IN MEHTAGAON in southern Punjab, Raj Kumar has an 11-acre plot of land, clearly divided in the middle. On one side is a dense patch of wheat, where each seed sprouts several shoots and each acre gives 12 quintals of food. He uses 1,500 kilos of chemical fertilisers on the entire patch and sprays one litre of pesticides. The wheat shines and glistens in the sun. But Kumar doesn’t eat any of it. “The sprayed patch looks great, but zahar to zahar hai (poison is poison),” he says. “Why will I eat this and push myself into sickness? This is to sell only.” On the other side of the divide lie a few acres of land where the wheat is not as dense. Here, Kumar uses the same seeds his grandfather used decades ago. He needs 50 percent less water for this patch. Each seed sprouts only one shoot, each acre gives only six quintals of wheat, and the patch looks dull and limpid. Yet, the rotis Kumar prefers to feed his family are made of wheat grown from this patch. He says it is because it is better for health and he trusts the wheat from this organic patch when it comes to feeding his children. So, why the divide? Kumar is not able to use the same natural method for his commercial crops because the yield is lower and experts say it takes at least two or three years for production to come up to the same level as chemical farming. For him, the divide is a business necessity. “The mandi rate is the same for both. I use fertilisers because I have debts to pay off,” he says. The irony is that most of his debts are because of years of buying chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Today, Kumar earns a sum of one lakh rupees every season from the 120 quintals of wheat his land produces. If the government ensured the same revenue, he says he would prefer to use the same natural method to grow all his produce. “If the initial losses from lower yields are compensated, of course we will grow without pesticides and fertilisers,” Kumar says. “Why would we need this poison then?” This poison wasn’t always present in Punjab’s soil. Indigenous seeds, bullock-carts, cowdung manure and a plethora of crops growing together — was the old mantra in India’s golden bowl for centuries. Today, that formula has changed drastically. In the race for more food and greater production, the Green Revolution in the 1960s brought with it bagfuls of chemical fertilisers (urea, DAP), pesticides, hybrid seeds and mono cultivation of wheat and rice. Most of Punjab’s 20 lakh cultivators have now adopted these technologies. Almost 90 percent of Punjab’s land is chemically treated and has allowed the state to become the country’s granary. It contributes 50 percent of the wheat in the nation’s central pool. Yet, a curious dichotomy exists. In smaller patches of land where livelihood is not linked with how much one produces, many farmerscontinue to nurture the wisdom of old practice. On a separate patch adjacent to larger fields, farmers are growing food for their home consumption using locally made manure with no mix of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, food that the urban world calls “organic”. In a village called Jeera, a few hundred kilometres from Amritsar, 60-year-old Kundan Singh continues to practise age-old traditions on a part of his land. Bent over a vegetable patch less than an acre wide, Singh is on his knees trying to catch a worm. No chemical fertilisers are used to enhance production, and no pesticide is sprayed to kill the bugs. Most of the pests are eaten by the “mitra keed”, the friendly ladybird beetle, but Singh plucks out the remaining pests and harmful weeds by hand. Once ripe, the vegetables (tomato, bottlegourd, pumpkin, chillies, onions, garlic and mint) head straight for Singh’s kitchen. “I know chemicals are not good for health and I would like my family and children to eat well,” Singh says. Across the road, Kundan’s 25-acre plot of land is not as eventful. Both friendly and enemy insects have been erased with toxic sprays and there is no visible diversity, only wheat and rice grown in rotation. Here, Kundan follows the advice of new era experts: the recommendations of the Green Revolution. These recommendations are being supported by a mega-crore industry that avails huge subsidies from the government to make chemical fertilisers and pesticides. The pesticide industry in India is the fourth largest in the world. Estimates of its total market value vary between Rs 3,800 crore and Rs 4,100 crore. Total fertiliser subsidy in 1999-2000 was estimated at Rs 13,250 crore. This means a subsidy of Rs 3,200 per tonne for imported DAP and of Rs 4,600 per tonne for indigenous DAP. As for urea, local sellers say a 50 kg bag is imported at Rs 2,300 and sold at Rs 480. THERE HAS also been a steady increase in consumption of chemical (nitrogen, phosphate and potash) fertilisers, from 5.5 million tonnes in 1980-81 to approximately 20 million tonnes in 2000. There are several reasons for this: the switch from food crops to cash crops, high yielding seed varieties that demand more fertiliser and pesticide, and more recently, the failed promise of more and more. The fields of Punjab are not as productive as they used to be and the magic of these toxic chemicals seems to be fast fading. “Punjab has reached a