Rethinking organic farmingNatural farming is not just about cultivating without the use of chemicals
The one word that seems to have struck everyone’s fancy is “organic”. As a result, many farmers are engaged in organic farming in the country where some districts like Jumla is even declared as organic districts. As consumer’s awareness towards healthy food has increased, the demand for organic food has increased too. Though organic farming seems like the right thing to do and eating organic is the healthier option, there is considerable misunderstanding and confusion behind the whole concept.
The context of ‘organic’
Organic agriculture has started getting attention worldwide as people’s awareness towards healthy, environmentally friendly and sustainable production systems have increased. As per International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), it is an integrated farming system, which embraces four principles: the principle of health, ecology, fairness and care. These basic principles envisage promoting a socially just and economically and ecologically sound production system with the use of low cost locally available inputs, resources and technologies. Organic market is rapidly growing in developed countries like the United States, Europe etc. whereas it is still a small domestic market in many developing countries.
In the context of Nepal, organic industry is still in its nascent stage. Traditionally, farming was organic by default. With the green revolution, the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides dramatically increased. This, in turn, increased agricultural production. But, the negative consequences of chemical farming soon became rampant putting the soil health and the health of plants and humans at a great risk.
After the negative consequences brought by green revolution, different farming jargons such as agro-ecological farming, permaculture, sustainable agriculture, organic agriculture gradually evolved. Most of these practices involve farming with less use of external inputs. Organic agriculture is different from other farming practices as it needs to follow organic standards to get certified as organic. Only the certified products can be called “organic”.
Nepal has a short history of certification. Especially herbal products, tea, coffee and some spices have been certified as per the international standard by the international certifying organisations. These products are eventually exported to international markets. There are a few private local organisations which provide third party certification services to the farmers for local products. However, the certification service is marginally used. Vegetables and other products are not certified yet sold as of organic in different market places and hotels. This questions the authenticity of organic products and creates confusion among people.
Conversion takes time
Conversion to organic farming is an arduous and gradual process. Normally three years period is considered as transition phase for organic products. In developed countries, products are even sold as “conversion to organic”. This is particularly to buy the risk of the farmers as yield is normally low during conversion time. Buying the risk of farmers during conversion would motivate them to do organic farming. But this system is not in practice in Nepal.
Majority of the farmers in Nepal use chemical fertilisers and pesticides randomly, without following recommended dose due to limited knowledge and access to extension services. Consequently, the soil health is deteriorating rapidly. In general, our soils have low NPK (Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphorus). Organic matter content is also quite low—around one per cent when it should have ideally been four to five per cent. Soil health can be revived gradually which takes time. It requires balanced application of both chemical and organic fertilisers. On one hand, organic fertilisers alone cannot improve fertility of poor soils in the short run. On the other hand, not enough resources are available in the country for organic fertilisers. Thus organic farming by only using organic fertilisers does not seem possible.
Organic farming requires organic inputs to control pest and disease. Currently, there are no adequate organic solutions available in the market. The available inputs are also costly and are not affordable for smallholder farmers. There is also a clear lack of investment in research and technology for generating organic solutions needed for organic farming.
Farmers perceive organic farming only as a method of farming without chemicals. In fact, it is more than not using chemicals. It requires following the organic standards established by the country. Organic production system also requires certification. The certification and proper branding ensures that the product is truly organic on the basis of which consumers can pay premium for organic produce. In case of Nepal, where majority of farmers are smallholders, they cannot bear the cost and effort required for certification. Certification is costly, time consuming and needs documentation which is an arduous task for farmers. If the products are not certified, there is no way one can guarantee the products as being organic. A lot of food products are sold as organic without proper branding and certification. This definitely won’t help gain the trust of consumers to pay premium price for such products.
Safe food production
The government seems keen to promote organic farming in Nepal. This is encouraging but it requires careful consideration and commitment. Studies have shown that consumers strongly prefer organic produces and are willing to pay more for organic if quality of the produces is assured. Nonetheless, without having availability of sufficient inputs and resources, technical knowledge and pest and disease management solutions, jumping into organic farming immediately is simply not practical.
Organic farming can be our long term vision for moving in the path of low-chemicals-no-chemicals-organic-farming. Building the adequate knowledge and skills on organic farming, soil testing, balance use of chemical and organic fertilisers, research on organic solutions for pest and disease management could be immediate steps ahead. We should not confuse farmers with different farming approaches. Beyond all the existing fancy jargons, safe food production system should be our first priority.
The way food is produced should not jeopardise the health of soil, plant, animal and human beings. Our food production system should put farmers at the centre, respecting their indigenous knowledge and acknowledging their ability to co-create new technologies and practices with researchers. External inputs should be used less and use of natural resources should be maximised without damaging them. Safe food production system will sustain our farming for generations to come.
Agricultural extension is the key to safe food production system. The formal government led extension service has been able to reach only 16 per cent of rural farmers. Increasing the access of extension services to farmers in itself is a great challenge. One can only hope that the government’s new initiative for improving extension services in federal structure system will bring meaningful changes in the ways farming is done and creates enabling ecosystem for safe food production system.
Dhungel is a programme coordinator at the Agriculture, Markets and Food security Programme at Practical Action South Asia Regional Office