A visit to India

Andrew Baker

28 May 2010

This article is largely based upon a report written by Andrew Baker to HRH The Prince of Wales in February 2009, following Andrew's first trip to meet a small group of Indian farmers in the Punjab, all of whom had decided to convert to organic production under the helpful guidance of the Bhumi Vardaan Foundation. HRH The Prince of Wales set up the Bhumi Vardaan Foundation in 2006, following a visit to India during which he had been horrified to learn of the high number of suicides among the farming community. The farmers visited by Andrew Baker in 2009 are among the first to benefit from the Foundation's conversion programme, designed to help them rediscover a more natural, and altogether more rewarding form of agriculture.

My trip to the Punjab was an education. On this journey, I was joined by Rajiv Wahi, chairman of the Bhumi Vardaan trustees, and by Navendra Katoch, our resident chief operating officer. We spent four days together and I am particularly grateful to Rajiv Wahi for giving so generously of his time, ideas and passion. We visited more than 20 farms over two long days, meeting around 40 farmers and engaging with them in discussions about subjects close to their hearts: money, health, water, soil, chemicals, debt, self-esteem and suicide. We met with people from the Nabha Foundation and discussed their own approach to organic conversion, visiting their premises and demonstration farm, and talking with their chosen conversion partner (a non-governmental organisation called Kaithi Viraasat). Our own conversion management partner is called Dharani Suphalam and is run by a bright and enthusiastic young man named Sunil Gupta – also an organic farmer. Sunil accompanied us on the farm visits where we were often joined by members of his team of six, dedicated to the Bhumi Vardaan project (trainers, auditors and technicians).

In Chandigarh, we received a presentation on biodynamics from Jaspal Singh, a disciple of Peter Proctor. In Delhi, we met with the British High Commissioner, Sir Richard Stag, and with the Indian secretary of agriculture, Mr Nand Kumar. We held meetings with APEDA (the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority) and received a comprehensive presentation on organic farming in India from Global Agri, a consultancy firm set up and managed by the former chairman of APEDA. Finally, at a reception held for our benefit at the Delhi Gymkhana Club, we met the directors of India’s biggest organic rice merchant.

At the micro level, on individual farms in the southern Punhab, there is a growing will to change, but an overriding need to do so without financial penalties. We believe that we now have a plan that could make change possible. At the macro – federal – level, the challenge is both easy to see and almost impossible to contemplate, the solution simple yet enormously complex, requiring fundamental changes to subsidies and to the bureaucracy that administers them. There is also a fear that abandoning (or even revising) a formula that has proved successful may return India to the days of food scarcity.
As one of the more prosperous Indian States, the Punjab has long been considered the granary of India. Over 95% of its land area is irrigated by water that has been free and unrestricted to farmers since 1996 (electricity is free and unrestricted, too). The irrigation systems facilitate an annual rice crop, as well as an annual wheat crop, on most farms. Almost 100% of the rice and wheat produced is bought by the Food Corporation of India (FCI) at the Minimum Support Price (MSP). Although many other cereals, fruits and vegetables are grown, the Punjab is primarily a producer of wheat and rice – and the government guarantees to buy virtually all of it.

The government of India is obsessed with self-sufficiency in grains. In 2008, a 7% shortfall led to India becoming the largest purchaser of cereals on the world market – a fact that drove cereal prices up to record levels, depleting Indian coffers and increasing the government’s commitment to subsidise volume production at home. To this end, £5 billion was spent subsidising the price of chemical fertilisers in 2008, pushing their use to dizzying heights and necessitating massive imports of ammonium nitrate and other chemicals from abroad. This year, huge stock piles of wheat are visible throughout the parts of the southern Punjab that we visited, but such surpluses are actually bad news: 20% of all wheat stored in this way is lost through spoiling, pilferage or vermin.
Back on the farm, the shadows of a looming and massive catastrophe are visible everywhere. Fifty years ago, farmers practised crop rotation, used naturally occurring inputs and grazed their cattle on the land. Mixed farms were the norm and rice was a crop grown elsewhere, in south India.

