Some Indians fear Green Revolution is a killer
Daniel Pepper, Chronicle Foreign Service
Monday, July 28, 2008
Jagdev Singh has too much urea, a chemical fertilizer, in… A farmer sprays insecticides on a rice paddy, without pro… Organic seeds are distributed free, so long as farmers re…
(07-28) 04:00 PDT Jajjal, —
India – Inside a hot, dun-colored courtyard, Jagdev Singh, a wheelchair-using boy of 15, jerks his body fruitlessly in search of relief. “I can’t swat the flies off of my face,” he says.
A debilitating muscular disorder prevents the teen from raising his arms more than few inches above his lap. Doctors say he suffers from too much urea in his bloodstream – a chemical fertilizer used in the wheat, rice and cotton fields that surround this village of 3,300 inhabitants in northwestern Punjab state. Three other children in nearby villages have a similar malady, residents say.
Singh’s illness is caused by environmental pollutants, according to activists, government scientists and academics.
“What are you achieving by feeding people at the cost of their health?” said G.P.I. Singh, no relation to Jagdev Singh, who heads the department of community medicine at Dayanand Medical College in the city of Ludhiana.
Punjab is where India’s Green Revolution began in 1965, leading the Indian subcontinent out of periodic cycles of famine and realizing the dream of self-sufficiency in food. The state is the nation’s biggest user of fertilizers, consuming 18 percent even though it constitutes only 1.5 percent of the area under cultivation, says Umendra Dutt, a Punjabi environmental activist.
In recent years, there has been a spike in cancer cases, lower sperm counts, earlier onsets of menstruation and an increase in still births. Channu, for example, a village of only 1,500 families, has 55 cases of cancer.
“We had never even heard of cancer before,” said Channu farmer Burbachan Singh, 75.
A recent study by Punjabi University in the city of Patiala found a high rate of DNA damage among 200 state farmers due to pesticide use. A government pollution control board study, also this year, found that drinking water contaminated by agricultural pesticides and heavy metals is a major cause of death from water-borne diseases in Punjab state.
The health problems have encouraged many critics of the Green Revolution to call for a switch to organic farming.
To be sure, neither university study conclusively linked the use of fertilizers and pesticides to disease, said Tilak Sarangal, the health secretary of Punjab in the ministry of health and family welfare.
Sarangal also points out that the Indian Council of Medical Research says cancer rates are around 58 per 100,000 in the areas worst affected areas of overuse of pesticides and fertilizers, which are lower than the national average of between 70 to 90 cases per 100,000. “Certainly we are in a danger zone as far as the toxicity and danger of fertilizers are concerned,” said Sarangal. “Whether (cancer rates) are as good as in other parts of Punjab and elsewhere in the country, is up for debate.”
But many agree that Punjab officials must enforce a ban on easily available illegal pesticides, support farmers who want to go organic and provide health care in villages hit by disease. A switch to organic farming poses a dilemma for the Indian government: fruits and grains may be healthier and environmentally sustainable, but can organic farming feed a nation of 1.1 billion?
“This is a country that can well remember mass hunger,” said Sarangal. “The Green Revolution came in … today we are quite comfortable. If we go back to organic food, how will we feed ourselves?”
Despite such sentiment, some area farmers are determined to change.
“People are fed up with chemical farming,” said Amarjit Sharma, who has farmed here for 30 years. “The earth is now addicted to the use of these chemicals.”
Sharma, who began organic farming four years ago, is the custodian of Jajjal village’s organic seed bank. He sells wheat for more than twice the price of his neighbors who still use pesticides and fertilizers, even though he only reaps a little more than half the yield. Since Sharma no longer buys costly hybrid seeds, fertilizers and pesticides that cause many area farmers to go into debt, he earns as much as his nonorganic neighbors.
Sharma uses natural pesticides such as cow manure mixed with urine, soured milk, garlic, chiles and the leaves of a native plant to ward off parasitic insects on his wheat, sugarcane, sorghum, vegetables and marigold plants.
“With chemical farming, the yield either decreases or stays stagnant over time while with organic farming the quality of the soil increases,” said Sharma. “After two or three years the yield will be equal.”
But like many other farmers, Burbachan Singh doesn’t see a future without pesticides.
“The soil is now addicted. The yield is low and it is difficult to make ends meet. We are completely dependent on the poison,” he said.
The Green Revolution, which began in 1965, transformed India’s few fertile regions into veritable breadbaskets. The output of wheat and rice skyrocketed with the advent of new irrigation techniques, hybrid seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and modern machinery.
India became a model of self-sufficiency – especially the northwestern state of Punjab – leaving behind dependence on foreign grain, food aid and mass starvation. In 1943, an estimated 4 million people died of hunger in eastern India in one of the world’s worst recorded food disasters.
But times have changed, says Prof. R.K. Mahajan, an agricultural economist at Punjabi University in the city of Patiala. He says profit margins for area farmers have decreased because of increased cost and higher demand for chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and the overuse of chemicals saps valuable nutrients and micro-organisms from the soil.
“The Green Revolution is not as green as it was earlier – it has now become brown and pale,” said Mahajan.
Other critics of Green Revolution farming like Umendra Dutt, a Punjab-based environmental activist, are supporting a return to natural, organic farming.
“The Green Revolution is input-intensive, techno-centric and resource guzzling,” said Dutt, director of Kheti Virasat, a local advocacy group. “We have lost almost all of our biodiversity.”
But the fledgling organic movement is up against government incentives for farmers to continue Green Revolution techniques and advocates of genetically modified seeds.
Fewer than 5 percent of Punjab’s farmers cultivate organic crops.
– Daniel Pepper