4 August 2015

Indian farmers are cashing in on organic veg


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week called on the country’s scientists and agriculturalists to turn their attention to leading India’s second green revolution. In particular he urged his country to tap into the global market for organic food. For a long time seen as the preserve of the ‘muesli belt’, organic produce is increasingly in demand around the world, not least in India itself as the country’s bourgeoning middle class hunt it out. Organic food revenues in India are expected to rise at around 25 per cent a year between now and 2019. Health food stores across the country are struggling to meet the growing demand, in particular the sourcing of organic vegetables and dairy products.

For poor farmers in India, supplying this profitable market should be a potential route out of poverty. But connecting these smallholders to buyers has proved difficult. Limited quantities, unpredictable production and patchy, uncertified organic farming practices have made the process complex and time consuming. However in Tamil Nadu, in the south east of the country, the combination of new technology, shared information and education is helping the market to flourish.

In India agricultural entrepreneurs, or ‘agripreneurs’ as they’re known, connect farmers to markets. For a fee, they not only provide farming advice they also offer access to new technology and market information. Working through these often young, opportunistic agripreneurs is one of the best ways of reaching smallholders and spreading information which benefits the whole market chain.

A partner organisation of Christian Aid, the Sustainable Agro Alliance (SAAL), has started to train agripreneurs in organic techniques who then in turn teach a further 25 farmers about the benefits of shifting to organic growing methods. As a result, the farmers’ increased organic production is starting to meet the rising demand which is boosting their income. Not only are the farmers making more money thanks to higher prices, in India it’s also significantly cheaper to farm organically. For one aubergine farmer, called Yesudoss, his input costs running organically are $364 per acre, compared to $540 per acre for chemical farming. With lower input costs producing greater output value it doesn’t take an economist to work out that it’s a winning formula.

An agripreneur called Kalimuthu said: “For the rich farmer with plenty of resources practicing organic farming is an easy task. But for the poorest farmers encouraging them to take the risk and practice organic farming is a challenge. We have showed poor farmers how to do it successfully and they are now more confident. That is our greatest success.”

But getting agripreneurs to preach the benefits of organic farming is only one hurdle to overcome. The small, scattered batches of produce still need to reach the buyers. To help solve this SAAL has developed a smartphone app called Farm Field which allows the capture of farm production information through data and photographs. Think of it like eBay for cabbages. This allows buyers looking for organic vegetables to see projected yields and book orders from multiple farmers to meet the volume required, effectively giving smallholders access to larger orders they were previously unable to supply. As well as price information and availability the information also improves traceability which aids organic certification. Agripreneurs are also able to use the app to track farmers’ production allowing them to target their advice where it is needed most and cuts down on travel as they don’t need to spend time in a central office gathering information when they can get it live, on the go.

Providing smallholders with the tools and information to supply the growing organic food market not only improves their bottom line and provides consumers with pesticide free veg, it also improves soil fertility, cuts down water consumption and creates a healthier environment for both humans and wildlife. Yesudoss explained: “When I used sprays in chemical farming I faced many issues after spraying pesticide, such as burning sensations throughout by body, especially my back and eyes. But with organic farming even if you consume the spray there is no problem.”

By the end of 2013 the global organic food and drink market was worth $72 billion and covered 43 million hectares of land worldwide. It is expected to top $100 billion by the end of this year. It’s clear why Prime Minister Modi is keen to exploit this demand and India is well placed to reap the benefits of the boom as it is already home to 650,000 organic producers, more than any other country. But in a nation of a billion people that still leaves plenty of room for further growth, especially among the country’s marginalised farmers who have the most to gain.

One such SAAL farmer, Ramsami, summed it up: “I’ve farmed organically for two years now and there has been a decrease in cost and increase in market price. I spend less and get better returns. I’m proud to be farming organically and people have approached me for advice. Compared to chemical farming, the okra I grow tastes better, stays fresh for longer, and makes better curry.”

Joe Ware is Church and Campaigns Journalist at Christian Aid