Today, not one single farmer remembers how to farm in the old way. The soil is so fatigued by the constant demands of wheat and rice that the amounts of urea and nitrates spread by farmers have increased ten-fold in the last 10 years alone. Some 40% of all chemical fertilisers used in India are consumed in the Punjab (by 3% of the Indian population). At doses of up to 200kg/acre, the terrible effects on the health of the soil and of the farmer are now visible everywhere. White alkaline deposits leach from a soil that is ever more difficult to till; farmers complain of joint pain and skin diseases; cancer rates are rising fast and all of the rivers; and natural waterways in the region are polluted way beyond any kind of safety level. Pesticide use has increased enormously, too, but to no effect. As doses increase, so pests develop resistances that render the expensive sprays useless.

So demanding of water are the crops and chemicals that the water table is dropping by around 10 feet per annum. Bore holes descend hundreds of feet in areas where fresh, clean water lay less than six feet below ground only 30 years ago. As the former chairman of APEDA said to us, a major catastrophe can only be a matter of “five years away”. By catastrophe, he means the total failure of the grain harvest in the Punjab. Many others in positions of power and influence are aware of what is coming too: most choose not to look, or to act, for to do so would be political suicide.

For the farmer, on his few acres of polluted and dying soil, there is only one logical course of action to follow: give up the chemical ‘drug’ and embrace ‘natural’ and traditional methods of agriculture. All of the farmers that we met know and accept this, but all of them need help to do so: guidance, training, seeds and a market. This is the reason for Bhumi Vardaan. This is where we will concentrate our efforts and resources.

The farms that we visited vary in size between 3 and 15 acres. On each of these farms, at least one acre of land is in conversion or being farmed organically. All of the farms visited grow wheat as part of a six monthly rotation with rice (rice is the summer crop, wheat is the winter crop).

All farms also grow fodder, probably on about 15% of the surface. Apart from the occasional small vegetable garden for personal consumption, no other crops were being grown. A few cows are kept for milk, but all are tethered. Fodder is brought to them: none have room to graze in fields.
Our new plan, therefore, will focus on helping these farmers build on their collective will to farm in a cleaner, more natural and sustainable manner. We will give them the appropriate training and on-farm support, as well as practical help in overcoming lower yields during conversion and the current lack of a premium market for their products.

We are very fortunate in having found Dharani Suphalam to be our partner in this project. Dharani was founded seven years ago by Sunil Gupta and now employs 20 people in the Punjab and in Haryana. Their approach is one of practical support to farmers, encouraging self-sufficiency through on-farm preparations of organic inputs (fertilisers and pest repellents). Dharani has evolved a methodology based on a number of farming systems, including biodynamic, homeopathic, herbal and panchgavya (cow-pathy). Their methods are not only organic, but are also vegetarian. The only animal based products used are cow urine, cow dung and buttermilk. The production of vermicompost is encouraged and all farm waste is recycled for use as organic farming inputs, including the production of bio-gas on several farms. Farmers are taught in a pragmatic, hands-on way, with most of Dharani’s staff being themselves organic farmers. On our visit, we were all impressed by the record keeping and data compilation, along with the maintenance of good organic agricultural practices. This internal control system (ICS) will, in time, ensure a smooth certification of the relevant farm by the government agency.

Organic farming will undoubtedly improve the health of the soil and the people who farm it. However, we must also address the underlying problems of farmer indebtedness, their increasing reliance upon subsidies – for chemical inputs – and the government’s incentivising of volume production over quality. Most farmers are constantly in debt. The two main reasons for this are a mistrust of the formal banking system and a cultural desire for ‘one-up-man-ship’, particularly with regard to fellow farmers. When in need of capital to purchase seeds or farm equipment, the farmer usually goes to a money lender, often a wholesaler with whom he does business in purchasing seeds and fertilisers. Typically, the money lender will charge 18% interest on loans, (the bank rate is between 7–8%). The pride and ‘one-up-man-ship’ of the farmers often push them to make inappropriate purchases, such as a tractor, or to borrow money in order to stage the most impressive wedding ceremony in the village. When financial difficulties lead to repossession of assets or worse, the loss of face drives many farmers to commit suicide.

