Green signal

In Sikkim, a crop of young entrepreneurs is leading the charge for a shift to organic farming

Despite the government declaring the Himalayan state 100% organic, its farmers need help to transport, sell their produce.

Decades after farmers on India’s plains flocked to the Green Revolution, reliant on chemical fertilisers to drive agricultural growth, the northeast Himalayan state of Sikkim is trying its luck with organic farming – a pull for young, green-minded entrepreneurs who could help get the produce to market.

Last year, Sikkim was declared 100% organic by the government, while across the country, organic farming is growing rapidly.

India has the world’s highest number of organic producers at 650,000, or over a quarter of the global total, according to the Europe-based Research Institute of Organic Agriculture.

Abhinandan Dhakal, 28, who lives in Sikkim’s state capital Gangtok, has invested Rs 34 lakh over four years, as well as his time and energy in laying the foundations for an organic business growing and selling Peruvian ground apple, or yacon, a crisp, sweet-tasting tuber.

“I have always been passionate about rural livelihoods,” said Dhakal, who joined an organisation helping farmers in Tanzania after finishing his studies in environmental economics. Two years later, he returned to Sikkim with the ambition of becoming an agricultural entrepreneur.

To capitalise on Sikkim’s organic status and stand out from the field, he decided to focus on yacon, a high-value product that is often eaten raw or consumed for its health benefits in the form of syrup and powder.

He has taught other farmers in east Sikkim how to cultivate and sell the tuber.

“Ground apple grows only in hills and has a great demand in the market, especially outside India,” Dhakal said, noting its popularity in West Asia, Europe, Singapore and Australia. “It is much sought after by the food industry and health-conscious people as it has a lot of medicinal value.”

Dhakal’s Shoten Network Group has tied up with marketing firms in Bangalore and Delhi to sell yacon to retailers and pharmaceuticals companies both inside and outside India.

He plans to raise his venture’s current annual production of 10 tonnes to 200 tonnes next year, by collaborating with more farmers.

Dharni Sharma, a 33-year-old farmer from Linkey in east Sikkim, said growing Peruvian ground apple had “brought a refreshing change”. It is also productive, he said, noting that a kilo of seed yields 40-50 kg of ground apple, which sells for around Rs 45 a kilo.

Renzino Lepcha, chief operating officer of Mevedir, a Sikkim-based company that offers farmers services such as export and processing, said the shift to organic agriculture could lure back young people who had left for urban centres to find work in recent years.

“Some are returning to farming with big hopes,” he said.

They include Sonam Gyatso of Dzongu in North Sikkim, who previously worked for a state security agency. He quit his job after deciding to focus on organic farming on his four acres of land. “I think I am doing well, as I now have a livelihood which I control myself,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Cut off from markets

But not all of Sikkim’s farmers are so positive about the state’s “100% organic” label.

Some say they need more help from the state government to make the niche business profitable for them – especially to reach markets outside Sikkim where consumers are more willing to pay higher prices for organic produce.

Suraj Pradhan, a farmer of vegetables and spices in Nemche in South Sikkim, highlighted the need for cold storage and advice on improving yields using only organic fertilisers.

Sonam Lepcha in Dzongu in the North of the state, who grows oranges, ginger and cardamom, said farmers in remote rural areas had yet to reap the rewards of Sikkim going fully organic.

“We love organic farming but we don’t have a good market,” he said. “The government has been saying that organic products from remote villages will be collected by government agencies, but so far we have not seen it happening.”

Mevedir’s Lepcha said transporting produce to market is a major challenge because the tiny, landlocked state has no railway or airport.

“The risk factor is quite high as there are no proper facilities,” he said. Local farmers lack refrigeration, processing equipment and packaging materials, while access to inputs such as organic pesticides and fertilisers is another obstacle, he added.

However, last March, the government launched a $62-million, three-year programme to develop organic value chains in the country’s Northeast, including Sikkim, intended to help the region become a major supplier of organic commodities for national and international markets, Lepcha noted.

Anbalagan, executive director of the Sikkim Organic Mission who goes by one name, said efforts are underway to establish cold-storage facilities and improve connections with the rest of the country, including construction of an airport.

