How Kerala is making the most of organic farming revolution

How Kerala is making the most of organic farming revolution

How Kerala is making the most of organic farming revolution

When popular Malayalam actor Manju Warrier decided to return to work in 2014 after a 15-year sabbatical, she waited for a movie centred on a socio-economic and political theme. How Old Are You? , the film she finally picked espoused food safety, telling the story of poisonous chemicals in the form of pesticides and fertilisers that find their way to the fruits and vegetables we consume daily. The hugely successful film intensified a campaign that was already gaining currency in the state — organic food cultivation.

There was a time when the people of Kerala relied on homegrown vegetables, which were safe to eat. Not anymore. Growing population, urbanisation and rising wage levels necessitated imports of fruits and vegetables in large quantities from the nearby states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

Tamil Nadu soon became the major supplier of vegetables to Kerala. As it happens when people gorge, Kerala was blissfully unaware of the rising use of fertilisers and pesticides in the imported vegetables.

(In pic: Students of Rajagiri College and Sacred Heart College display a bumper harvest they reaped through organic farming on three and half acres in Ernakulam)

For states like Tamil Nadu, the huge demand from Kerala turned out to be a lucrative opportunity. It bumped up the supply of vegetables by using vast tracts of irrigated land. Low wages too helped.

Ripe Market

The supply of vegetables from Tamil Nadu with minimal checks on their chemical content would have continued unabated if not for the growing awareness about pesticides and fertiliser. People have not only taken note of their near total dependence for vegetables on other states but also the quality of the imports. A raft of studies have linked pesticides to the rising incidence of cancer and other diseases in Kerala. Oncologist VP Gangadharan says high pesticide residue levels cause cancer in two ways. One, a direct effect that leads to gastro-intestinal cancer. Two, an indirect effect that causes breast and uterus cancer in women by disrupting the hormone levels. “Every third woman coming for cancer treatment has breast cancer,” said Gangadharan.

Confronted with this terrible situation, the State Food Safety Council carried out a field study to delve into the pesticide issue.

A three-member team collected samples from various vegetable production centres in Tamil Nadu. “The picture that emerged from our studies was rather grim,” said G Gopakumar, research officer, Food Safety Council. The studies showed usage of high levels of chemical pesticides and fertilisers by farmers.

Based on a report by the council, the State Horticulture Mission took up the matter with its Tamil Nadu counterpart. Meanwhile, Kerala chief minister Oommen

Chandy called for a meeting of food safety commissioners and health secretaries of the southern states to discuss the issue. The din that followed had a positive outcome.

People who had almost given up farming began to grow vegetables in their backyard or terrace. Kerala agriculture minister KP Mohanan recently said the state is now meeting over 70% of its demand for vegetables on its own compared with just 20% a few years ago.

Subrata Biswas, state agriculture production commissioner and principal secretary of agriculture, said people from across the state have taken a deep interest in organic farming. “Work is going on in many panchayats in Kasargod and the government is likely to declare the district as fully organic this year,” he said. The share of homegrown vegetables in meeting the demand in the state will increase gradually from the current 70% because large tracts of land are getting converted for organic cultivation, according to him.

Time for Change

In recent times, government agencies, social organisations, political parties, women’s organisations and farmers’ self-help groups are all participating in what is becoming an organic farming revolution in the state. Since 2011, the State Horticulture Mission has been distributing grow bags (plastic bags containing sterile growing medium and nutrients to enable plants to grow) in south Kerala. It distributed 8.25 lakh such bags in the first year to 33,000 people and 6.89 lakh to 27,000 beneficiaries in the next year. It has since changed its focus to open cultivation.

Kudumbashree, an organisation that aims to empower women, has carried the message to every nook and corner of the state. Warrier is the goodwill ambassador of its organic food movement. Kudumbashree has pushed nearly three lakh women into organic farming. Of the 50,000 hectares that the organisation has taken up for agriculture, it has devoted 8,400 hectares for organic vegetables.

Even parties are doing their bit. The CPM plans to open 1,000 stalls devoted to vegetables grown through organic farming this Onam, Kerala’s biggest festival.

At least one company from across the border is conscious of Kerala’s concerns over polluted food produce. Lawrencedale Agro Processing, a fresh vegetable supply chain company, based in the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu, brings fresh vegetables straight from farmers to retail shops. The seven-year-old company engages more than 3,000 farmers in south India and assures them of consistent and good remuneration. Avoiding many layers of intermediaries makes this possible.

Lawrencedale said it uses laser perforation packages after hygienic washing to reduce pesticide residue. Laser perforations help prolong freshness and quality of vegetables, which are shipped in refrigerated vans, according to the company. The farm produce is washed by ozone-wash process that brings down the residue content to bare minimum, according to P Vijayaraghavan, founder and chief executive, Lawrencedale.

“We also advise the farmers in our fold to reduce dependency on pesticides by suggesting alternatives,” he said. The vegetables, marketed under the LEAF brand, cost 20% extra. The company is hoping consumers will ignore the markup due to the minimal pesticide residue, now that Kerala seems to have decided it won’t compromise on food safety.

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