“The atmosphere’s heat trapping burden (has come) not just through emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuel… but also from another greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide. More than four-fifths of these emissions are from agriculture, from the use of chemical fertilisers.”
-- State of the World Population 2009. Facing a Changing World: Women Population and Climate
Today, organic farming is not just the ‘in thing’, it’s also paying. Ask Veera Narayana who has farmed both the ‘chemical way’ and the ‘organic way’. Till 2004, Narayana (41) and his two brothers did what every farmer was doing on their nine acres of irrigated land in Korivipalli village -- feeding the crops tonnes of di-ammonium phosphate (DAP). “We spent around Rs 10,000 on an acre of watermelon,” he says. And it worked initially -- returns were nearly double the input.
Narayana’s village in Singanamala mandal (mandals are administrative blocks) of Anantapur district in Andhra Pradesh belongs to the rain-shadow Rayalaseema region that is arid, treeless and made up of poor red soil. It boasts an annual average rainfall of just 553 mm.
Even as farmers began to rely more and more on chemical farm additives, the frequency of drought increased from every alternate year to an annual crisis. In eight out of the 10 years from 1997-98 to 2007-08, all 63 mandals were declared drought-affected (government of Andhra Pradesh’s Handbook of Statistics 2007-08, Anantapur district).
Farmers borrowed from private moneylenders at monthly interest rates ranging between 2 and 5% to buy fertiliser and pesticides, and to drill deep borewells to water their fields. With crops failing year after year, the region began reporting farmer suicides as early as the 1970s.
In July 2000, Narayana applied DAP to his watermelon creepers that were just opening into three leaves. Days passed and still there was no rain; the plants wilted. A desperate Narayana would carry water in a 16 kg tin container from an open well and ration a mug for each plant, hoping against hope that the rains would come and save his plants. But there was no rain for three weeks. July ran into August and still the sun bore down relentlessly. That year, Narayana and his brothers incurred heavy losses.
The UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) -- the United Nations body responsible for stemming the spread of deserts -- says that about 6 million hectares of productive land around the world have been lost every year since 1990, as land becomes degraded and less fertile. An estimated 135 million people are presently at risk of being driven from their lands because of continuing desertification that can reduce productivity in some regions by as much as half. The UN estimates that, over time, more than 1 billion people and one-third of the earth’s surface will be threatened by mostly creeping desertification. The Convention now has 191 signatories; India is one of them.
“Something had to give, or we have to give in somewhere… this cannot go on,” said a worried Narayana. In 2004, the 13-NGO network Anantha Paryavarana Parirakshana Samithi (APPS) staged a street play in his village on the ill-effects of chemical fertiliser and pesticides, and that home-made alternatives could be the answer in low rain areas. The APPS calls it non-pesticide management (NPM). The farmers enjoyed the play but went home laughing at its message. “If the most toxic of chemical pesticides, Monoprotophos (a phosphate-based insecticide), was not able to kill the stubborn red-haired caterpillar, the worst enemy of the groundnut farmer in this region, how could a home-made concoction of neem (Azadirachta indica), garlic and green chillies kill it?!”
But Narayana decided to give it a try. His brothers admonished him: “Has your brain taken leave of your head? Do it if you insist, on your portion of the land.”
“If it does not work then it won’t be the first time I’ll lose my crop,” Narayana replied. “But it will be less investment down the drain.” He started organic farming on one acre, following the instructions of APPS organic farming co-coordinator Hanumantha Reddy word for word.
Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.