Image: Photographs by Harsha Vadlamani for Forbes India
Fatima Begum leans over to pluck a tomato from a vegetable patch. Without washing it, she begins to chomp on it rather theatrically, as if to make a point. “You can eat this just as it is,” she says. “No pesticides.”
It is a scorching hot March day in Neredgunta, a village about 100 km north of Hyderabad. The farm that Begum plucked the tomato from is part of the largest pesticide-free agricultural experiment in India. At 30 lakh acres, this experiment, known as non-pesticidal management, reaches 12 lakh farmers in villages across Andhra Pradesh. Begum, 35, coordinates the non-pesticidal management efforts in five villages, helping farmers adopt the system and advising them on the best practices.
Begum’s enthusiasm is palpable as she reels off tiny facts about the practice of non-pesticidal management. “These are called vaavil aakulu,” she says, handing me a bunch of leaves with serrated edges that she has plucked from the roadside. They are a component of a tonic which is excellent at warding off crop pests, she points out. Occasionally, she shouts out a stern word of advice or a wisecrack to the farmers we pass by. Begum’s zeal and loquacious endorsement of the system make her something of an evangelist.
Non-pesticidal management is being promoted in Andhra Pradesh by the Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP), an organisation under the state’s department of rural development. As organic farming becomes increasingly popular in India, this Andhra experiment has gained prominence in the minds of environmentalists. For its scale alone, it is being hailed as proof that farming without pesticide is possible and viable. Perhaps the strongest evidence of non-pesticidal management’s popularity is that it was featured in June 2012 in actor Aamir Khan’s television talk show, Satyamev Jayate, as the answer to the evils of pesticide overuse in India.
Proponents of the system, whether SERP or the environmentalist groups, are hardselling it; they claim that crop yields under this system are similar to that of conventional farming. Further, because farmers do not spend anything on synthetic pesticides, their costliest agricultural input, they end up with much larger profits. With so many upsides, proponents believe, non-pesticidal management is the way to go for all of India. Given the right governmental support, they argue, it is a model that can replace conventional agriculture altogether.
Yet, the Andhra experiment is today at the heart of a bitter debate. While, on one hand, it is being hailed as a paradigm shift, on the other, it is regarded with scepticism by agricultural scientists. Even more interestingly, while the department of rural development promotes the practice across the state, Andhra’s department of agriculture rejects it.
The debate hinges on two issues. First, even though SERP claims that the system doesn’t affect crop yields, there is evidence of substantial drop in crop outputs in areas where this method is practised. It is a documented fact that organic farming, in general, suffers from this problem. This is because levels of nutrients, such as nitrogen, tend to be lower in land that is not artificially fertilised. Second, some of the methods widely used under non-pesticidal management haven’t been tested in controlled conditions yet. Whether panchagavya, a mix of the five cow-derived products (cow dung, cow urine, ghee, milk and curd), or brahmastram, a composite of neem leaves, custard apple, papaya, etc, scientists do not have enough data to state that these traditional formulations are as effective as the pesticides they seek to replace.
The yield disagreement
Figures from SERP show that non-pesticidal management has actually led to marginally higher yields in crops such as paddy, sorghum and cotton. This claim, though, is disputed. Although the farmers I met during my visit to Neredgunta and its neighbouring villages said their yields weren’t hurt after switching to non-pesticidal management, there were others who experienced a huge drop.
Manda Balarama Reddy, the head of a farmers’ association of Andhra Pradesh, is one of them. Reddy owns 6-7 acres of farm land on which he cultivates paddy, maize and vegetables. When he switched to pesticide-free farming a few years ago, his crop output dropped drastically. “If I get 10 tonnes from conventional farming, non-pesticidal management gives me only 6 tonnes,” he says.
Given such yield losses, there isn’t much incentive for farmers to switch to such alternative systems if they do not receive a premium price for their produce. According to the SERP website, though, only about 12 percent of farmers receive such premiums. Such a situation is not acceptable to ambitious farmers like Reddy. “Why would I work at a loss?” he says.
