Recently a new initiative was launched by farmers in the Indian
state of Karnataka (population: 50 million) to convert thousands
of farms to ecologically sound methods of agriculture.
The powerful Karnataka Farmers' Association, with a membership
covering 10 million out of the state's 30 million farmers, has
formed an International Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, to
train farmers to switch from conventional chemical-based
agriculture to organic farming.
`Our aim is to start a new farming revolution in which many
thousands of farmers will give up the present environmentally
destructive type of agriculture and instead adopt alternative
methods that can raise their incomes whilst protecting the soil
and water,' said Mr M D Nanjundaswamy, president of the
When implemented, the project may become one of the most
significant attempts made in developing countries to transform
agricultural practices away from the Green Revolution method
towards chemical-free agriculture.
In India and other Asian countries, there has been a rapid
increase in the number of organic farms as more and more farmers
have suffered from ill effects and falling productivity of the
The new initiative of the Karnataka farmers' association (known
as the KRRS, its local-language acronym) will be an important
addition to this movement, due to the large numbers of farms that
the programme hopes to involve.
The Institute will be a joint project of the KRRS and the Third
World Network, an international development and environment
organisation with a secretariat in Malaysia. A ceremony attended
by 400 farmers was held in Bangalore on 30 May to launch the
`For several years now, our farmers have incurred mounting debts
from having to buy chemical fertiliser and pesticides,' said Mr
Nanjundaswamy, who will co-chair the Institute's policy
committee, at the meeting. `As a result, their net incomes have
been falling. The use of chemicals has also made the soil more
infertile, and this has caused the crop yields to decline.
`Moreover, whilst in the past we had many different varieties of
crops, those farmers practising the Green Revolution now use a
few varieties only and have become dependent on seed companies.
`We are convinced that a new type of agriculture is needed which
should be ecologically not harmful, and yet is productive enough
to ensure food security and a good income for the small farmers.
The aim of the Institute is to help the farmers move towards
Besides training programmes on sustainable agriculture, the
Institute will spread organic farming practices among farmers in
Karnataka and elsewhere in India through on-farm advice.
It will also help farmers collect traditional seeds, set up
community seed banks and promote the revitalisation of
traditional crop varieties.
`This is a critical activity because so many traditional seed
varieties were lost through the Green Revolution,' said renowned
ecologist Dr Vandana Shiva, who will co-chair the Institute's
`The project will help farmers select the most suitable
varieties, restore agricultural biodiversity and improve economic
For a start, farmers from different villages brought to the
meeting 200 varieties of traditional seeds of various crops,
including rice, millet, sorghum, and groundnut, which will form
the first of the Institute's collections.
The Institute also plans to conduct research into present farming
practices so as to better understand the environmental and social
problems caused by the Green Revolution in which farmers make use
of chemical fertiliser, high-response seeds and chemical
It will carry out studies on alternative agricultural systems
that are ecologically sound, making use of natural seed
varieties, organic fertiliser and natural pest control methods.
`We hope to show that ecological farming methods are superior not
only environmentally but also in terms of yield and better income
returns for farmers,' said Dr Vandana, who is the director of the
Delhi-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology and
Natural Resource Policy.
Baba Goweda Patel is one farmer who does not need convincing. He
is the deputy president of the KRRS and as the other co-chair of
the Institute's programme activities he will be responsible for
disseminating the new technology to Karnataka's farmers.
Mr Baba is himself a recent convert to organic farming. In 1991,
using the conventional chemicalised system, he grew 15 acres of
sorghum. For each acre, he applied two bags of fertiliser and
some pesticide which together would have cost him Rs1,400 (US$47)
at present prices. His average output was five quintiles of
sorghum per acre that year.
In 1992, Mr Baba stopped using chemicals altogether and went
organic. He could still get five quintiles per acre, but since he
saved on not using fertiliser or pesticide, his net income
By 1994, the third year after his switch, Mr Baba's farm was
thriving. It produced on average nine quintiles an acre. At the
current price of Rs900 a quintile of sorghum, his income was
Rs8,100 (US$270) per acre.
Mr Baba reckons that if he had remained on the chemical-based
system, each acre of his land would have produced only five
quintiles of sorghum. After deducting the cost of inputs, he
would have received only Rs3,100 (US$103) per acre.
Three years after conversion to organic agriculture, Mr Baba's
farm was showing increases of 80% in productivity and 170% in net
`The other farmers in my village were sceptical when I first made
the change,' said Mr Baba. `But when they saw the success of the
experiment, they too gave up chemicals, and now we have 500
farmers that are practising organic agriculture, at least on part
of their land.'
The Institute's training centre will be based on Mr Baba's
farmland. `I want the farmers from the different regions of
Karnataka to learn from our experience,' he said. `It is possible
to make the change to natural farming, succeed, and benefit from
`I hope through this project, many thousands of farmers will also
be convinced, and we can build up a big movement for sustainable
Mr Baba and his farmers will surely face many problems in their
task of transforming the presently unecological practices of
thousands of Karnataka's farms. But if they succeed, their
project will set an inspiring example to other farmers and have
tremendous implications for future agricultural policy in India
and beyond. - Third World Network Features
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About the writer: Martin Khor is director of the Third World
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