Nestled in the Himalayas, a tiny state in India has kickstarted a giant organic revolution.
It’s a cool autumn afternoon in Gangtok, the picturesque capital of Sikkim. The aroma of momos—boiled dumplings stuffed with vegetables or meat—and thupka—a noodle soup—fills the air with a delicious aroma. Nearby, a woman sells Chhurpi, a traditional cheese that is popular in the region, alongside pickle made from the fiery cherry pepper chillis that grow here. Locals buzz around the bazaar stores that sell vegetables and fruits, trying to pick the best of the lot. The decision doesn’t require too much effort, considering all the produce is fully organic. This means, all the produce in the market and in the rest of the state is free of chemicals, pesticides or any kind of genetic modification.
Smaller vegetables, and lesser yield. But farmers say organic is worth it.
About 30 kilometres away in Pachey village, 52-year old Hari Maya Pradhan, an organic farmer, harvests those juicy red cherry peppers on her farmland. During peak season, she harvests 50 kilograms of these red spicy chillis (that are one of the spiciest in the world). They sell well. Pradhan is one of the state’s 66,000 farmers who have become completely organic since 2016. As a farmer and a grandmother, Pradhan loves this switch to organic produce. This food is great for the family’s health and tastes amazing. “After all, health is wealth”, she says laughing.
Although making the switch to growing organics was a challenge, the change has yielded substantial benefits for her farm. As she says herself, it took some time getting used to the fact that chemicals make vegetables like cauliflower bigger and increase production, which meant more money. However, she said persistence, and in a few years, her yields returned to the same quantity. She has planted over 4,000 saplings and combines traditional knowledge like intercrop farming with new age technology to grow cabbages, cauliflowers and beans. She has also built two high-tech poly houses to grow these chillis that pay better rates than most other crops. Right now, she is experimenting with growing black turmeric, a plant that she has researched about that helps cancer patients. She is also in the process of setting up a women’s farming collective and is encouraging her fellow villagers to grow these organic peppers is as well.
“Farmers are often perceived as poor people. But I want to change that perception for my village. I want my entire village to farm these red cherry peppers. And I want to market our organic produce, since there is so much demand for them in cities like Kolkata.”
When Sikkim declared itself the first 100% organic state in the world in 2016, it was the culmination of decades of the locals’ commitment to organic agriculture. Even before the official declaration, for years, people have turned away from chemicals where possible. And with an increasing proportion of young people studying agriculture and taking an active interest in farming, this awareness has spread to future generations. “Young people are getting college degrees in agriculture and farming in Sikkim and using that knowledge here,” Pradhan adds.
Tourists are drawn to the organic switch
Tourists from around the world have poured into Sikkim in recent years, drawn to the fresh air in Sikkim and its organic food. While it is picking up now, pre-pandemic, tourism to the state had increased enormously.
Perched in the beautiful rustic village of Parbing Ranka, Deep Sharma runs Enchanted Forest Farm, an experiential stay in Sikkim, surrounded by lush green forest and an organic farm. Birds sing and a waterfall trickles nearby, creating an inviting ambience. He says that even in that remote part of the world, they get people from across the globe who go back as family and friends.
“Before the advent of organic tourism, many domestic travellers visited Sikkim. Post the declaration though, interest in the region is gaining momentum among international tourists. For instance, two German women, who stayed at our property, told me that they decided to visit Sikkim after reading about how it was completely organic in their local gardening magazine. At present, there is domestic tourism, and although international tourism has decreased due to the pandemic, these still is interest amongst them once things open up,’’ says Sharma.
Their organic farm produces most of the food for them and their guests; they also have a cardamom plantation. And, from time to time, they barter their organic produce with their neighbour and fellow farmer. However, sometimes they have to outsource vegetables like tomatoes or onions that they haven’t been able to grow.
Organic farming leaves behind no negative impact on the environment. It does not contaminate water bodies and is completely eco-friendly. Not all is rosy though. Due to the terrain and climatic conditions, growing some staples is difficult. These are imported from different states. Moreover, while Sikkim is pretty self-sufficient in food production, it usually also has to feed about 15-17 lakh tourists each year.