One of the compounding factors to farmer indebtedness is the use of hybrid or genetically modified seeds. As these do not usually produce healthy seeds for re-sowing, the farmer is obliged, every year, to purchase new seeds, usually from the same money-lending wholesaler to whom he is already in debt. Our solution will be to re-introduce heritage varieties of wheat and rice and to provide these to our farmers free of charge, by way of a form of micro-credit: literally, a seed fund.

Around 40kg of seed are required to sow one acre of wheat and each kilo costs the farmer 25 rupees. Therefore, each acre costs 1,000 rupees in seed. We hope to encourage farmers to sow up to 10 acres of organic wheat, for which we will provide the appropriate seeds free of charge. Then, we expect the farmers to keep enough seeds from their harvest to re-sow their 10 acres and to re-pay us a proportion of our original seed loan (say 15–20% per annum). We, in turn, will use the seed returned from the farmers to help more farmers to convert. Because this key outlay will have been removed from the farmers expenditure, and because our proposed farming system does not require the purchase of chemical fertiliser or pesticides, we believe that we can quickly eliminate a large part of farmer indebtedness – provided, of course, that we can also help them curb their natural instincts to buy shiny new tractors for a mere 3 or 4 acres of farm! As far as a market for organic produce is concerned, we have sketched out the first iteration of a plan. Wheat and rice are the two crops of pressing importance, simply because so much of the land is being destroyed by their production. We will get to fruits, vegetables and herbs in due course: for now, we must prioritise staple grains.

For the first two years of conversion, at least, yields fall by as much as 20%. Without certification, the crop can not be sold as organic, although it is definitely ‘cleaner’, with markedly reduced levels of chemical residues. At present, almost all of the wheat and rice produced under the Bhumi Vardaan initiative is consumed by the people who grow it, but this will soon have to change. We must prove the project’s commercial viability and create a market.
The MSP for ‘standard’ wheat is 12 rupees per kg. At this price, only chemically-induced high yields give an attractive return on the farmer’s few acres. The price for organic wheat is around 25 rupees per kg, but demand is very low and the market unstructured and small. Somewhere in between is a price for so-called ‘premium’ wheat, at around 17 rupees per kg.

We know that many Indians are concerned about the quality of the flour that they buy on a daily basis, hence the market for ‘premium’. Our intention is to return to the first principles of Duchy Originals and to seek out a miller and flour wholesaler with whom to work. By positioning our ‘in conversion’ wheat as premium, which it clearly would be, we hope to supply the consumer demand for premium flour with a branded product that also does good for the community: is good, does good, tastes good. We would do a similar thing for rice, hence our meeting with the organic rice merchant in Delhi. In this way, we hope to cut out the need for middle men and to create a real and growing market for the grains produced on the farms that we support.

In time, as our farms become fully certified as organic, we will develop this market in a similar way, using strong local partners who understand demand and who know how to supply it: commercial people, rather than government grain buyers and corrupt middle men.

This, then, is the outline of our plan. Over the next few weeks, with the help and input of Sunil Gupta and Navendra Katoch, we will dimensionalise the way in which we roll out to more and more farmers. We will identify the best varieties of wheat and rice to grow and develop commercial partnerships with millers and merchants who also have access to appropriate routes to market.

It is a new beginning for Bhumi Vardaan, but not a beginning from scratch. Much has already been set up and actioned on the farms by our partners – Dharani, Nabha Foundation, Global Agri and OneCert – and we are all on the same – and correct – track. We now have a clear roadmap and a shared vision: Bhumi Vardaan is finally ready to achieve its mission and to become a true catalyst for change in India.

Andrew Baker has worked in the food industry for almost 30 years, holding senior executive positions with both Cadbury and Premier Foods. More recently, he was chief executive officer of Duchy Originals Limited, an organic food company established by HRH The Prince of Wales. He holds a number of non-executive directorships within the food industry and is an advisor to HRH The Prince of Wales on food and sustainability issues. 

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