was no longer possible until the soil was made chemical-free. The pests that survived developed resistance so that more or stronger chemicals had to be used in subsequent seasons to do the same job.
Thus, a livelihood where inputs once came free with only labour and knowledge to be invested was now turned into a debt-based enterprise.
In the mid-sixties, gullible South Asian governments were misled by the Harvard Advisory Group to believe that they would never be able to feed their ballooning populations unless they turned to ‘scientific’ farming. Since only big landlords had the acreage and money for large-scale chemicalised production and tractors, they were the ones that got the subsidies, the easy credit and big profits. The ignored peasants could not compete and 800,000 displaced rural Pakistanis migrated to the urban areas in search of survival as a result of the not-so-Green Revolution that fizzled out in less than a decade.
From once providing fulfilling livelihoods for three-fourths of the world’s population, agriculture is today an ‘industry’ appropriated by big companies, investors and landlords who never get their hands dirty, but obtain income and profits so huge that could be comfortably spread among over 2.5 billion people. The seed and agro-chemical corporations control three-fourths of the global market.
Today, less than a quarter of a billion acres out of some 29 billion cultivable acres in the world, are organic. But the numbers suggest the scope for bringing back a billion or two livelihood possibilities. The major problem for the world’s peasants is that they have neither the political clout, nor the money for a voice to be heard over corporate clamour and muscle that dominate the media and government lobbies.
However, they now have consumer choice and concerns about health, rising cancer, chemical poisoning of soils, water bodies, and wildlife on their side. Within six years, global organic food exports have soared for one billion dollars to six billion dollars, with no signs of abating.
Over the past decade, major field studies across the world have compared yields of energy-intensive chemical farming with organic farming. A recent University of Michigan study examined almost 300 examples demonstrating that organic farming yields up to three times as much food as industrial farming in developing countries. An earlier five-year study carried out in a cross-section of countries by the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam and Food First, USA, also showed yields up to ten times more in exceptionally fertile areas.
Pakistan has over 40 million cultivated acres, but its known organic acreage is so negligible and figures do not appear anywhere, even though most landlords grow organic wheat for their home consumption while they send the chemically-grown to market. There are only a few organic farmers by choice in the country, but two NGOs — Green Circle in Lahore, and Lok Sanjh in Islamabad — are reviving organic farming by training entire groups and villages.
The limiting factors to an organic Pakistan are land reform (including land rights for women) and peasants’ access to credit. The latter may be possible; the first more difficult.