15 October 2014

Pesticide Documentation in Tea estates © Vivek M. / Greenpeace


Ecological farming is a mantra often thrown by environmentalists and sustainability advocates at the drop of a hat but has anyone wondered how ecological farming works - the economics of it, the research that has to go into it and finally about getting the farmers to implement it?

People often say it’s about going back to basics, but well, I’m not so sure. Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution ensured that, along with introduction of intensive use of agrochemicals, almost all native varieties of crops especially in wheat and rice and other staples were near wiped out. Now we have “high yielding” varieties that have minimal pest resilience. These varieties are probably not going to go out of the agricultural market too soon, so what can be done with these crops which are so difficult to keep alive without agrochemicals? Well, the Non Pesticidal Movement in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana showed the world just how efficiently this can be done with the introduction of a combination of locally produced concoctions which ward pests, biological control measures including bio pesticides and even physical, mechanical control of pests through manual removal and light traps and sticky traps etc.

But there is also the soil, which our Living Soils campaign had earlier proved, which is pretty much “dead”- after decades of chemical usage the soil nutrient levels and the presence of microorganisms which play a crucial role in building soil health are near zero. Go to a field where chemicals are used and try to find an earthworm. I can assure you that your chances are minimal.

Now lets’ look at organic plantations in our country - the biggest grouse people have with organic farming (which is a subset of ecological farming) is that there are huge investments required and also entails huge crop losses in the initial periods. Now the only analogy I can think of is the case of cold turkey when a person abruptly withdraws from an addictive habit. He might give it up for good but the initial period is probably the most excruciating that the person will go through.

Now the point I’m trying to make is, why is there a need for sudden cessation of chemicals? Does it make logical sense, unless of course you want to hasten the certification process and are willing to withstand losses during the conversion waiting period? And also how many of our small farmers could afford such a loss, one year or two years or even three years of low yields? In a country where the pesticides treadmill and climate change related drastic weather patterns have resulted in farmer suicides and crop losses, what is the solution?

Well the solution is again inspired by the NPM movement which has advocated phased reduction and elimination of pesticides and also addition of organic matter. Now during our recent Clean Chai campaign Greenpeace India extensively studied tea plantations across India to gauge the feasibility of a phased chemical elimination. Critics might tell you that Greenpeace doesn’t usually factor in these elements but they probably forget that Greenpeace India is extremely passionate about not just advocating ecological farming but also about protecting farmers and their livelihood.

We did a massive exercise of visiting tea plantations in all major agro climatic zones to ensure that any demand we made of the tea companies to clean up did not adversely impact the farmers, especially the small growers, in any way and that it would only open up new avenues for them. Tea is one of the largest monoculture crops in our country. Monocultures are much more difficult to control and combat on the pest and soil management fronts and we were sure that feasibility in tea, once proven, would pave the way for ecological farming on most other crops since the arguments of the naysayers would be negated by the ecological tea movement. You just cannot dispute facts and that exactly what we sought to do - marry the idea of ecological farming with cold hard facts documented from ecological tea plantations.

Our journey of documentation took us from the hills of Darjeeling to the plains of the Terai and the Dooars and across the Brahmaputra into the Bodo Territorial Administration region, to Meghalaya and finally down south to the Nilgiris. The stories we heard and facts we collected are being shared as case studies, as part of our latest report “Hope Brewing: Kotagiri to Kachibari- Case Studies On Ecological Tea Cultivation”. The case studies are about the men, their passions and the techniques they have adopted which have made the tea they grow truly sustainable - economically viable, production neutral, providing safe working environments to thousands of workers and finally protecting the consumers who consume their tea from the threats posed by pesticides.

We hope these case studies go a long way in removing myths in people’s heads about the feasibility of ecological farming on all fronts. We have also made policy recommendations which were framed based on firsthand accounts of growers, workers and also after interactions with industry experts and also distinguished individuals from the ecological farming movements across India.

 Siddharth Sreenivas is a campaigner with Greenpeace India.