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Broader alliances nudging markets towards public interest can save the organic movement, writes Nalaka Gunawardene.

The growing popularity of organic food among South Asia’s middle class is an encouraging sign.

As the next logical step, those advocating healthier eating, sustainable farming and small farmers’ welfare must come together. Their causes are both overlapping and interdependent.

In fact, organics are the more visible facet of a broader transformation needed in our food production and consumption. Current practices of growing food with high external inputs — such as chemical fertilisers and toxic pesticides — damage both human health and the environment.

Acknowledging this, scientists have been searching for alternatives. Many see eco-farming (also called agro-ecology) as the best way to reconcile the historical tension between farming and nature.

By applying ecological concepts to agricultural systems, eco-farming enhances soil fertility and protects crops against pests through the smart use of natural elements such as friendly plants and insects. This holistic approach can produce comparable yields, while buffering against climate change and generating incomes for farmers.

These benefits were highlighted in a synthesis report prepared in 2011 by the United Nations Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur on the right to food. It called for a fundamental shift towards ecological agriculture as a way to boost food production and improve livelihoods. [1]

Based on an extensive survey of scientific literature, Olivier De Schutter, the special rapporteur, argued that small-scale ecological agriculture — if properly supported — can double food production within 10 years.

However, certain enabling factors are needed for this paradigm shift.

“Agro-ecology is a knowledge-intensive approach. It requires public policies supporting agricultural research and participative extension services,” De Schutter said. “States and donors have a key role to play here. Private companies will not invest time and money in practices that cannot be rewarded by patents and which don’t open markets for chemical products or improved seeds.” [2]

Organics in South Asia

Organics are marching forward. The Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), which tracks global trends, says organic farming is now practised in 164 countries where 1.9 million farmers manage some 37.5 million hectares of land organically. The extent of land has more than trebled from 11 million hectares in 1999.

“Organic farming policies and regulations in South Asia should be driven by domestic considerations, and not simply to satisfy overseas buyers”

By Nalaka Gunawardene

According to FiBL’s 2014 World of Organic Agriculture, Asia has 3.2 million hectares under organic farming – just nine per cent of global total. It is home to 700,000 organic producers, most of whom are in India. [3]

In 2012, Bhutan was reported as wanting to become a fully organic nation by 2020. [4] Later, that country’s agriculture minister said a gradual phasing out of chemical-based farming was underway, but did not commit to a target year for completion. [5]

Until recently, the organic movement in Asia has been fuelled mostly by demand from western markets. In 2012, global sales of organic food and beverages reached nearly US $64 billion. The United States and European Union account for much of this.

Asian countries like China, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka still have highly export-oriented organic sectors, but FiBL says that trend is changing. “The rising middle class and growing consumer awareness of organic production methods are, however, developing internal markets for organic foods”.

One challenge for developing countries is to evolve national standards and certification. A buyer cannot discern organically grown products from appearance, smell or taste. Consumer trust — and willingness to pay a premium — depends on an assurance from growers and intermediaries.

Top export markets have stringent certification requirements. But small farmers cannot afford high fees charged by organic inspectors from Western countries. Local certification schemes have to fill this void.

Beyond organics

Ideally, organic farming policies and regulations in South Asia should be driven by domestic considerations, and not simply to satisfy overseas buyers. At the same time, going organic means much more than just eating safer food.

Informed and well-organised consumers are a force that governments and corporations reckon with. Advocacy groups can leverage the new purchasing power of Asian middle classes to demand not only authentic organic food but also broader reforms in land and water management.

Across South Asia, there is rampant use of agrochemicals to grow food and cash crops. Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific (PAN AP), an advocacy group, points out that more than half of all pesticides used in India and Pakistan (by volume) is released in cotton plantations. [6]

Part of this toxic load gets washed off farmlands and enters nearby ecosystems. In time, it moves up the food chain and enters our bodies. Although toxicity is often too low to produce immediate symptoms, it can build up inside in a process called bioaccumulation. No one — not even the most consistent eater of organic foods — is fully shielded from exposure through sources like water, milk products or tea.

Noted Indian environmentalist Anil Agarwal (1947 – 2002) was among the first to publicly raise the concern of pesticide residues and downstream impacts on public health.

“One of the main causes of cancer is environmental pollution,” he wrote in Homicide by Pesticides, an investigative report released by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in 1997. He noted how a type of blood cancer called non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL) — which usually arises when the body’s immune system is suppressed — was closely related to low-level exposure to certain pesticides.

He urged: “It is time that Indian environmentalists start thinking upstream: If you happen to live in a town that gets its water from a river, then start finding out how much pesticides and fertilisers are being used in upstream farms and how many industrial units are dumping their untreated wastes into the river.” [7]

The situation in India and elsewhere has since become worse. The burden of disease from environmental contamination has increased. Agrochemicals are a key suspect in chronic kidney disease of uncertain aetiology (CKDu) affecting thousands in India and Sri Lanka. [8]

Notwithstanding this, state agro policies still favour chemical-heavy farming. Organics get honourable mentions, but never adequate funds or extension support.

Consumer activists are frustrated by inadequate safety standards for maximum residue levels (MRLs) for pesticides. In Sri Lanka, for example, more than three decades have passed since passing the Control of Pesticides Act, but no MRLs have been defined. [9]

The organic movement cannot succeed in isolation. It needs to be part of a broader alliance that nudges markets in the public interest.

Nalaka Gunawardene is a Colombo-based science writer, blogger and development communication consultant. He is also a trustee of SciDev.Net. The views in this column are his own.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South Asia desk.


[1] “Agro-ecology and the right to food” report, as presented to the UN Human Rights Council on 8 March 2011
[2] Eco-Farming can double food production in 10 Years, says new UN report. Media release from UNHRC. 8 March 2011
[3] The World of Organic Agriculture 2014 report
[4] Bhutan Organic: Himalayan Country Aiming To Phase Out Chemicals From Farming Over Next Decade. Huffington Post, 4 Oct 2012
[5] Agriculture minister denies reports of Bhutan becoming a 100% organic country by 2020. The Bhutanese. 20 February 2013
[6] Pesticides: Sowing Poison, Growing Hunger, Reaping Sorrow. Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific, 2010
[7] Homicide by Pesticides. Centre for Science and Environment, India. 1997                 
[8] Going upstream for lasting kidney disease remedies. SciDev.Net. 22 January 2014
[9] Safeguarding Consumer Interests by Strengthening Food Safety in Sri Lanka. Talking Economics blog, 15 March 2013. Institute of Policy Studies, Sri Lanka