Health-conscious

Organic agriculture is growing rapidly in all of India’s states. The area under certified organic cultivation grew around 17-fold in the decade to 2013-2014, to 723,000 hectares.

Claude Alvares, director of the Organic Farmers’ Association of India, said the growth is higher than reflected in official records because they leave out some traditional crops grown without chemicals by small-scale farmers.

“For instance, the value of a single organic crop – jackfruit – is more than the value of the entire certified export of organic food from India,” he said.

With growing awareness about health, changing lifestyles and increased spending capacity in India, experts say the country’s organic food market has a bright future. A recent government study predicted its value would reach $1.3 billion per year by 2020.

Indian scholar and green activist Vandana Shiva, who runs a campaign to make India’s food supply healthier by regenerating soil, water and biodiversity, believes the whole country should become 100% organic.

That would enable the South Asian nation to save annual spending of $1.2 trillion on fertilisers and fuel, ward off social and ecological harm, and avoid another $1 trillion in damage to health, Shiva said.

According to environmental group Greenpeace, over-use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, fuelled by subsidies, has been a key driver of soil degradation and slowing farm productivity growth in India – a problem that has also been acknowledged by the government in recent years.

Shiva said organic farming holds the solution to climate change and water scarcity. “[It] increases climate resilience by putting more organic matter and carbon in the soil which holds more water, thus addressing drought,” she explained.

This article first appeared on Thomson Reuters Foundation News.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Do you really need to use that plastic straw?

The hazards of single-use plastic items, and what to use instead.

In June 2018, a distressed whale in Thailand made headlines around the world. After an autopsy it’s cause of death was determined to be more than 80 plastic bags it had ingested. The pictures caused great concern and brought into focus the urgency of the fight against single-use plastic. This term refers to use-and-throw plastic products that are designed for one-time use, such as takeaway spoons and forks, polythene bags styrofoam cups etc. In its report on single-use plastics, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has described how single-use plastics have a far-reaching impact in the environment.

Dense quantity of plastic litter means sights such as the distressed whale in Thailand aren’t uncommon. Plastic products have been found in the airways and stomachs of hundreds of marine and land species. Plastic bags, especially, confuse turtles who mistake them for jellyfish - their food. They can even exacerbate health crises, such as a malarial outbreak, by clogging sewers and creating ideal conditions for vector-borne diseases to thrive. In 1988, poor drainage made worse by plastic clogging contributed to the devastating Bangladesh floods in which two-thirds of the country was submerged.

Plastic litter can, moreover, cause physiological harm. Burning plastic waste for cooking fuel and in open air pits releases harmful gases in the air, contributing to poor air quality especially in poorer countries where these practices are common. But plastic needn’t even be burned to cause physiological harm. The toxic chemical additives in the manufacturing process of plastics remain in animal tissue, which is then consumed by humans. These highly toxic and carcinogenic substances (benzene, styrene etc.) can cause damage to nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.

The European Commission recently released a list of top 10 single-use plastic items that it plans to ban in the near future. These items are ubiquitous as trash across the world’s beaches, even the pristine, seemingly untouched ones. Some of them, such as styrofoam cups, take up to a 1,000 years to photodegrade (the breakdown of substances by exposure to UV and infrared rays from sunlight), disintegrating into microplastics, another health hazard.

More than 60 countries have introduced levies and bans to discourage the use of single-use plastics. Morocco and Rwanda have emerged as inspiring success stories of such policies. Rwanda, in fact, is now among the cleanest countries on Earth. In India, Maharashtra became the 18th state to effect a ban on disposable plastic items in March 2018. Now India plans to replicate the decision on a national level, aiming to eliminate single-use plastics entirely by 2022. While government efforts are important to encourage industries to redesign their production methods, individuals too can take steps to minimise their consumption, and littering, of single-use plastics. Most of these actions are low on effort, but can cause a significant reduction in plastic waste in the environment, if the return of Olive Ridley turtles to a Mumbai beach are anything to go by.

To know more about the single-use plastics problem, visit Planet or Plastic portal, National Geographic’s multi-year effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis. From microplastics in cosmetics to haunting art on plastic pollution, Planet or Plastic is a comprehensive resource on the problem. You can take the pledge to reduce your use of single-use plastics, here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic, and not by the Scroll editorial team.