The return to organic gardening and farming is sweeping its way through India. In small gardens, backyards and on balconies, plants, vegetables and fruits - privately grown and tended to - are springing up.
Individuals like Ritu Mathur are helping to spread the word about organic farming methods. 15 years ago she quit her job as a designer in a multinational corporation to pursue her lifelong ambition to spend her time growing vegetables and flowers. In Gurgaon on the outskirts of Delhi, she founded her business Upvan, which teaches people living in rural areas how to successfully farm organically by themselves. Her business has been a source of positive success in an area which has transformed from a quiet suburb to a build up bustling with construction and commerce. Through her methods many of her students and clients are now proudly able to grow their own organic fruits, vegetables and plants, and thus subsidize their diets with healthy homegrown food.
"We can’t control the toxins in our environment. But at least we can control it in our food,” says Priya V.K. Singh, a government officer, who has learned through Mathur's guidance how to cultivate her garden.
The government introduced chemical pesticides and fertilisers in the 1960s during the 'Green Revolution'. Farming methods, particularly in Punjab, were completely changed in response to food shortages. Chemical pesticides and fertilisers became the norm and hybrid seeds and later genetically modified seeds replaced conventional seeds. The returns were massive as national wheat production rose from 10 million tonnes in 1960, to almost 95 million tonnes in 2012. India went from being an almost food deficient country to one of the biggest exporters of wheat in the world. However, this exposed many farmers to toxic chemicals. As a result the state of Punjab has the highest cancer rate in India.
The 'Green Revolution' also left a legacy of environmental degradation. The high-intensity GM crops required increasing amounts of water; reduced the genetic diversity among crops and thus made them more susceptible to pests and diseases. Chemical pesticides killed off biodiversity and artificial fertilisers damaged the soil, killing of earthworms which are vital for fertile soil and the growth of healthy crops.
This has led to a backlash against the use of chemicals in farming on a large-scale and things are beginning to change. In the state of Sikkim organic farming has made a comeback. At the moment organic inputs and soil nutrients are almost exclusively used. Farmer field schools have been setup to teach farmers about sustainable farming methods, such as which insects are good for agriculture and how to deal with pests without resorting to chemicals or pesticides. Introducing organic farming has allowed the farmers to develop a higher quantity and quality of crop and other states across India could soon follow in their footsteps.
The advantages of organic farming are far-reaching and extremely beneficial not only to the health of the population but also for local biodiversity, the soil and it can also help conserve water.
The estimates of how many people are taking part in organic gardening and farming is unknown however it's believed that an estimated 3,000 families in Delhi have begun to use organic methods at home and Mathur believes that about 100 people have taken it up in the town of Gurgaon. The domestic organic food market is still quite small. Of the total cultivated land in India, only about one percent is organic. However, the signs are encouraging and hopefully with the help of people like Mathur India, organic farming and gardening methods will spread.
Author: Stephen Walsh/ RESET editorial