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?


| February 2015



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.

Photo courtesy University of Iowa Press

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.