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May 09, 2010

India's farmers profit from organic boom

by Mallika Kapur

The northwest state of Punjab is popularly known as the breadbasket of India. But many local farmers say that decades of using chemicals and pesticides, encouraged by the government, has caused health problems including cancer.

It's a point of view borne out by research. A 2008 study by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that the incidence of cancer in the area was nearly double that of a similar sized town 200 kilometers away, citing "involvement in cultivation, pesticide use, alcohol consumption and smoking"

It's not clear what's causing the cancer, but the study also noted that the drinking water contained several heavy metals.

India is one of the largest producers of pesticides in the world, much of it for local consumption. But now there's a new awareness. There's a big change sweeping across the fields of rural India. Tens of thousands of farmers are giving up on chemical farming and going back to a traditional ancient way of farming which is organic.

Environmentalists estimate that India has around 300,000 organic farms. Farmers are learning different skills and adjusting their mindset, says Upendra Dutt, who organizes training sessions in organic agriculture.

Farming isn't just about chasing profits anymore.

Farmer Nirmal Singh has stopped using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides on his fields in favor of organic ones made from cow dung. "My input costs are lower. I don't have to spend money on buying chemicals," Singh says, "plus, it's healthier."

At harvest time, his yield is lower, but the selling price is higher. Organic wheat goes for three times as much money as wheat grown using chemicals.

With the growing demand both is India and abroad for organic products, it makes business sense as well.

Anuj Katyal's company exports organic basmati rice to 15 countries where customers don't mind paying a premium for the organic label.

India's organic farming sector accounts for only a sliver of the global $50 billion market for organic products but the potential is huge.

"We tell people eating an organic apple is not only good for you, it's good for the environment and will help the farmer grow another organic one," Katyal said.

CNN

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