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All Good Earth and No Seed: Dilemma of an Organic Cotton Farmer

Sitaram, an organic cotton farmer struggles to develop non-GM cotton seed
for his future generations. (Photo H. Sandhu)

On my recent visits to rural parts of India, I came across a group of organic farmers in Kasrawad town, Khargone District, Madhya Pradesh. These farmers switched from high input cotton growing to organic cotton about 15 years ago. I talked to some farmers and they claimed that the smiles on their faces are all due to organic way of producing cotton. They are free from debts owing to input costs of pesticides, GM (genetically modified) seed and fertilisers. Instead they are boasting of fixed deposits in their banks as compared to fellow conventional farmers who are still sticking to GM cotton and hoping for some relief and expecting end to the vicious cycle of debt and crop failure due to periodic droughts in the area.

Having said that these organic farmers are not rich or living a luxurious life however, they are living a decent life, largely free from debts and able to support their families. Moreover they are living with self-esteem with which a farmers’ daughter and son are born and like to live.

This revolution is happening because some NGOs and agri-business organisations are working with farmers at grass root level. They are running their business model on the principles of buying high value organic products from farmers as compared to some who are exploiting by selling their inputs to farmers. So these organisations are helping small and marginal farmers to generate and improve source of livelihoods and refine their skills in scientific organic farming which is bearing its fruits in Kasrawad. This organisation has transformed the lives of 5000 farming households in that area and growing strong.  There are many positive spins from this for example, rural upliftment, gender equality, child health and education programs which are also part of this project.

I also like to mention that the recent recommendations by a parliamentary panel against the use of GM crop research do not shake India’s food security as echoed by some scientists and policy makers. Instead, it provides very timely opportunity to explore alternative approaches such as agroecology which has potential to enhance productivity and farm sustainability through adoption of protocols that improve functional agricultural biodiversity, avoids expensive inputs and are less energy intensive. The above example from Kasrawad farmers is a good model for scaling up and replicating it elsewhere.

More than half of India’s population are farmers and it is not surprising that corporate control of agriculture (through GM seed) is perceived as threat to livelihoods and food security. These organic farmers in Kasrawad are a glowing example that increased investments in research and resources required for the development and uptake of sustainable agriculture can improve farm productivity, provide livelihood security and well-being of farming community.

India’s greatest strength lies in its farmers who worked with great enthusiasm to lift India’s food production during the ‘green revolution’ with equal support and investments from the agricultural research, extension networks and government. However, that technology based on fossil –fuels led to massive farm debts and have social and environmental impacts. The lack of research and investments, on the other hand is an impediment in the availability of ecological techniques required at farm scale. The current technical knowhow and efforts can be diverted for the development and extension of sustainable agricultural practices, and help future-proof farming and livelihoods of millions of farmers on the basis of equity, justice and fairness. India must recognise and improve the contribution of ecologically sound techniques for the sustainable production of food and fibre to improve livelihoods and food security.

As compared to number of villages and farmers in rest of India is concerned, numbers in Kasrawad are small, and the business organisation is also limited in its resources. Now these organic farmers have worked very hard to revive organic farming and land is completely free from agro-chemicals and its productivity is increasing by utilising organic farming techniques. But the major impediment now is that the non-GM cotton seed is unavailable. Since the arrival of GM cotton seed in India well before it was legalised in many parts, the non-GM seed started disappearing and it has disappeared completely or hard to find now. All the good work these farmers, NGO and agri-business organisation have done in recent past is under threat from the unavailability of non-GM seed. This group is again taking this challenge and working with farmers and some breeders to identify, select and multiply non-GM seed on their own with limited technical and financial support from outside.

I do not want to indulge in the ever growing debate on the GM vs Non-GM but my question to the reader is, Madam/Sir, Can you do something to protect and bring back non-GM seed? What good is our earth if farmer cannot find a seed to grow in it?

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