By Athar Parvaiz
GANGTOK, India, Feb 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Decades after farmers on India's plains flocked to the "Green Revolution", reliant on chemical fertilisers to drive agricultural growth, the northeast Himalayan state of Sikkim is trying its luck with organic farming – a pull for young, green-minded entrepreneurs who could help get the produce to market.
Last year Sikkim was declared 100 percent organic by the Indian government, while across the country, organic farming is growing rapidly.
India has the world's highest number of organic producers at 650,000, or over a quarter of the global total, according to the Europe-based Research Institute of Organic Agriculture.
Abhinandan Dhakal, 28, who lives in Sikkim's state capital Gangtok, has invested INR 3.4 million ($50,959) over four years, as well as his time and energy in laying the foundations for an organic business growing and selling Peruvian ground apple, or yacon, a crisp, sweet-tasting tuber.
"I have always been passionate about rural livelihoods," said Dhakal, who joined an organisation helping farmers in Tanzania after finishing his studies in environmental economics. Two years later, he returned to Sikkim with the ambition of becoming an agricultural entrepreneur.
To capitalise on Sikkim's organic status and stand out from the field, he decided to focus on yacon, a high-value product that is often eaten raw or consumed for its health benefits in the form of syrup and powder.
He has taught other farmers in east Sikkim how to cultivate and sell the tuber.
"Ground apple grows only in hills and has a great demand in the market, especially outside India," Dhakal said, noting its popularity in the Middle East, Europe, Singapore and Australia.
"It is much sought after by the food industry and health-conscious people as it has a lot of medicinal value," he added.
Dhakal's Shoten Network Group has tied up with marketing firms in Bangalore and Delhi to sell yacon to retailers and pharmaceuticals companies both inside and outside India.
He plans to raise his venture's current annual production of 10 tonnes to 200 tonnes next year, by collaborating with more farmers.
Dharni Sharma, a 33-year-old farmer from Linkey in east Sikkim, said growing Peruvian ground apple had "brought a refreshing change". It is also productive, he said, noting that 1 kg of seed yields 40-50 kg of ground apple, which sells for around INR 45 per kilo.
Renzino Lepcha, chief operating officer of Mevedir, a Sikkim-based company that offers farmers services such as export and processing, said the shift to organic agriculture could lure back young people who had left for urban centres to find work in recent years.
"Some are returning to farming with big hopes," he said.
They include Sonam Gyatso of Dzongu in north Sikkim, who previously worked for a state security agency. He quit his job after deciding to focus on organic farming on his four acres of land. "I think I am doing well, as I now have a livelihood which I control myself," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
CUT OFF FROM MARKETS
But not all of Sikkim's farmers are so positive about the state's "100 percent organic" label.
Some say they need more help from the state government to make the niche business profitable for them – especially to reach markets outside Sikkim where consumers are more willing to pay higher prices for organic produce.
Suraj Pradhan, a farmer of vegetables and spices in Nemche in south Sikkim, highlighted the need for cold storage and advice on improving yields using only organic fertilisers.
Sonam Lepcha in Dzongu in the north of the state, who grows oranges, ginger and cardamom, said farmers in remote rural areas had yet to reap the rewards of Sikkim going fully organic.
"We love organic farming but we don't have a good market," he said. "The government has been saying that organic products from remote villages will be collected by government agencies, but so far we have not seen it happening."
Mevedir's Lepcha said transporting produce to market is a major challenge because the tiny, landlocked state has no railway or airport.
"The risk factor is quite high as there are no proper facilities," he said. Local farmers lack refrigeration, processing equipment and packaging materials, while access to inputs such as organic pesticides and fertilisers is another obstacle, he added.
However, last March the government launched a $62-million, three-year programme to develop organic value chains in the country's northeast, including Sikkim, intended to help the region become a major supplier of organic commodities for national and international markets, Lepcha noted.
Anbalagan, executive director of the Sikkim Organic Mission who goes by one name, said efforts are underway to establish cold-storage facilities and improve connections with the rest of the country, including construction of an airport.
Organic agriculture is growing rapidly in all of India's states. The area under certified organic cultivation grew around 17-fold in the decade to 2013-2014, to 723,000 hectares (1.79 million acres).
Claude Alvares, director of the Organic Farmers' Association of India, said the growth is higher than reflected in official records because they leave out some traditional crops grown without chemicals by small-scale farmers.
"For instance, the value of a single organic crop - jackfruit - is more than the value of the entire certified export of organic food from India," he said.
With growing awareness about health, changing lifestyles and increased spending capacity in India, experts say the country's organic food market has a bright future. A recent government study predicted its value would reach $1.36 billion per year by 2020.
Indian scholar and green activist Vandana Shiva, who runs a campaign to make India's food supply healthier by regenerating soil, water and biodiversity, believes the whole country should become 100 percent organic.
That would enable the South Asian nation to save annual spending of $1.2 trillion on fertilisers and fuel, ward off social and ecological harm, and avoid another $1 trillion in damage to health, Shiva said.
According to environmental group Greenpeace, over-use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, fuelled by subsidies, has been a key driver of soil degradation and slowing farm productivity growth in India – a problem that has also been acknowledged by the government in recent years.
Shiva said organic farming holds the solution to climate change and water scarcity.
"(It) increases climate resilience by putting more organic matter and carbon in the soil which holds more water, thus addressing drought," she explained.
($1 = 66.7200 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by Athar Parvaiz; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
The Thomson Reuters Foundation is reporting on resilience as part of its work on zilient.org, an online platform building a global network of people interested in resilience, in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation.