India’s Organic Farming Revolution

Could the formerly toxic state of Kerala in India become the model for organic farming in the rest of the country—or even global food systems—by 2020?

India's organic farming revolution

In “India’s Organic Farming Revolution,” Sapna E. Thottathil explores the viability of a new organic food system in India (and the rest of the globe) that focuses on the people who grow the food.

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Is it better to eat local or organic? There is nothing straightforward about the current trends in our global food system. In India’s Organic Farming Revolution (University of Iowa Press, 2014), Sapna E. Thottathil explores current difficulties and pitfalls in organic politics through the lens of one state in India, Kerala, where the “Green Revolution” of hybrid seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and rising pesticide use failed to reduce hunger, while causing a multitude of economic, medical, and environmental problems, which lead to the requirement of all growers to farm organically by 2020. The following excerpt is from Chapter 1, “Globalization and Organic Food Systems.”

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In the south of India is a land of coconuts—Kerala, as it is called in Malayalam, the local language. Several sizes and varieties of coconut trees fill every possible corner, swaying behind train stations in groves and along city streets, lining the sides of every canal and waterway, and ranging from the Malabar Coast to high into the foggy mountain ranges of the Western Ghats. When you look down from rooftops or out of the window of an airplane, everything is green—a verdant landscape extending to the horizon.

Kerala has enchanted travelers for centuries with its natural resources and geography. Marco Polo sought its spices, and colonial empires fought for control of its teak forests and medicinal plants. Today, the southwestern Indian state is the “torchbearer” of the Government of India’s Incredible !ndia, a marketing campaign designed by the Indian Ministry of Tourism. Images of Kerala’s greenery, from its rolling hills of spice gardens to its coasts lined with coconut palms, dominate promotional posters and videos for India.

“Don’t be fooled,” warned Sugathakumari, an environmental activist born and raised in Kerala. “You can’t even drink our coconut water without getting sick.” She did not see a mythical landscape of spices and coconut palms. Instead, when she looked at the state’s landscape, she saw mono-crops of pineapples, rubber, and other cash crops, all regularly sprayed with the pesticides furadan and endosulfan, two poisonous chemicals leaching into the watersheds. Promotional images of the state for travel and tourism belied how its greenery was produced.

It was the year 2010. The Kerala Forest Research Institute had just released a study documenting that the fingernails of pineapple pickers in Kerala were falling off after they had been exposed to an unknown cocktail of chemical pesticides. This was not an unusual story, Sugathakumari emphasized to an audience gathered for the 2010 Indian Biodiversity Conference in the capital of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram. She reminded the crowd that, earlier in that same decade, several children in a northern agricultural district of the state had been born with severe physical deformities after their parents had been exposed to endosulfan, a harmful chemical classified as a persistent organic pollutant by the scientific community, because of its ability to linger in the environment for years. For over a quarter of a century, these agrarian communities had been repeatedly sprayed aerially with the chemical to control pests on nearby cashew plantations. Kerala had become a toxic place: its lush greenery was now drenched in poisonous pesticides, bad for human health and the environment.

Sugathakumari was one of the keynote speakers at the 2010 conference, which had attracted environmentalists, students, government officials, and farmers from throughout the state to share research and news about environmental issues. While conversations and panel discussions were often somber, in response to recent news stories about pesticide poisonings and agriculture’s threats to biodiversity, another news item cheered up the gathered people and dominated the speeches: Kerala’s recently issued organic farming policy. Internationally renowned environmental activist Vandana Shiva was so impressed with the state’s policy that she spoke of it at length at the closing ceremony. “Kerala is and can be a model,” she insisted, suggesting that the state could be a “torchbearer” again, this time in the organic farming sector. Shiva continued: “The world needs more models.”

The policy that so delighted the people at the conference on biodiversity was an official plan put forth by Kerala’s government leaders to convert the entire state to organic farming within ten years. State officials claimed that organic agriculture—farming with limited use of synthetic inputs such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides—could be the solution to the innumerable agrarian problems the state was facing, from farmer suicides to poisoning by pesticides such as endosulfan. The policy’s announcement signaled a momentous political step and indicated that an ever-increasing amount of land in India was being set aside solely for organic production. While Kerala is geographically one of the smallest states in India, its 2010 policy initiative is the equivalent of designating an area greater than the size of Maryland as an organic zone. Over thirty million people living in the area would be covered.

