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.