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Kerala's tryst with organic farming amidst fear of falling into Sri Lanka-type trap

By Ajil Mankunnummal* 

The beginning of modern agriculture practices in India was through Green Revolution in the 1960s. HYV seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides have played a major role in ensuring productivity in food and non-food agriculture products and food security. However, such agricultural practices have negatively impacted the sustainability of agriculture through the high cost of cultivation and declining soil fertility.
The Central Government is pushing for natural or organic farming in India. This could be seen from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's speeches on 16th December 2021 at National Conclave on Natural Farming to "liberate the country's soil from chemical fertilizers and pesticides" and on 1st January 2022 at a PM-KISAN programme urged the farmers to "switch to the chemical-free method of cultivation".
Last year, on 28th May, in the IFFCO seminar, the Prime Minister again pushed for organic farming by saying that 'it is the new mantra' and would reduce the dependence on other countries for fertilizer products. The Prime minister had also advocated for organic farming mentioning it as' our duty' in his 2022 Independence Day speech. The Economic Survey 2021-22 (GoI, 2022) also specifies the importance of finding alternative fertilizers and reducing the use of chemical fertilizers in agriculture.
Culminating all these, the Government proposed a new programme in the latest budget, 2023-24 (GoI, 2023), which is PM-PRANAM (PM Programme for Restoration, Awareness, Nourishment and Amelioration of Mother Earth) to promote alternative fertilizers in all the states and union territories and incentivize them in the balanced use of chemical fertilizers, which is possible through reducing the consumption of Urea, the most used nitrogenous fertilizer in India.
Besides these, the Government is also trying to facilitate the farmers to adopt natural farming through Bhartiya Prakritik Kheti Bio-Input Resource Centres. The alternative that the Union Government is now pushing was already implemented by Kerala way back in 2010.

Promotion of organic farming in Kerala

The need for organic farming in Kerala initially came in 2007. Later, after five years, Kerala formed an 'Organic Farming Policy' in 2012 by Kerala State Bio-Diversity Board with the vision of 'Make Kerala's farming sustainable, rewarding, and competitive, ensuring poison-free water, soil and food to every citizen'.
The policy has 24 strategies. As per the Organic Farming plan of 2010-11, Kerala started organic farming on 900 hectares in 20 selected blocks of 14 districts. Later in 2011-12, it expanded to 3500 hectares. Based on the plan, the Government declared Kasargod district as an 'Organic District' in 2012.
Though the Government had planned to make Kerala a completely organic state by 2016, somehow, the state couldn't do it. However, as part of promoting the organic clusters, Kerala could bring 200 good agriculture practices in 5000 hectares in 2019-20 (Economic Review, 2021).
Later with the help of Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (PKVY) and Bharatiy Prakrutik Krishi Paddhati, 12380 hectares and 84000 hectares, respectively, were brought under in Kerala (Economic Survey, 2022). Currently, organic farming is promoted through the Vegetable and Fruit Promotion Council Kerala (VFPCK) and State Horticulture Mission (SHM).

Consumption of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and agriculture productivity

The Government is promoting Integrating Nutrient Management through soil testing, giving importance to organic fertilizers. One of the 24 strategies adopted in the organic farming policy in 2012 is eventually reducing the consumption of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in Kerala without compromising agricultural productivity.
The Government recommends chemical fertilizers at a prescribed amount by the Agriculture University in its Package of Practices. Figure 1 shows the per-hectare consumption of chemical fertilizers in Kerala from 1998-99 to 2020-21.
The graph indicates that the per hectare consumption of chemical fertilizers (N+P+K) has declined since 2012, though there had a continuous hike from 2005 to 2012. By 2021, the consumption has been reduced to 39.62 kg/hectare. On the other hand, compared to 2017-18, pesticide use declined in 2019-20 (Department of Agriculture Development and Farmers' Welfare, 2020).
However, given that Kerala's total cropped area is continuously declining after 2005-06 (Agriculture Statistics, GoI), improving the productivity of agriculture draws particular importance. A prime criticism against organic farming is that it reduces productivity. 
The best example is Sri Lanka, which completely banned the import of chemical fertilizers and pesticides on 6th May, 2021 through its 'vistas of prosperity and splendour' policy in 2019 and moved to organic farming on a fine morning without educating the farmers. Such a move had resulted in a decline in agriculture production and an uncontrollable price hike.
Later, after six months, with protests from the farmers, Sri Lanka had to withdraw the decision and imported chemical fertilizers and pesticides in November, 2021. Under this circumstance, it is essential to check whether the reduced consumption of fertilizers and fertilizers impacted Kerala's agricultural productivity.
Table 1 shows the productivity of major agricultural products in Kerala from 2000 to 2020. Productivity is measured based on the yield that Kerala is getting from one hectare of agricultural land. Though the cropped area in Kerala is less compared to other Indian states, compared to 2000-01 and 2010-11, all major crops' productivity had improved in 2020.
Among cereals, rice's productivity had improved from 2162.01 kg/hectare in 2000-01 to 3055.65 kg/hectare in 2019-20. Fruits and vegetables from horticulture, coconut, areca nut, and cashew from commercial crops also had benefits over the years in terms of productivity.

What next in organic farming?

Over the years, declining cropped areas and high dependence on other states for agriculture products have been a major debate in Kerala. Kerala has to move strategically in bringing more organic land in future. Local bodies, Kudumbashree and cooperative societies could contribute more to bringing organic farming to ward levels.
Collaboration with agriculture institutes, professionals and farmers would also be relevant in promoting organic farming to another level. Introducing specific markets for organic products would enable the farmers to find markets for their products. Moreover, household targeted plans would help make Kerala at least self-sufficient in agricultural products and make organic farming much more popular in Kerala.
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*PhD Scholar, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. Data sources: 'Agriculture Statistics', Government of India; 'Economic Review', Government of Kerala; and 'Economic Survey,' Government of India. A version of this article was earlier published in Malayalam in ala.keralascholars.org

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