When Ashok Kumar, 63, started doing organic farming on three acres of his farm in Sohangarh Rattewala village in Punjab’s western Ferozepur district in 2012, the benefits of good health and a cleaner environment were foremost on his mind.

Besides growing food for his family, he was also able to sell the surplus to customers who sought organic produce. By 2016, he had decided to grow chemical-free fruit, vegetables, grains and oilseeds on his entire 16 acres, but the scaling up did not yield expected returns.

“I opened a shop in [nearby] Muktsar town in collaboration with six other organic farmers. We also took our produce to a weekend organic market in Jalandhar [three-and-a-half hours away by road], but despite putting in so much effort and money, we continued to make losses,” he recalled. There just were not enough customers, he told IndiaSpend.

“We had to shut down the shop and I eventually reduced the area under organic farming back to three acres, for my own family’s consumption. The rest of the land is now given on lease to another farmer, who uses chemical fertilisers and pesticides.”

Kumar’s story is not reflective of all farmers who are trying to do chemical-free farming in Punjab, but many would relate to his predicament. Their passion for chemical-free, natural farming runs contrary to the longstanding farming culture of the state, our reporting found. The terms “organic” and “natural” farming are used interchangeably in India, with farmers using a mix of methods.

In natural farming, if defined strictly, the focus is on the use of bio-inputs prepared from farm and local ecosystems, instead of purchasing these. Organic farming is defined more from a perspective of product certification and marketing (read more in IndiaSpend’s July 2022 explainer on natural farming). On the ground, these terms are used more fluidly.

This is the second in our series on natural farming, and explores why it is hard for farmers in Punjab, the food bowl of India, to move to chemical-free farming, now being pushed by the Union government and through policy.

“The whole [agricultural] ecosystem in Punjab is built around chemical farming, compared to other parts of India, because we were the frontrunner state during the green revolution. This model is supported both by the state and the market through research, extension services, machines, seeds and assured procurement of wheat and rice. So, it’s much easier and remunerative to do chemical farming here,” farmer Kamaljeet Hayer, who had partnered with Kumar in setting up the organic produce shop, told IndiaSpend. “Organic farming requires at least 10 times more effort than chemical farming because it’s labour-intensive and the returns are modest.”

Among states outside of the northeast, the area under organic farming in Punjab is one of the lowest, official data show.

Credit: via IndiaSpend.com.

Legacy of the green revolution

Green Revolution” is the name given to the period in the 1960s-’70s when India imported new hybrid seed varieties to increase the production of wheat and rice, which could then be supplied at subsidised rates through the public distribution system.

Punjab was chosen to be the first site to try new varieties because of higher water availability from its rivers and its fertile soil. The new seeds required adequate doses of chemical fertilisers and water to give the promised yields.

The Indian government started subsidising the inputs, besides establishing the research and extension services to improve the new seeds and also take the practices to the people. The assured procurement for the public distribution system further enthused farmers to participate.

Today, after around 60 years of intensive agriculture, Punjab has grown economically, but stares at an agro-ecological crisis. There is excessive use of agro-chemicals causing environmental toxicity, high dependence on wheat-rice crop cycle impacting biodiversity and soil health, and costly machinery which made farming easier but also led to high indebtedness.

Though the average farm income in Punjab remains one of the highest in the country, per the National Statistical Organisation’s Situation Assessment of Agricultural Households and Land and Livestock Holdings of Households in Rural India (SAS) 2019 survey, its growth has slowed at a higher rate than the national average since 2013-’14, per government data. There is, however, no disruption yet in the way agriculture is practised, our reporting found.

Punjab accounts for 4% of the country’s cropped area but for 8% of all chemical pesticides used. A 2005 study by the Centre for Science and Environment, referenced by a Parliamentary standing committee on agriculture report in 2016, found residues of six to 13 pesticides in the blood samples of Punjab villagers.

Punjab also has one of the highest chemical fertiliser consumption rates in India at 213 kg per hectare, compared to the national average of 128 kg per hectare.

Further, there is an imbalance in fertiliser use. Against the desirable ratio of 4:2:1 of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, Punjab’s ratio is as high as 31:8:1, the committee report said.

“Inadequate use of micronutrient fertilisers is aggravating trace element deficiencies in soils in many areas. The crops grown on these soils are, generally, deficient in micronutrients. These deficiencies are linked with malnutrition and health disorders in humans and animals,” the report added.

Excessive use of nitrogenous fertilisers in Punjab also lead to higher levels of nitrates in the state’s groundwater, which has been linked to cancer and blue baby syndrome (when haemoglobin in the blood loses its capacity to carry oxygen, resulting in asphyxia and death), a 2009 Greenpeace study had said.