Estimates as of 2013 suggest that over fifteen thousand farmers in Kerala are already or in the process of being certified organic for export to the United States and Europe; that is, they meet the legal standards that define organic farming on a national level, as determined by a third-party certifier. According to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), a nonprofit umbrella organization promoting sustainable agriculture globally, certified organic products are “those which have been produced, stored, processed, handled and marketed in accordance with precise technical specifications (standards) and certified as ‘organic’ by a certification body.” In India, these technical specifications are called the National Standards for Organic Production (NSOP), which are set by the Agriculture and Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) of the Ministry of Commerce. APEDA has accredited twenty-four institutions in India to carry out organic certification, many of which are located outside of the country. The first indigenous organic certification body in India, Indocert (Indian Organic Certification Agency), is based in Kerala, indicative of the leadership role Kerala is playing in South India’s organic farming movement.

 Throughout the rest of India, organic agriculture is also growing. Between 2003 and 2010, the area under certified organic agriculture grew by almost 2,500 percent, totaling more than four thousand square miles. While this area represents less than 1 percent of India’s cultivable land area, over half a million organic farmers live in the country, the highest number of organic producers of any country in the world. For the sake of comparison, the rate of growth for the area under certified organic production in the United States was just 12 percent between 2008 and 2011. Twelve Indian states are currently either discussing or have organic farming policies in place. As part of its Tenth Five Year Plan, the national government earmarked millions of dollars for the promotion of organic agriculture throughout the country and has allocated funds for organic farming ever since. Several states are setting up research and training institutions to assist farmers with organic methods of growing food. Non-governmental organizations, foundations, and development institutions are financing the rollout of organic farming in many villages. Furthermore, India’s growing middle class and urban populations increasingly express interest in purchasing organic produce. Some estimates suggest that organic retail within the country may even be growing at a rate of 100 percent per year.

Indian organic farmers also rely on foreign markets, having sold over $100 million dollars’ worth of organic goods such as rice, spices, and fruit to Europe, the United States, and other countries in 2009.16 Market estimates forecast this amount doubling by 2014, if not earlier. Today one can find organic Indian products such as vanilla, black pepper, and tea in the aisles of many American and European supermarkets. Many of these food items hail from Kerala.

Globally, organic food sales are around $60 billion and growing, in spite of the economic downturn. More and more land is being converted to organic farming, now totaling 37.2 million hectares worldwide. Big-box retailers like Walmart have even begun to supply organic products for their shoppers, and the United States now represents the largest market for organic goods (worth almost $30 billion), with Europe close behind. This rising demand means that organic foods are often in short supply, spurring the growth of organic exports from developing countries like India.

Alongside the rapid global growth in the organic food market and exports, however, have come cautionary and sometimes farcical tales. Recent editorials have called organic food elitist because of its high prices and limited availability, headlines have suggested that organic produce from China is contaminated with chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and scholarly research has documented labor abuses occurring on large organic farms in California. Some activists have even claimed that the food miles of organic food can be “catastrophic” and have suggested that imported organic products be denied organic certification. It is no wonder that, as several popular books have claimed, consumers are regularly confused about what to purchase at the grocery store. My own research in England revealed widespread consumer disdain and confusion around organic products from the developing world.

Yet, as a result of the growing market for organic foodstuffs, as well as the premium prices that such products can fetch, Kerala’s organic farming initiatives could be considered a wise economic move that may bring greater income and development benefits to farmers. On the other hand, the state’s new policy could be considered risky and shortsighted. Current trends in the organic sector lead to the following questions: Are Kerala’s farmers venturing into a fickle international market? Are they avoiding the pitfalls of organic agriculture—the elitism, the chemical contamination, and the labor abuses? Are they able to make meaningful connections with consumers who may be located in other countries? Two issues are intertwined here: organic food and the globalization of our food system.


Excerpted from India’s Organic Farming Revolution: What It Means for Our Global Food System by Sapna Thottathil, published by University of Iowa Press. Copyright (c) 2014 by the University of Iowa Press. Used with permission.