production saturation, a point of no return,” says Dr Sudhirendar Sharma, a soil scientist, water specialist and director of The Ecological Foundation. “The land is already becoming barren. Every year we are getting a shock in terms of productivity going down. The notion that chemicals would increase production was wrong.” Even as 85 lakh tonnes of wheat have already been procured for the central pool this season, state government figures show that total production is on the decline. Wheat production fell from 155.51 lakh metric tonnes in 2001-02 to 147.88 lakh metric tonnes in 2004-05. The overall yield per hectare of wheat decreased from 4,563 kilos in 2001 to 4,207 kilos in 2004. Rice production fell from 91.57 lakh metric tonnes in 2001-02 to 88 lakh metric tonnes in 2004-05. “The soil has a biological living system which has been reduced to an input/output mechanism over the years,” Sharma says. Years of pouring in chemicals have killed microbes that stimulate growth, making the soil inert. Much of these fertilisers have leeched into groundwater and rendered it toxic. “Virtually the total land of Punjab has turned barren because it has lost its natural nutrient pool. We seem to be close to agriculture chaos.” says Umendra Dutt, director of the Kheti Virasat Mission (KVM), a movement of 1,500 farmers trying to promote natural farming. Even after massive subsidies, according to a KVM survey, every village in Punjab is spending anywhere from Rs 40 lakh to Rs 6 crore on chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Among environmentalists, there is fear that if the government continues to promote chemical fertilisers and pesticides, the current food crisis will only get aggravated. “Eroding natural resources in this manner will impact productivity over the years,” says Kavita Kuruganti of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture. “The fertiliser and pesticide industry consists of a nexus of powerful companies and regulators, which muzzles down any debate.” She adds that natural solutions are possible withgovernment support. For example in Andhra Pradesh, 18 villages have declared themselves pesticide-free with the support of the rural development department. Among farmers, there is an increasing sense of helplessness and disappointment with the way they have been farming. One word never fails to come up when farmers talk of chemical fertilisers and pesticides — “nasha”. Farmers compare fertilisers with alcohol — the more you pour it into the soil, the more the soil wants it and theless productive it becomes. It’s a vicious cycle: more fertilisers but lesser yields, more pesticide but increased pest immunity. The majority of the farmers are aware that better alternatives exist, but they don’t have the resources to adopt them. “I know these chemicals are bad but we have no choice. The pests don’t die so I keep spraying more and more,” says Surinder Singh, a small farmer in Jeera. On the days he sprays the fields, his hands burn, his head spins and sometimes he even vomits on the fields. Singh rents a five-acre patch from a zamindar and does not have the option of growing chemicalfree food for himself separately, but he would welcome any way to do so. “When I was 16, one acre of this land would grow three quintals. Today it gives 18 quintals. But there was no illness in my village then. Now at least 20 to 30 people die every year because of pesticides,” he says. WHILE PUNJAB constitutes 2.5 percent of the country’s land, it uses 18 percent of the pesticides and 12 percent of the chemical fertilisers. According to Pesticide Action Network, around 2,00,000 people are killed worldwide every year due to pesticides. A recent Greenpeace study conducted in Punjab found 6-13 different pesticides in the blood samples of people. Yet, India continues to allow the production, marketing and use of Class I pesticides that are banned in several countries. In India, out of a total of 147 pesticides registered, the tolerance limits, health and environmental impacts of only 50 have been evaluated. Conscious of the long-term benefits of organic farming, some amongst Punjab’s farmers have made the switch. Hartej Mehta in Bathinda is one such. He practises what these organic farmers call the “farming of liberation”. He owns 11 acres. One acre yields only 8-10 quintals of wheat, but sells for double the amount. While the current rate in the mandi is Rs 1,000 per quintal, Mehta will sell it for Rs 2,000. “I started with two sprays and reached 20,” says Mehta. “I went on spraying and the resistance of the pests went on increasing. Finally I decided not to use pesticides at all.” Mehta says he is tension- free now. He has found a replacement for the “nasha” and it is called jeev amrit — 200 litres water, 10 litre desi cow-dung, 10 litre cow urine, 2 kilo jaggery, 2 kilo cereal or flour, and mud from a land never exposed to chemical fertiliser or pesticide. He also doesn’t depend on the government for a minimum price; he sets the rate along with his peers. He doesn’t depend on external certification agencies either for they charge exorbitant amounts for labelling his produce “organic”. He markets by word-ofmouth and is part of the new identity the farmer is donning — that of a businessman. “All my wheat