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 work.
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 members.