Mayank Parihar, the COO of Sikkim IFFCO Organics Limited , says that the state imports cereals and other vegetables primarily for the tourists. This produce from neighbouring states doesn’t come with the organic tag. Mayank works closely with the government to help the farmers get more yield without infesting the farm with chemicals, to tackle this issue. To increase the yield, organisations like his are working to bring organic fertilisers that will increase crop’s produce.
Pradhan echoes the sentiment. “When you use too many chemicals, potatoes start having this tasteless sugary taste, so we avoid importing that. But yes, people do have to import some staples”,
Life expectancy in Sikkim has increased by 10 years
When Sharma and his wife Priya moved to the mountains in Sikkim and start their homestay, they not only left behind a busy city, but also their reliance on chemical fertilizers and other chemicals used to grow crops. They wanted to live a more sustainable life and grow their own food, and they’ve witnessed a slew of positive health effects as a result. He says that he would fall sick almost twice a month and get cough when he was living in the city. ““Since I moved to Sikkim, I haven’t fallen sick in the last 3-4 years. Definitely, it is because of the urea-free and chemical-free food here.”
The data supports Sharma’s theory. Sikkim was declared fully organic in 2016, more than a decade after the state’s citizens began cultivating organic crops. Today, healthy food produced using organic methods has made the state’s residents wealthier and healthier; in 2016, Sikkimese people lived ten years longer than in 1990 and the state administration has data showing the connection with healthy organic biodiverse food.
Sikkim may be a tiny mountainous state in India, but it has an enviable track record. Thanks to its small but dedicated population, Sikkim has been environmentally conscious and progressive in other areas, as well. In 1998, it was one of the first Indian states to ban plastic bags. The latest switch becoming the world’s first fully organic state has been beneficial for farmers and consumers. Consumers are able to enjoy fresher produce that is safer for consumption. On the other hand, Sikkim’s organic farming policy supports the local economy by creating compost, boosting local vegetables, and improving soil quality. It also helps improve water retention, combat climate change, protect biodiversity, and minimize waste.
Balancing sustainability with sustaining the growing population’s food needs
Sikkim’s organic mission contrasts with ways India has adopted since the 1960s, when the country’s government imported grain and farming techniques from the West to prevent a repeat of the Bengal famine of 1943, which killed around 3 million people. This ‘Green Revolution’ led to a dramatic rise in food production, which eventually made this previously “food-deficient” country the leading agricultural power. However, these new techniques had environmental costs – increased water use and chemical run-off from fertilizers.
Farmers in the state are happy but still face some challenges. They cant fetch the premium that organic yields usually come with due to the cash-strapped Indian consumer mentality. Parihar’s fertilizer organisation, therefore, also helps farmers with other step, including processing, packaging, and marketing of the organic produce from their farms.
Food growers across the world are embracing the organic model
People around the world are beginning to embrace organic farming. Organic agricultural land made up 8.5% of total EU agricultural land in 2019, a trend that is becoming more common. In countries like Austria, Estonia and Sweden, more than 20% of the agricultural land is cultivating organic crops. And despite some setbacks, the area of organic agricultural land in Africa has increased from around 20,000 hectares in 1999 to more than 2 million hectares in 2019.
Sikkim is not an island in the middle of nowhere. It is but one example of what can be achieved through smart policymaking, perseverance, the willingness to learn about new systems, and most importantly, the vision to distinguish between “good” and “necessary” in light of progress in agricultural technologies. Sikkim has taken sustainability in agriculture to a new level, and in so doing it has created a model that will hopefully inspire others to follow its lead.
In 2018, Chief Minister Pawan Chamling had said, “Organic farmers are the custodians and users of biodiversity for sustainable livelihood.” But as India and other countries move ahead, the question they face is the balance between sustainable growth and feeding its growing population. Is organic the only right answer? Time will tell. But for now, Sikkim’s success story provides lessons for other places where people are seeking better ways to grow their food.
Feature image is by Sumat on Unsplash.
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