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Risk and Reward for Organic and GM Farmers: A Tale of Two Villages

In a place where population growth is moving incredibly fast, added pressure on farmers in India in the wake of crushing debt and failed crops calls for a new agricultural approach. Genetic modification and organic farming present promising solutions. Young Explorer Andrew Flachs will investigate the effect of both growing strategies by interviewing farmers in Southern India.

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After seven villages and close to 400 randomly chosen farmers, people’s stories start to meld into a bigger picture.  As an anthropologist, this can actually be a problem for me as I have a responsibility to take each interview, each farm, each cup of tea in each thatched roof house sincerely, as if it were my first day on the job.  Local flavors emerge in each village and while research is ultimately about connecting those dots I also zero in on the specifics that make a difference in these people’s lives.

Each interview can last anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours, depending on the patience and enthusiasm of the farmers.  For my work, its a delicate balance of getting a broad sweep of the village and getting rich detail from individuals.

Each interview can last anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours, depending on the patience and enthusiasm of the farmers. For my work, its a delicate balance of getting a broad sweep of the village and getting rich detail from individuals.  Photo by Arun Kumar.

In one village, which I’ll call Matenjerapet, it’s the worst of times.  Ravaged by a disease locally called erra bommadi (red disease), farmers watched as their cotton plants turned red, stopped fruiting, and littered the field with their wilted leaves.  Pesticide sprays didn’t have an effect this year, and both shops and farmers are out of ideas.

When harvested by hand, it can take up to a month of cutting, drying, threshing, and sorting to prepare a few acres of rice.  However, handcut rice provides more fodder for cows and buffaloes, and when cut by the family it can be cost effective too.

When harvested by hand, it can take up to a month of cutting, drying, threshing, and sorting to prepare a few acres of rice. However, handcut rice provides more fodder for cows and buffaloes, and when cut by the family it can be cost effective too.  Photo by Andrew Flachs.

Even more than the other villages I work in, Matenjerapet has a problem with information – farmers have difficulty remembering which of the over 1000 approved hybrid cotton seeds they planted from year to year (some of which are actually the same plant marketed by different companies), and the nearest pesticide shops are 30 kilometers away, as much as an hour on rural roads.

Its becoming more common and thus cheaper to harvest by machine.  For about $25 an hour, farmers can rent a tractor as it tours villages, cutting the harvest time into a fraction of what it would otherwise be.  Still, the harvesters move on their own schedule - these farmers didn't know the tractor was coming today but seized the opportunity to harvest their crop.

Its becoming more common and thus cheaper to harvest by machine. For about $25 an hour, farmers can rent a tractor as it tours villages, cutting the harvest time into a fraction of what it would otherwise be. Still, the harvesters move on their own schedule – these farmers didn’t know the tractor was coming today but seized the opportunity to harvest their crop.  Photo by Andrew Flachs.

To make matters worse, unseasonal rains have hit this region just as the cotton and rice are fruiting, potentially ruining the crop.  What can you do when these problems come, I ask?  Em ledu, the farmers tell me – not a thing.

From top left to right, problems without easy solutions in Matenjerapet:  Rain and wind flatten rice, requiring time consuming and expensive hand-harvesting; Rain soaks cotton, which will rot, smell, and discolor if the sun does not emerge quickly enough to dry it.  Even then, the quality will be downgraded by the moisture and the farmer will receive about 60-75% of the price of un-soaked cotton; Erra bommadi wilts leaves as the cotton withers and dies; Erra bommadi affects the corn crop as well, shriveling the seeds.

From top left to right, problems without easy solutions in Matenjerapet: Rain and wind flatten rice, requiring time consuming and expensive hand-harvesting; Rain soaks cotton, which will rot, smell, and discolor if the sun does not emerge quickly enough to dry it. Even then, the quality will be downgraded by the moisture and the farmer will receive about 60-75% of the price of un-soaked cotton; Erra bommadi wilts leaves as the cotton withers and dies; Erra bommadi affects the corn crop as well, shriveling the seeds.  Photo by Andrew Flachs.

60 kilometers away it may not exactly be the spring of hope, but it’s certainly not the winter of despair.  A village I’ll call Daggiravi (for the sake of scientific anonymity) has declared itself to be organic and chemical free, and has adopted a series of series of low-cost methods to maintain soil health, kill bugs, and keep their agriculture flexible enough to withstand the unexpected problems endemic to farming.

A farmer demonstrates weeding in System of Rice Intensification (SRI) cultivation, a method for growing rice that uses far less water to produce more seed.  Weeding is typically done by all-female teams armed with cutlass-like knives, but in SRI men push hand weeders through the rows. It began slowly in the village, but after initial skepticism, most farmers have adopted this new technique.

A farmer demonstrates weeding in System of Rice Intensification (SRI) cultivation, a method for growing rice that uses far less water to produce more seed. Weeding is typically done by all-female teams armed with cutlass-like knives, but in SRI men push hand weeders through the rows. It began slowly in the village, but after initial skepticism, most farmers have adopted this new technique.  Photo by Andrew Flachs.

Most important in their toolbox is the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) that’s working tirelessly to keep farmers trained, supply them with access to materials, and publicize their efforts to people who are willing to pay a little extra for chemical-free food or cotton.

And publicize they do:  more than 10,000 people have visited this village of 50 households since they declared their organic intentions.  Want to buy some rice, I was asked my first day in town?  Marketing and training assistance make a big difference, and the NGO benefits alongside the farmers.

More press means more visitors, more grants, more state support, and more resources to help build the organization and attract more farmers with more programs.

A farmer nervously surveys her crop at the market where maize, rice, and cotton are being sold.  Traders sporting gold watches assess each crop for quality, size, and durability and then offer a price usually a few hundred rupees below the price set by the government that day.  Farmers are free to take their products to the government, but whereas traders will pay that day in cash, the government can take up to a month to deliver.

A farmer nervously surveys her crop at the market where maize, rice, and cotton are being sold. Traders sporting gold watches assess each crop for quality, size, and durability and then offer a price usually a few hundred rupees below the price set by the government that day. Farmers are free to take their products to the government, but whereas traders will pay that day in cash, the government can take up to a month to deliver.  Photo by Andrew Flachs.

To be sure, farming is hard for both organic and GM farmers but the organic farmers have traded a small measure of freedom in technique for an extra safety net to help with difficult problems and provide security in the face of crop failure.  Here in India, sometimes it’s not the farm, but the forces behind it that make all the difference.

Forget mowing the lawn.  On their days off from school, kids can make some extra money or help out the family by picking cotton.  Each plant can have 30-80 bolls, and its a time consuming process to pick each tuft by hand.

Forget mowing the lawn. On their days off from school, kids can make some extra money or help out the family by picking cotton. Each plant can have 30-80 bolls, and its a time consuming process to pick each tuft by hand.  Photo by Andrew Flachs.

NEXTStalking the Wild Tomato: The Ethnobotany of Genetically Modified Crops

Comments

  1. C.Hussain
    Kadapa
    November 7, 2013, 12:04 am

    Very nice.