Around 20% of all sampled wells in three districts of Punjab had nitrate levels above the safety limit recommended by the World Health Organization, the study had found. This nitrate pollution was clearly linked with the usage of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers as the study found higher nitrate levels in farms which had higher application of fertilisers.

The 2018 draft Punjab State Farmers’ Policy had proposed an annual reduction of 10% in use of agro chemicals.

Kamaljit Hayer on his farm which integrates poultry and a herbal garden with crop cultivation and promotes farm tourism, in Sohangarh Rattewala village, Ferozepur district in Punjab on August 3. Credit: Gurdeep Dhaliwal via IndiaSpend.com

Problems with transitioning

The area certified under organic farming in India rose from about 345,000 hectares in 2011-’12 to 2.66 million hectares in 2020-’21. The practice, however, is not easy. Major problems are a drop in crop yield, infestation of weeds and paucity of farm labour, agriculturalists told us.

“Despite several benefits to health and environment, organic farmers face multiple challenges. A land used to chemical fertilisers for decades would require at least three years to recover its fertility,” Umendra Dutt, executive director of Kheti Virasat Mission [KVM], a non-profit organisation based in Jaito, Faridkot district, campaigning for organic farming in Punjab, told IndiaSpend.

“An organic farm would have a greater need for manual labour and the work is also very intensive. From treatment of seeds to preparation of green manure, optimum selection of crop pattern, regular monitoring, de-weeding, mulching, composting and careful harvesting are just some of the basic requirements for chemical-free farming. This [labour-intensive process] makes it difficult to find people who are willing to work in these fields.”

Further, big machinery does not suit organic farms because these usually grow mixed crops while most machines are designed for mono-cropped wheat and rice fields. There is also a chance of contamination.

“I can’t hire a combine harvester which has also harvested a crop from a chemical farm because grains from those farms can enter my fields. I have to maintain the purity of my seed,” said Rahul Sharma, an IT engineer-turned farmer who grows organic produce on 11 acres in Kapurthala and Patiala districts.

“This means I have to hire manual labour because smaller, handheld power-operated machines are either not available or don’t enjoy the subsidies the big machines do.”

Babban, a farm worker, de-weeding and preparing the soil at an organic farm in Chandigarh on August 13. Credit: Manu Moudgil via IndiaSpend.com

Sher Singh of Mirpur village in Jalandhar district finds it difficult to manage weeds on his six-acre farm, especially during the rainy season.

“I use sprinklers for irrigating my vegetables because that helps control the weeds but when it rains, the infestation grows many folds. Someone practising chemical farming would just throw some herbicide and get done with it while I have to hire manual labour. Organic farming is not only a slower process but also costlier,” he said. “This labour shortage can be met if the government allows workers under MGNREGA [the rural job guarantee programme] to assist on organic farms. We can pay the government a part of the daily wage of these workers.”

Of the total workers in Punjab, only 35% are engaged in agriculture while the national average is 54.6%. One reason for this is heavy use of machines in the state; Punjab is home to nearly 450,000 tractors, one tractor for every nine hectares of cultivated land, compared with the national average of one per 62 hectares.

Between 2000 and 2019, the number of harvester combines in Punjab nearly tripled to 800,000. The investment in big and costly machinery has, however, led to high indebtedness, per a 2014 study by Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana.

Farm households in Punjab are among the most heavily indebted in India, per the SAS 2019 survey. Around 54% of farming households are indebted in the state, with average debt of Rs 2.03 lakh.

Loans taken for farm inputs like agrochemicals and machinery formed 52% of the total debt incurred by farmers, the Punjab Agricultural University study had found. For small farmers, the share went up to 68%, which reduced their borrowing capacity for other purposes like healthcare and social ceremonies.

Unsustainable crops

The “Green Revolution” also oriented Punjab towards wheat-rice crop rotation through assured procurement at minimum support price. Rice is neither a staple of Punjab’s diet nor suited to the agro climatic character of the region.

India must shift rice growing east from Punjab and Haryana while encouraging wheat cultivation in the rice-growing regions of Punjab and Haryana, to help prevent an impending water crisis by 2030, IndiaSpend reported in June 2019.

About 4,118 litres of water is required to grow one kilogram of rice in Punjab, compared to 2,169 litres in West Bengal, a natural habitat for the crop, estimates by the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices show.