is already booked at Rs 2,000 per quintal even before the crop has been cut,” says Mehta and reels off his list of customers — eight quintals for an engineering college professor, 10 quintals for the owner of a book centre, 25 quintals for a government official in the Punjab secretariat, 10 quintals for a friend in the Punjab State Electricity Board, five quintals for someone in the Army Cantt. The cost of production per acre of organic crop is lower, and even though the yield per acre is lower too, natural farmers say there is definitely a higher profit margin. They can sell their produce for higher because people are willing to pay more for healthy food. Ironically, even the men selling the toxics are aware of the benefits of organic. In the heart of Ferozepur’s bustling old sabzi mandi, the racks of Surinder Sharma’s shop are stacked with an array of chemical fertilisers and pesticides from urea and DAP to potash, super-phosphate and zinc-sulphate. Large plastic bags advertise hybrid and genetically modified seeds. Walking into the wooden room, one expects Sharma to tout his products with the usual claims of high yield. But he does the opposite. “Chemical fertilisers destroy soil friendly bacteria and lead to soil degradation. The Green Revolution came at a very high cost of soil health, human health and water and air pollution,” he says. Most of the products he sells were introduced in that very Green Revolution. Sharma may need them for his livelihood, but not for his meals. “I grow vegetables for my home consumption. I don’t use any chemical fertilisers at all,” Sharma says with a sense of pride. “I think every farmer should grow his own veggies without any pesticides or fertilisers.” He has a 10-acre plot of land of which three acres will be ripe with brinjal, arbi, maize, tomatoes, onions, sugarcane, okra (bhindi) and chillies. The remaining seven acres are used for chemically grown wheat that is sold to the mandis. “As farmers, we cannot compromise on yield for the sake of the nation,” he says. The state government echoes the same argument. GS Kalkat, chairman of the Punjab Farmers’ Commission, agrees that the current scenario is not positive but says “there will be a famine” if every farmer switched to organic farming. Ask him what he would prefer eating and he says food without chemical residue. Dr Ujagar Singh Walia, head of the agronomy department at Punjab Agricultural University, says the current situation is problematic but sees no need to switch gears. “We are against excessive use of fertilisers and pesticides, but how will we monitor the farmers? In Bathinda, some farmers are spraying wine on cotton. They are following a trial and error method,” he says. In spite of this, “the government is not going to promote organic farming, they will discourage it," he says. “The government needs food. We need quantity. Quality is second.” It is almost too obvious: in the “expert” world of policymakers, agriculture researchers and sellers, everyone says they would obviously choose the healthier option. And yet, they are the same people who are the first to say that it is not possible for everyone to exercise the same choice. IN 2001, the Ministry of Agriculture formed a Task Force on Organic Farming that made several key recommendations. One of them was to equate the economic value of organic manures with chemical fertilisers in terms of soil productivity, and accordingly provide financial support to the organic movement. Most of the recommendations of this task force have stayed in files, Dutt says. In 2004, however, one recommendation was accepted and the National Centre for Bio-fertilisers was converted, rather renamed, to the National Centre for Organic Farming with a budget of Rs 57 crore. Yet, no concrete policy has emerged on helping farmers make the switch from chemical farming to sustainable agriculture. Dr P. Bhattacharya, director of the Ghaziabad- based National Centre for Organic Farming, made a presentation to government officials in New Delhi’s Krishi Bhavan. His presentation clearly acknowledged that a domestic market is “yet to be developed” as “no market structure is there” and that a “change in mindset” is needed. There are around 15,000 registered organic farmers in India. In 2002, from a total food production of over 200 million tonnes, India produced only 14,000 tonnes of organic food. Most of what is produced is either exported or sold at a 20-30 percent premium in elite organic stores. The total value of organic exports from India in 2006-07 is Rs 300 crore, according to the Agriculture Production and Export Authority. Thirty-five organic products are currently exported including basmati rice, wheatflour, gram pulses, mango pulp, spices, coffee, tea, honey, cashew nut and some vegetables. For example, in Dubden Green store in Delhi, a five-kilo bag of organic wheat is priced at Rs 135. The standard price in local stores ranges from Rs 50 to Rs 75. The result is a division that should come as no surprise in a country like India: organic for the rich and toxic for the poor. Environmentalist Vandana Shiva describes the phenomenon succinctly, calling it “nutritional apartheid”. The food production debate, sadly, is about how many kilos and not about how much nutrition.