GURGAON –- Ritu Mathur poked the soil in the potted plants and flowerbeds of her garden filled with organic vegetables and fruits. “Snails!" she exclaimed -- before finishing, “are a problem.”
Getting rid of pests can be the biggest challenge in organic farming, which is done entirely without pesticides or insecticides. Mathur uses pheromone traps and sticky traps as well as a garlic and red chili paste to get rid of the bugs. Still, rats can be a menace.
So why go through all this trouble? For Mathur, it’s been a lifelong dream to spend her time growing flowers and vegetables. So five years ago, she left her cushy job as a designer in a multinational corporation, her world for 15 years, and started Upvan, an enterprise that teaches people living in urban areas to do organic farming.
Mathur has been working with residents of her own locality in Gurgaon, a city on the edge of Delhi, which till 15 years ago was suburbia, but is now crammed with soaring glass office buildings, massive shopping malls and ongoing construction work.
The trend of organic farming is catching on because more Indians feel the need to eat healthy food, especially as cancer and other chronic illnesses are being linked the huge quantities of pesticides used in agricultural production.
High levels of pesticides in vegetables as an issue have gained prominence in the last four to five years. A big boost to public awareness came from an episode "Satyamev Jayate," a show hosted by Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan last year, which discussed the health hazards of pesticides, and suggested subsidizing organic farming as an alternative.
Priya V.K. Singh, a government officer, has taken Mathur’s help over the past three years to do organic farming in her garden in Gurgaon.
The mother of two teenage children speaks with pride and affection about her mangoes, pomegranates, lemons and herbs and says she has completely switched her family’s diet to organic food. “We can’t control the toxins in our environment. But at least we can control it in our food,” she said.
While there are no specific numbers on urban residents doing organic farming, experts involved in the field say that the trend is growing. In Delhi, an estimated 3,000 families have taken it up. Mathur estimates at least 100 homes in Gurgaon are also involved in it. Her monthly workshops on how to do organic farming in small gardens, backyards and balconies are attended by 8 to 10 people.
Mathur, who admits organic farming is tough and takes a tremendous amount of patience, has also started an online forum, which has 546 members. “You feel part of a larger community. It is a great way to share the moments of joy and sorrows of farming,” she said.
Still India's domestic organic food market is very nascent. The supply is limited because the organic cropped area is only about one percent of the country's total cultivated area. India generates 1,000 rupees crore or $170 million from sales of organic food annually, which is growing at 30 percent to 40 percent. It also exports about 700 crore rupees or $117 million worth.
Brands like Eco Farms, Conscious Foods, Morarka Foundation and Organic India have opened up stores in the major cities. Organic vegetables are more costly than the regular fare. If seasonal, they cost about 20 percent to 30 percent more. If not, then it can cost 50 percent to 100 percent more. “The costs are higher but more people are coming in all the time. They are aware that pesticides are causing sickness,” said Vikas, a cashier at a local organic store in Gurgaon who didn't want to reveal his last name.
But food activists like Mathur say that farmers don't get paid enough by retailers even though higher costs are involved in organic farming because there is more manual labor involved and it takes a longer time to prepare the field due to the absence of any pesticides as quick fixes.
In 2010, the non-governmental organization Consumer Voice published a study, which found that vegetables in Delhi carried pesticides 750 times more than the European Union standards. It found contamination of banned pesticides heptachlor and chlordane, which affects the liver, in spinach and bitter gourd.
In May, the Delhi High Court ordered the government to conduct surprise checks to test vegetables and fruits in wholesale and retail markets in Delhi for ensuring that these commodities do not contain pesticides beyond permissible limits.
The National Cancer Control Program estimates that there are 2 to 2.5 million cancer patients at any given point of time in India with about 0.7 million new cases coming every year and nearly half die every year. According to The Lancet, by 2020, 70% of the world's cancer cases will be in poor countries, with a fifth in India.
While scientists do not single out it as the primary cause, pesticides are being linked to cancer especially in the state of Punjab, the bread basket of India, where the green revolution was launched in the '60s. The enormous amount of food grain production in the state has been made possible due to irrigation, chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
But now the Malwa region of the state, called the "cancer belt" of India, has 136 cancer patients for 100,000 people. Overall, Punjab has 90 per 100,000, which is higher than the national average of 80 per 100,000.
Singh said that she is happy to higher prices for the vegetables and remarked that many families she knows have a member diagnosed with cancer. “Ten years ago, one would only hear about cancer in the movies.... This is really scary.”
Photos: Betwa Sharma