Despite early concerns, farmers have been very happy with the outcomes in Sikkim, and have seen an average twenty per cent increase in income. Yield has risen as soil fertility improves.
India’s pesticide use is relatively low in comparison with much of the world, but has nonetheless led to several problems, including groundwater pollution and poisoning of some farm workers.
These issues are fortunately absent in the state of Sikkim, which has achieved the remarkable landmark of becoming 100 per cent organic. This small northern state lies in the foothills of the Himalayas, squeezed in between China, Nepal and Bhutan.
In Sikkim, agricultural chemicals had led to a range of environmental and health problems, including land becoming degraded. In 2003, Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling resolved that the state would give up pesticides and chemical fertilisers, and go organic. This state has a population of only 600,000, and agriculture is characterised by small holdings, severe weather, and mountainous terrain that is often terraced.
Sikkim had a head start: agriculture there was never very chemical intensive, and with chemical farming only arriving during the 1970s, some farmers had retained knowledge of traditional organic methods. Modest-sized plots made it more feasible to employ labour-intensive organic techniques. Despite this, the organic switch involved a significant change in farming practices, and initially, there were protests due to concerns about falling production and additional costs.
For 13 years, Sikkim pursued an organic transition that initially involved progressively cutting subsidies for chemical pesticides and fertilisers, then restricting access to them, and finally banning them altogether in 2009. In their place, cow manure and biomass were used for fertiliser and cow urine made a good pesticide. Three years was considered the interval for chemically treated land to be converted to organic.
In its early stages, the organic switch was supported by federal funding. A group known as the Sikkim Organic Mission was involved in outreach and training, and provided seeds and manure. Organic farming was taught in schools. Infrastructure, including fertiliser production and soil testing facilities, was put in place. By the end of 2015, all the state’s farms were certified organic, an achievement that was acknowledged by the Indian President, Narendra Modi.
Despite early concerns, farmers have been very happy with the outcome, and have seen an average twenty per cent increase in income. Yield has risen as soil fertility improves. A supply chain is now selling Sikkim produce in special organic produce stores locally, and in Delhi.
Organic farming is also improving soil health, protecting biodiversity, and making the land more drought-resistant and increasingly resilient in the face of climate change. The state’s clean environment is even attracting visitors who are dubbed ‘organic tourists’.
Narendra Modi has encouraged other Indian states to follow Sikkim’s lead, and Kerala, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh are all working towards going organic too. Kerala in particular plans to be fully converted by the end of 2016.
Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore.
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