Will an Organic Revival Overthrow the "Green Revolution"?

Inside a hot, dun-colored courtyard at the edge of India's northwestern Punjab state, Jagdev Singh, a wheelchair-bound boy of 15, jerks violently, fruitlessly, in search of some relief. "I can't swat the flies off of my face," says Jagdev. A debilitating muscular disorder (he doesn't know what) prevents him from raising his arms more than few inches above his lap. Doctors in New Delhi have told him the cause is an excess of urea -- a chemical fertilizer used in abundance in the surrounding wheat, rice and cotton fields -- that courses through his bloodstream. Three other children nearby suffer similar fates.

Jagdev's illness is part of a pattern, say villagers, activists, government scientists and academics: early onset of disease brought on by environmental pollutants. Punjab is where India's Green Revolution began, leading the subcontinent out of cycles of famine and realizing the dream of self-sufficiency. But after decades of overusing fertilizers, farmers are now saying that the benefits of the Green Revolution have come at too great a cost, slowly siphoning the health out of both the soil and the surrounding community. In particular, they say, the high use of fertilizers is leading to a spike in cancer and other illnesses, including reproductive ailments.

Backing up the villagers' claims is a recent study by researchers at Punjabi University that has found a high rate of DNA damage among farmers due to pesticide use. A second study, also conducted this past year, found widespread contamination of drinking water with pesticides and heavy metals, revealing that drinking water is one of the major causes of death in Punjab. The government is slow to take action, say villagers, whose access to health care is often across state lines, via uncomfortable overnight train journeys, in neighboring Rajasthan.

But neither of the two recent studies conclusively link fertilizers to disease, says Tilak Sarangal, the top civil servant in charge of health and family welfare in Punjab. Sarangal points out that according to the latest figures from the Indian Council of Medical Research, cancer rates are around 58 per 100,000 in the area worst affected by the overuse of pesticides and fertilizers, far below the national average of about 70 to 90 cases per 100,000. "Certainly we are in a danger zone as far as the toxicity and danger of fertilizers are concerned," says Sarangal. "Whether (cancer rates) are as good as other parts of Punjab and elsewhere in the country," he cannot say for certain. The state government is now commissioning two new cancer survey studies as well as the construction of two new specialty cancer hospitals in Punjab.

But public health professionals, farmers, doctors and academics all agree that Punjab is overloaded with pesticides and say they see a correlation. Punjab is one of the biggest users of fertilizers in India -- some of which are highly toxic and banned, but easily accessible in the marketplace.

However, a new, growing association of organic farmers in Punjab is championing a high-value, low-yield anti-marketplace approach to farming. Their products pose a dilemma to the government: The fruits and grains may be healthier and environmentally sustainable, but many doubt that organic farmers can feed an entire nation.

"This is a country that can well remember mass hunger," says Sarangal. "The Green Revolution came in, and today we are quite comfortable. If we go back to organic food, how will we feed ourselves?"

Starting in 1964, the Green Revolution transformed Punjab overnight into India's breadbasket, doubling its output of wheat and rice and supplying almost half of India's grain. With the advent of new irrigation techniques, hybrid seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and mechanization, Punjab's farmers became heroes of a self-sufficient India, no longer dependent upon shipments of foreign grain. But times have changed, says Professor R.K. Mahajal, an agricultural economist at Punjabi University. "The Green Revolution is not as green as it was earlier -- it has now become brown and pale," says Mahajal. "The profit margins have skewered to the minimum. At this rate, in 50 years Punjab will become a desert, like Rajasthan."

Umendra Dutt, a towering, energetic activist with chest-length locks and a thick beard, goes a step further, arguing, "The Green Revolution has devastated the entire ecosystem of our society -- the ecology and economy. We have lost almost all of our biodiversity. (It) is input-intensive, techno-centric, resource-guzzling. It is not a cultural transformation leading to self-sufficiency.

"Our (organic) farmers are living a life that is much more sustainable."

To be sure, Dutt represents a minority voice in Punjab, and fewer than 5 percent of Punjab's farmers cultivate organic crops because of a combination of factors, including the minimum price support that the government offers farmers for wheat and rice made with the aid of fertilizer and pesticides and the social pressure to prevent farmers from changing decades-long practices.

"People are fed up with chemical farming," says Amarjit Sharma, a farmer for 30 years who began organic farming four years ago. "The earth is now addicted to the use of these chemicals." Sharma is now the custodian of his village's organic seed bank. He sells his crop of wheat for more than twice the price of his neighbors who use pesticides and fertilizers, while he reaps just over half the yield. And he doesn't have to invest in costly inputs from the marketplace, such as hybrid seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, which keeps him from going into debt every season. He uses natural, homemade pesticides such as cow manure mixed with urine, soured milk, garlic, chilies and the leaves of a native plant to ward off parasitic insects.

"The major difference between chemical farming and organic farming is that with chemical farming the yield either decreases or stays stagnant over time, while of organic farming, field and quality of the soil increase," says Sharma. "After two or three years, the yield will be equal."

A short visit to his fields reveals a chaotic mix of plant life -- sugarcane and sorghum, vegetables and marigold plants. The chirping of insects is heard -- the experience is odiferous and tactile. In the adjoining field, two men spray fertilizer. "When I see the pesticide sprayers, I see how we are slowly becoming a slave to that stuff," says Amarjit Sharma's son Mahinder, 28, who is busy toiling in the field.

The feeling in Channu, located in a district of Punjab with a spike in cancer patients, is that the government should be taking action. This is a common problem in India: Government is viewed as a distant, corrupt and wealthy entity too concerned with the business of politicking to solve the problems of poor villagers. And there are not enough resources from within the village to solve its own problems.

"We had never even heard of cancer before," says Burbachan Singh, 75. Like most farmers, he doesn't have an alternative form of livelihood or see a way out of the overuse of pesticides and herbicides. "The soil is now addicted. The yield is low, and it is difficult to make ends meet. We are completely dependent on the poison."

Many doctors are now encouraging both patients and farmers to pursue organic farming. Says G.P.I. Singh, a specialist in public health community medicine who has worked in the region of southern Punjab for over 25 years: "What are you achieving by feeding people at the cost of their health?"


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