The Food and Agriculture Organization has declared 2014 the
Year of Family Farming with the aim of highlighting the important role family and small farms
play in feeding the world. To do our part, throughout 2014 we are featuring
some of our favorite images and words from Iowa books on family farms. Here’s
Harvest is well under way in Iowa now. Although this
photograph comes from about 1940, canning is enjoying a resurgence along with
people’s growing interest in eating local.
India's Organic Farming Revolution, by Sapna E. Thottathil, rethinks the politics of organic food by focusing on what it means for the people who grow and sell it—what it means for their health, the health of their environment, and also their economic and political well-being. Taking readers to the state of Kerala in southern India, she shows us a place where the so-called "Green Revolution" program of hybrid seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and rising pesticide use had failed to reduce hunger while it caused a cascade of economic, medical, and environmental problems.
In the south of India is a land of coconuts—Kerala, as it is called in Malayalam, the local language. Several sizes and varieties of coconut trees fill every possible corner, swaying behind train stations in groves and along city streets, lining the sides of every canal and waterway, and ranging from the Malabar Coast to high into the foggy mountain ranges of the Western Ghats. When you look down from rooftops or out of the window of an airplane, everything is green—a verdant landscape extending to the horizon.
Kerala has enchanted travelers for centuries with its natural resources and geography. Marco Polo sought its spices, and colonial empires fought for control of its teak forests and medicinal plants. Today, the southwestern state is the "torchbearer" of the Government of India's Incredible India, a marketing campaign designed by the Indian Ministry of Tourism. Images of Kerala's greenery, from its rolling hills of spice gardens to its coasts lined with coconut palms, dominate promotional posters and videos for India.
"Don't be fooled," warned Sugathakumari, an environmental activist born and raised in Kerala. "You can't even drink our coconut water without getting sick." She did not see a mythical landscape of spices and coconut palms. Instead, when she looked at the state's landscape, she saw crops of pineapples, rubber, and other cash crops, all regularly sprayed with the pesticides furadan and endosulfan, two poisonous chemicals leaching into the watersheds. Promotional images of the state for travel and tourism belied how its greenery was produced.
It was the year 2010. The Kerala Forest Research Institute had just released a study documenting that the fingernails of pineapple pickers in Kerala were falling off after they had been exposed to an unknown cocktail of chemical pesticides. This was not an unusual story, Sugathakumari emphasized to an audience gathered for the 2010 Indian Biodiversity Conference in the capital of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram. She reminded the crowd that, earlier in that same decade, several children in a northern agricultural district of the state had been born with severe physical deformities after their parents had been exposed to endosulfan, a harmful chemical classified as a persistent organic pollutant by the scientific community because of its ability to linger in the environment for years. For over a quarter of a century, these agrarian communities had been repeatedly sprayed aerially with the chemical to control pests on nearby cashew plantations. Kerala had become a toxic place: its lush greenery was now drenched in poisonous pesticides, bad for human health and the environment.
This interview is continued from the post on Monday, Sept. 22. Sapna E. Thottathil’s book, India’s Organic Farming Revolution, appears in October. Here, she
shares with UI Press editor Catherine Cocks why she wrote the book and what
Americans can learn from farmers in Kerala, India.
Catherine Cocks: Who led the drive for organic agriculture in
Kerala, and what motivated them?
Sapna E. Thottathil: Kerala’s farmers had been facing years of hardship.
For example, Kerala is one of the smaller states in India, yet a few years ago,
it had the third highest suicide rate—many of the suicides were of farmers who
had accumulated a lot of debt. This situation caused farmers, government
leaders, and religious and advocacy groups to realize that something had to
change in the agricultural sector, so they began exploring organic farming. In
2010, the state government finalized a policy to convert the entirety of the
state to organic farming within 10 years. The hope of these organic farming
advocates is that organic agriculture will make Kerala’s farmers more
self-sufficient and less debt-dependent.
CC: What lessons should people in other places take
away from the movement toward organic agriculture in Kerala?
