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Business News/ Opinion / Online-views/  Is the organic mantra for real?

Is the organic mantra for real?

With India's population set to grow in the coming decades, it will be foolhardy to go gung-ho on organic agriculture

Organic agriculture is a method of farming in which no chemical inputs are used as far as possible. Photo: BloombergPremium
Organic agriculture is a method of farming in which no chemical inputs are used as far as possible. Photo: Bloomberg

If late, organic agriculture seems to have caught the fancy of Indian politicians, thanks to the incessant campaign by organikers. Organic agriculture is a method of farming in which no chemical inputs are used as far as possible and with some exception to suit the convenience of the cultivators.

It occupies no more than 3-4% of total global agriculture and is being promoted as a panacea for all the ills of modern agriculture. It is not. To believe that organic produce is healthier, more nutritious and environmentally benign is a false prophecy.

There is some evidence that organic soils can be more healthy and fertile. An objective and scientific analysis of organic agriculture is highly warranted before the country rushes headlong into it and makes a costly blunder.

Nine states have announced their own organic agriculture policies, and Uttarakhand, Nagaland, Sikkim and Mizoram have announced their intention to go 100% organic soon.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his maiden speech in Parliament, had extolled organic agriculture and hoped other states will follow the Mizoram model. Many Bharatiya Janata Party chief ministers have been promoting organic agriculture with budgetary allocations.

In the long run, there is a real danger of agriculture being derailed. This might even threaten food security in the short run. There have been many recent reports of troubles brewing in the organic agriculture sector. The National Project on Organic Farming has a budget of 57 crore. It has been a pilot project since 2004, and the jury is still out.

India’s organic production has declined from 3.8 million tonnes in 2011 to 1.24 million tonnes in 2014. It only caters to a niche market where consumers are willing to pay 30-40% more for the produce.

In India there is really no guarantee that the organic trade, like any other, is not rife with false and misleading labelling when almost 90% of it has been grown with chemicals. Market surveys have shown most organic produce in India are routinely cultivated with almost 30-40% chemicals being used, but never disclosed.

A recent study by the state-funded Indian Agricultural Research Institute found that 33% of organic products sold in Delhi showed chemical residues and significantly less in conventional produce. Another report by the Crop Care Federation of India, a lobby group of fertilizer and farm inputs makers, shows the government’s subsidy to so-called organic farms lost a whopping 25,000 crore due to false claims.

Some organic cotton farmers in Maharashtra grow Bt cotton, a genetically modified variety, and even export it. Cotton lint is 100% cellulose and does not contain either protein or nucleic acids, evading detection.

There are instances of organic produce having caused severe ailments and even deaths from around the world. In 2011, there was an outbreak of E. Coli O104:H4 from organically-grown lettuce and fenugreek sprouts; 53 people died in a month in Germany. The organic farm was shut down. The infection leads to bloody stools and kidney failure.

In the US, there are regular reports of salmonella outbreaks from organic farms and factories. According to World Health Organization, in the last few years, up to 10 people have died from the pathogenic E.coli outbreaks from organic sources in Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Greece, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

The source of bacterial contamination in organic produce is the untreated animal manure. In the case of free-range chickens, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 8% more salmonella infestation than caged birds.

Fungal-infested organic produce are also known to produce fungal toxins that cause grave illnesses in people. Surprisingly, there is almost no incidence of fumonisin and aflatoxin in Bt corn that is forbidden in organic cultivation.

Natural food and organic food enthusiasts are campaigning heavily around the world to drink unpasteurized milk, which would bring back miserable bacterial diseases. Authorities are cracking down heavily on this practice in many states in the US. India would do well to avoid this catastrophe.

There is no scientific evidence to show organic food is more nutritious and healthier than non-organic food as is claimed by the organic industry. In 2012, Dena Bravata and Crystal Smith-Spangler of Stanford University published a meta-analysis of more than 17 studies (six of which were randomized clinical trials) of populations consuming organic and conventional diets, and 223 studies that compared either the nutrient levels or the bacterial, fungal or pesticide contamination of various products (fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, milk, poultry and eggs) grown organically and conventionally.

They found no evidence of any nutritional advantage of consuming organic produce that usually cost about 30% more than the conventional ones. This latest study is basically in support of many other scientific studies of the past on organic products. There is hardly any such study from India on organic produce.

A couple of curiously interesting researches in the field of social behaviour on organic consumers’ behaviour by Kendall Eskine in Social Psychological and Personality Science (2012), and by Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong in Psychological Science (2010) shows that organic and natural food buyers behave less altruistically than those buying conventional products. They also demonstrate the tendency to judge others who show moral transgression harshly.

A joint study by the McGill University and the University of Minnesota in 2012 of 66 independent studies involving 34 different crops found that organic yields are considerably lower than conventional yields. Especially in the case of field crops, the yield was down by over 25% for want of nitrogen, a key soil nutrient.

With India’s population set to grow in the coming decades, it will be foolhardy to go gung-ho on organic agriculture. Indian agriculture needs to become globally competitive by utilizing the best possible science and technology, and not fall for any romantic illusions of natural and organic. They can co-exist to meet the demands of the niche market and not replace the conventional ones.

Shanthu Shantharam teaches plant biotechnology and biotechnology innovation management at Iowa State University and was formerly executive director of the agricultural group of India’s Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises.

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Published: 08 Apr 2015, 12:29 AM IST
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