To Reddy, if non-pesticidal management is truly viable, farmers wouldn’t need prompting to adopt it. “Take the example of drip irrigation,” he says. “Nobody had to ask farmers to implement it because it was so obviously useful.”
Image: Harsha Vadlamani for Forbes India
Narahari Rama Sharma, another farmer and a great believer in organic farming, also accepts that lower yields are the bane of non-pesticidal management. Yet, for ideological reasons, he refuses to give up. It also helps that he doesn’t depend on agricultural produce as his main source of income. Instead, he owns a plant nursery that takes care of his financial needs.
The difference in yields between organic crops and conventional farming is staggering in some instances. In Guntur this year, for example, sorghum farmers broke a record by harvesting a bumper crop of 7 tonnes per hectare. On the other hand, farmers growing the same crop with natural inputs harvested only one tonne per hectare in the district of Mehboobnagar.
Like Sharma, many of the farmers using non-pesticidal management have other sources of income. GV Ranga Rao, an agricultural scientist at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, says that when he visited Ennabavi, a village in Andhra that practises completely organic farming, he found most farmers there working other jobs. “Some were working on other farms. Some had sons who had an auto or a taxi. Not even fifty percent of their livelihoods are earned from their own land,” he told Forbes India in a phone interview.
Like several agricultural scientists, Rao believes that while non-pesticidal management is a creditable effort, it cannot realistically offer an alternative to conventional agriculture. If the system is to be more widely accepted, it must improve its productivity. Most importantly, it is folly to do away with synthetic pesticides and fungicides as the last resort, because the risk is too high during pest epidemics. “With a population of 1.2 billion, we can’t sacrifice our productivity,” he says.
Are traditional formulations really working?
The second objection against non-pesticidal management is the lack of scientific validation for the traditional formulations it relies on. In local parlance, such a formulation is called a kashayam.
For instance, panchagavya, a kashayam that has its roots in ayurveda, includes, among other ingredients, cow dung. This mixture is thought to boost plant growth and kill pests. Unless the recipe of panchagavya is precise enough to ensure that it contains the same amounts of nutrients and microbes each time it is prepared, it may not work at all. However, non-pesticidal management does not specify the type of banana to be used—whether chakkarkeli, amrutapani or green banana—and the constituents of each vary, sometimes hugely. Further, while some components of panchagavya, such as cow dung, may have plant fertilising properties, other components, like ghee, may be superfluous.
Similarly, depending on where a neem tree is grown, the amount of the pesticidal compound, azadirachtin, in its seeds fluctuates greatly, says AK Chakravarthy, the head of the department of entomology at the Indian Institute of Horticultural Research. This means that the seed may fail in its pesticidal action when not used in the right quantity. Without standardisation and adequate scientific validation, it would be hard to say what works and what doesn’t.
Sure enough, non-pesticidal management does not prescribe any standardisation and, in the villages I visited, farmers said they would use the products of whatever farm animal they had access to—whether cows, buffaloes or goats. Such high variability in the ingredients of organic fertilisers and pesticides mean they may be too effective—or not at all.
Additionally, very few farmers own cattle anymore to supply the products non-pesticidal management requires. This makes it economically unviable to ask for cow products to be applied on all agricultural land across the state.
The bigger question, though, is how effective these formulations would be during pest epidemics. They may work in some cases but fail in critical situations. This is because pest-management is complex. No one intervention, whether synthetic pesticides or kashayams, can ever work across crops, regions and seasons.
On one extreme, there are pests such as the pod borer, which often infests the pigeon pea crop. No pesticide is needed to tackle the pod borer because the most effective intervention is an absurdly simple, manual one. All farmers have to do is shake the branches of the pea crop. This gets rid of 95 percent of the pod borers. On the other extreme, though, are attacks by the rapacious mealy bug or the food borer. These pests require stronger measures, especially in areas where attacks are endemic. “There is no way non-pesticidal management will control these pests,” says Rao emphatically, “Often, even synthetic pesticides cannot.”