In 1960-’61, 4.8% of the total cropped area in the state was under rice. By 2019-’20, the share of rice had increased nearly 10-fold to 40.1%, per Punjab Directorate of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare data, quoted in the Punjab Economic Survey 2020-’21.

The area under wheat went from 27.3% to 45% in the same period. Thus, between them, rice and wheat accounted for 85% of the cropped area in the state at last count. This shift towards mono cropping was brought about by assured procurement and price support, and came at the cost of maize, millets, barley, pulses and oilseeds, said the survey.

“Overemphasis on wheat-rice rotation has made our ecosystem unstable not only in terms of groundwater depletion…Diseases and pests can spread easily through swathes of mono cropped fields with no biological controls. Mixed cropping can prevent that,” Ramesh Arora, former professor of entomology at Punjab Agricultural University, told IndiaSpend.

“Farmers should rotate crops on their fields every two-three years to prevent pests and pathogens becoming habitual to the land. Also plant more trees which provide habitat to birds who are the most effective biological controls against pests. Pesticides should be our last line of defence but sadly it has become the first priority.”

Continuous cultivation without any crop rotation also depletes soil nutrients, resulting in weaker crops highly dependent on chemical fertilisers and pesticides. “Organic farmers know the importance of soil health and tend to rotate crops to maintain yields. They use natural methods of pest control and fertilise the soil regularly by growing green manure or nitrogen fixing crops,” Seema Jolly, an organic farmer and coordinator of an organic market near Chandigarh, told IndiaSpend.

The state government has been promoting crop diversification, asking farmers to grow crops other than rice but with little success. Even after spending Rs 274 crore on a crop diversification programme during 2014-1’9, the sown area of rice increased by 7.18% in Punjab at the cost of other crops, found an audit report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India.

This year, the Punjab government reportedly asked farmers to grow moong (green gram) as the third crop in the (summer) window between wheat harvesting and growing rice.

The government promised to procure the produce at the minimum support price if the moong crop is followed by Basmati or PR 126 variety of rice, both of which take less time to grow and require less water compared to long duration rice. The announcement led to the cultivated area under moong rising by 77% over the previous season.

While the announcement was mainly seen as a move to increase farmers’ income and to reduce the state’s dependence on import of pulses, it will also reduce use of fertilisers in the subsequent rice crop. Moong fixes nitrogen in the soil, thus reducing the need for synthetic nitrogen fertilisers. However, the harvesting of the moong crop saw rampant use of weedicides.

Jagmohan Singh in Patiala town, general secretary of Bharatiya Kisan Union (Dakaunda), one of the farm unions which participated in the 2020-’21 farmers protests against the three farm bills, feels crop diversification can be the first step towards sustainable agriculture.

“Currently, most agro chemicals are used on wheat and rice. Once the government starts promoting alternate crops, the use of chemicals will reduce automatically. The crops which are introduced as replacement, however, should fetch the same profit as these two crops,” he told IndiaSpend.

Organic farmers feel the state government needs to push for millets.

“Millets would yield much greater benefits because they are known to be rich sources of nutrition, require less irrigation, grow without agro chemicals and leave no waste. Just shifting 10% of rice area to millets can bring a huge change,” said Rahul Sharma, the IT engineer-turned farmer.

“The produce can be provided to children under the mid-day meal scheme. So with one move, you can solve problems of malnutrition, groundwater depletion, food toxicity, and straw burning, besides conserving biodiversity.”


Government support

One of the issues farmers face when they shift to organic is drop in crop yield.

“I suggest new farmers start with small plots. If they stop using chemical fertilisers at one go, there will be a big loss of yield which will dishearten them,” said farmer Sher Singh. “After a few years of using green manure and bio-fertilisers, the soil regains its natural fertility and the production picks up while farmers get used to the new market.”

Dutt, the social activist, feels the farmers not only need hand-holding but also financial assistance. “Besides the assured price and procurement of alternate crops, farmers need a transition package. If governments made them go for chemical farming during the Green Revolution, it’s their duty to get them out as well by supporting organic farmers.”

Organic (and natural) farmers should also get assistance, which chemical farms get in the form of indirect subsidy on fertilisers and farm machines or research and extension services, he said.

The all-India fertiliser subsidy is expected to touch Rs 2.15 lakh crore this year, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman said on May 21. This would be a 64% increase over fertiliser subsidy expenditure in 2020-’21.

A transition package could also be linked to ecosystem services.

“The government is currently supporting a system that’s harmful for everyone. On the other hand, our organic farming uses less water and power, causes no chemical pollution, no straw burning, promotes biodiversity, provides more nutrition while also sequestering more carbon in the soil thus mitigating climate crisis. We should be rewarded for providing all these ecosystem services,” said farmer Rahul Sharma.

“Such incentives will also make organic food more affordable to poor and middle class families rather than being accessible only to the elite consumers.”

Food and trade policy expert Devinder Sharma feels Punjab needs to breed new crop varieties that respond well to organic inputs rather than agro chemicals. “If Punjab could be the seat of the green revolution, it can also be the seat of the evergreen revolution but this would require a policy shift and research,” he told IndiaSpend.

The existing infrastructure and marketing network needs to be reorientated towards organic, Sharma said, adding that the government can learn from Andhra Pradesh, where around 700,000 farmers have shifted to organic farming because of state government support, and research and extension services for them. [More in IndiaSpend’s next story on natural farming in Andhra Pradesh.]

We requested a comment from the director of agriculture, Gurvinder Singh, on how the state is supporting organic farming. He asked us to contact Punjab Agro Industries Corporation Limited, the nodal government agency for organic farming in Punjab.

Tarun Sen, a manager from Punjab Agro, said that they support farmers through training and awareness camps on organic farming. They also have a distribution channel for marketing of organic products.

“Government of Punjab through Punjab Agri Export Corporation Limited [Pagrexco] is implementing the Organic Program by providing institutional support to the organic farmers of the State,” the general manager of Pagrexco, a subsidiary of Punjab Agro, said in an email response.

They also train farmers for “Organic Farm Management as per organic certification standards and facilitating third-party certification”, as per the email.

Pagrexco also buys organic produce directly from its certified organic farmers at remunerative prices and markets the produce for the domestic and foreign market. They also help farmers in getting a “dedicated space allocated in government marketing yards/offices in cities for organic produce”.

Pagrexco is running an “Organic Hut” in Chandigarh, and that model will be replicated in other cities, the general manager wrote in the email.

Markets and consumers

An organic market at Kaimbwala village near Chandigarh on August 13. Credit: Gurdeep Dhaliwal via IndiaSpend.com

In absence of substantial state support, farmers and concerned citizens have themselves tried to set up models of marketing and social support.

They got together to organise weekly organic markets in which farmers brought their produce to central spots of major cities in Punjab for sale. This model worked well, but the pandemic and lockdown disrupted the whole set up.

“I was taking my produce to a private school in Jalandhar where the organic market was held every Sunday. After the lockdown, however, the market did not pick up and we also suffered heavy losses because the produce was not sold,” said Sher Singh. “Now, I am just left with the 15-20 customers who are regulars for the last 12 years.”

At the weekend organic farmers’ market organised for two hours at a football academy in Kaimbwala village near Chandigarh, organisers were worried about the low footfall.

“We are just getting around 25 customers which is not promising. Before Covid lockdown, we would have around 100-150 buyers. Maybe people have just turned to the online medium and are buying branded organic,” said Seema Jolly, one of the coordinators of the market.

“I think the government needs to step in and provide a space where the produce can be sold. We are trying to run this market since 2015 moving from one spot to another because there is no permanent place.”

After making losses in the shop he opened in collaboration with other organic farmers, Kamaljeet Hayer has now taken to farm tourism. He has rabbits, parrots, ducks and hens besides a herbal garden, fruit trees and rooms made with traditional architecture which attract people from cities, who want to experience rural life.

“I have also stopped dealing in vegetables and started processing perishable items to increase their shelf lives. The produce, including dry ration, oil and pickles, now gets picked up from the farm thus saving me the money on transportation. The farm has become profitable this year but it’s still not substantial and can’t sustain my family,” Hayer said.

Rahul Sharma, who has built a steady customer base in and around Chandigarh, is keen on taking the business online.

“Nobody has cracked the organic code yet. I am able to experiment because farming is not my main source of income. For an individual farmer to sell online, they need to set up a consistent production, processing and supply chain, get a GST [Goods and Services Tax] number, approval from FSSAI [the food safety and standards authority], prepare packaging material and negotiate other procedural hurdles,” he said.

“Once that’s done, they will find that shipping heavy packages like a 10 kg wheat flour pack does not make economic sense. Those who are able to do it either have deep pockets or bulk orders. I have no choice but to focus on items that can be sent in small packets like dalia.”

Ashok Kumar of Sohangarh Rattewala village is thinking of getting back to farming after buying farm equipment. “I had sold off all those machines because they were of no use in organic cultivation,” he said. “Will slowly procure them again and get back to the land. There is nothing else I know besides farming. But not organic this time.”

This article was first published on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.