ST: I believe one inspiring thought we can take away is
that we can do agriculture differently here and elsewhere—we don’t have to live
in a world where farmers are committing suicide, half of the food produced is
going to waste, and nearly one billion people are malnourished. We don’t have
to live in a world where we rely on chemicals to make the food we put into our
bodies. It’s possible to envision and put into practice a different and more
sustainable way of doing agriculture.
CC: In your view, what are the top three reasons why
people should choose to eat organic fruits and vegetables?
ST: The most important reason is that it is healthier for
you, because organic fruits and vegetables have fewer chemical pesticide
residues. Most conventionally grown crops here in the U.S. and elsewhere are
treated with chemicals that have been linked to several health problems,
including cancer, birth defects, and neurological disorders. Globally, there
are three million cases of pesticide poisoning reported each year. In Kerala,
the pesticide Endosulfan has been linked to hundreds of birth defects.
Pesticides like Endosulfan are
found in our waterways and air, impact the health of farmworkers, can kill
beneficial pests and organisms (threatening biodiversity), and ultimately end
up on our plates. This leads me to the
second and related reason to eat organic: Organic is healthier for the environment.
The third reason to eat organic is
that it’s important to support good farmers who are turning away from
chemical-intensive agriculture. Growing an organic fruit or vegetable is not
always easy. Organic farmers can’t resort to a chemical pesticide when a plague
of insects comes through, for example. Some organic farmers I interviewed
talked about how they’d hand pick bugs off their vegetables—that’s a lot of
In general, farming is not an easy profession, which is why the
number of farms and the percentage of people employed on them are both
decreasing, here in the U.S. and in India. Organic farming can bring many
benefits to farmers and balance out many of the hardships. In Kerala, the
spread of organic production has opened up opportunities for farmers to
negotiate directly with buyers in foreign markets, communicate more easily with
state policymakers, and collaborate and share best practices with like-minded
farmers. One group of organic farmers I spent time with in Kerala (who were
also certified Fair Trade) decided to put the profits from an organic coffee
shipment to Germany toward school scholarships for the children of group
Sapna E. Thottathil’s book, India’s Organic Farming Revolution, appears in October. Here, she
shares with UI Press editor Catherine Cocks why she wrote the book and what
Americans can learn from farmers in Kerala, India. This interview will be continued on Wednesday, Sept. 24.
Catherine Cocks: What drew you to Kerala, India, to study organic
Sapna E. Thottathil: My parents grew up as farmers in Kerala—working
fields, planting rice and vegetables, and being familiar with the seasons. Yet
the stories I heard from them about their lives while I was a kid here in the
U.S. fell far short of the romantic, pastoral vision I expected of farm life.
They instead would tell me about crops dying off, financial hardships, and
hunger. To me, the last bit was the most confounding—the idea that people
working the land and familiar with growing food could go hungry.
These stories stuck with me as an
adult, so I was surprised to see the increasing presence of organic food
products from Kerala in grocery store aisles. And some of these foods were
grown within a few miles of where my parents were born and raised! To learn
more about these organic foods and to better reconcile in my head the
absurdities of our food system (how farmers can go hungry, for example), I
decided to spend some of my own time in India.
CC: Here in Iowa, many farms are very large, the work
is highly mechanized, and only a small percentage of the state’s population is
engaged in agriculture. How is farming organized in Kerala by comparison?
ST: The majority of Kerala’s farms are less than 2 to 3
acres in size, and the work is not as mechanized. Part of this is due to
Kerala’s land reforms, which took place starting in the 1960s and ‘70s and put
a cap on the size of the state’s farms. Prior to the land reforms, much of
Kerala’s farmland was feudal, worked by laborers who had insecure tenancy
arrangements. These land reforms (instituted by the state government) were the
outcome of decades of protests by workers and attempted to redress many of the
social inequities that they had been facing.
There is also a lot of
intercropping in Kerala—growing coffee underneath areca nut trees alongside
pepper vines and other spices, for example. (Areca nut trees produce a fruit
that is chewed and has a stimulant effect, like tobacco.) This intercropping,
along with the undulating topography of the land and muddy soils from monsoon
rains, makes mechanization difficult in Kerala.
There are about two million full-time
farmers in Kerala, which is around 5 percent of the population.