Image: Harsha Vadlamani for Forbes India
An ideological rift
It is concerns such as these that make scientists at Acharya NG Ranga Agricultural University (ANGRAU) wary of prescribing non-pesticidal management to farmers across the board. As V Shashibhushan, the head of the department of entomology at ANGRAU, says, “Any recommendation I make goes across the entire state. So, we have to be very, very careful when we speak. You are playing with farmers’ lives here.”
The proponents of non-pesticidal management, however, see this wariness as arrogance. They believe the university’s scientists have never made an earnest attempt to test their methods, instead focusing on technologies from multinational firms, such as genetic modification.
According to DV Raidu, an official at SERP who practises non-pesticidal management on his own farm, “It is stupid to ask for scientific validation for methods that are obviously working—like asking whether a cat has been scientifically validated to kill a mouse or not.”
Last year, though, the scientists at ANGRAU finally decided to take a closer look at non-pesticidal management. They began testing the interventions at 12 research stations across the country. These scientists have been applying kashayams such as panchagavya and brahmastram to plants under full-fledged pest attacks. To them, only tests under extreme conditions can offer believable proof of the system’s effectiveness: If non-pesticidal management only works when there are a handful of pests, it won’t pass.
The results will be out later this year but early findings haven’t been encouraging. If the final results are negative, non-pesticidal management may not receive the agricultural department’s backing anytime soon. This means the vital governmental subsidies and support needed to disseminate the system will not be forthcoming either.
Proponents of non-pesticidal management, though, are unfazed by such a prognosis. GV Ramanjaneyulu, the executive director of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture and a key figure in the advancement of non-pesticidal management, believes ANGRAU’s approach to testing is all wrong. According to him, non-pesticidal management is philosophically different from conventional agriculture, and the scientists are missing the point altogether. “They are focusing on the hardware, instead of the software,” he said when I met him at the centre’s Hyderabad office. “Their emphasis is on the kashayam and not the knowledge the farmer has. If they replace a pesticide with a kashayam to test its effectiveness, the kashayam will never match the pesticide in toxicity.”
The real advantage of non-pesticidal management, says Ramanjaneyulu, is that it strengthens the ecosystem, reducing the probability of pest epidemics altogether. Kashayams and other interventions are not meant to kill pests during a full-fledged attack, but to improve soil quality and restore insect biodiversity in the normal course of farming. “These scientists are trying to relate non-pesticidal management to what they already know about pesticides. It is like comparing tea with lime juice; they are two completely different things. It’s not going to work,” he argues.
The knowledge intensive system that Ramanjaneyulu talks about sounds nothing like mainstream agriculture as it is practised today. In such a system, standardisation won’t be needed, because farmers will be able to customise their interventions based on their own experiences. If the leaves of a particular neem tree aren’t bitter enough for adequate insecticidal effect, the farmer will know to use more of the same leaves. If an ingredient of panchagavya is unnecessary, the farmer will know to replace it. The burden of innovation will not lie with agricultural scientists alone, but will be borne by the one who benefits from it directly—the farmer.
Such a system will be a far cry from today’s plug-and-play farms that rely on store-bought technologies without much thought. Each farmer will need to go through years of trial and error to find his own optimal state. And the risk will obviously be higher.
Ramanjaneyulu accepts that non-pesticidal management is work in progress. While the original goal of the experiment was to cover 1 crore acres by 2015, it is unlikely that it will be met. The real challenge is to train more resource people, like Begum, who can work with farmers and to evolve more effective organic technologies.
As Begum tells me, non-pesticidal management isn’t a cakewalk. The vaavil aakulu she showed me have to be ground painstakingly, with a number of other ingredients, to prepare a single kashayam. Fields have to be ploughed in summer, so that exposed pests are eaten by birds. Dung has to be composted over months, in specially constructed brick composting pits. Trap crops have to be sown at precise intervals and insect traps need to be monitored closely. “Mehnat to karni padti (hard work is unavoidable),” she admits.