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Farm to plate: Is your food safe?

32“The butterflies will show you the way to the farm.” Farmer Sunil Gupta is not talking of mythical butterflies that will appear to guide me to the organic farm I am trying to locate amidst swathes of farmland, some lush with the standing paddy, some damaged in parts from last week’s strong winds, others dotted with vegetable patches or freshly ploughed for the next crop.Can one tell an organic farm from a conventional one? Does it look ‘cleaner’, ‘more green’ ‘healthier’? Gupta, who founded Dharini Suphalam, a movement to convert conventional farmers to organic practices in Haryana and Punjab, has encountered these questions from visiting city folk. That’s when he points at the fragile winged insects fluttering about. An excellent indicator of the natural balance-they disappear from areas where man has excessively interfered with nature, slowly poisoning the water, soil and the flora of the region. They reappear when the natural balance shifts to accommodate all the life that it was intended to support-from earthworms in the soil to the birds, bees, butterflies and other sundry insects.  The farm is being readied for the new crop, one patch is freshly ploughed while tiny green leaves sprout out of the black earth on baby spinach beds. Seedlings of winter veggies like broccoli and lettuce are being nursed to be replanted in time for the season. In one corner, week-old rancid buttermilk is being mixed with cow urine and allowed to ferment in large drums-this obnoxious smelling concoction will be sprayed on the crop to drive away bugs. A natural pesticide, this is one of the preparations the farmers have devised to remove pests using byproducts of the farm and cattle. We walk past a tall crop of recently harvested okra. The topmost fruit has been left unplucked so it can dry up and provide seeds for the next crop. On nature’s shelves, these veggies are not all uniform and handsome like they appear in a supermarket. Some are stout or thin or twisted or even dappled with an occasional hole with a worm comfortably nesting within. Nudged by Gupta, we pluck and bite into a tender okra and it crumbles with an unfamiliar crunch and refreshing burst of flavour in the mouth. “This is what bhindi really tastes like. Those in the market are lethal bhindis, they’re being sprayed with cypermethrine just before they are plucked,” says Gupta, explaining this highly toxic and banned practice, as we approach farm owner Rajesh Kumar who switched from such hazardous practices to sustainable farming 6 years ago.Kumar’s farm lies in village Khedi Sikandar in Kaithal district of Haryana. He’s one among 1500 farmers leading a small but significant movement to switch to cleaner, sustainable techniques. Their produce is sent mainly to Delhi and marketed by enterprising groups like Isayorganic.com. Five decades ago, this region was the crucible of India’s Green Revolution, spearheaded in the 1960s in Punjab and Haryana before these modern farming practices became popular all over the country. With high yielding seeds, subsidised fertilizers, pesticides and irrigated water, it transformed agriculture and the lives it sustained. Pumped with Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium (N,P,K) fertilizers, the crops stood tall and lush. Insecticides staved off loss-inducing pests while irrigation canals and tube wells ensured the farmer no longer relied only on the monsoon. India was growing more food than ever before!Recalls an ageing Ved Prakash, a child of the Green Revolution with one polio-stricken leg and deep set wrinkles that are a reminder of the years spent working in the fields in the harsh sun, “Back then, the yield was low. Then they got the davai (medicines) and things improved for us.” So why are the second generation farmers-like his son Santosh Kumar-doing a turnabout and shunning practices that were so generously accepted by the elders? “We grew so dependent on the davai…but the pests came back. So we went and bought more and more of them. The soil started drying up and the yield reduced, so we added more fertilizers. The costs rose and we slipped into debt. My family’s health suffered. What could we do? We relied on the pesticide vendors to recommend new brands and tell us about the dosage, we didn’t know these were also harming us and poisoning our soil. Now the children are wiser, and my family is healthier,” says Prakash, running his fingers through the long grains of organic basmati drying in his courtyard.Over 4 decades of indiscriminate, unregulated use of insecticides and pesticides has polluted the soil and water, and several studies have shown how their residues are present in our food and water, threatening food safety. In the absence of monitoring their use, enforcing a ban on the sale of harmful pesticides and supplementing their distribution with education programmes for farmers, these harmful farming practices have become all pervasive-reports of alarming levels of harmful residues can be found in all parts of the country. They’re present in most of the food we eat-from curry leaves and cardamom in Kerala to grapes from Maharashtra and apples in Himachal. For the farmers however, economic reasons take precedence. “The initial reason to turn organic was the promise of higher profit. Switching to organic removes the cost of fertilizers and pesticides. To top it, organic produce is sold in the market at a premium,” says Gupta. The Dharini Suphalam farmers grow everything from basmati and cereals like jowar, bajra, corn, lentils to mustard and vegetables. It is only with time, when they rediscover their connection with the soil and the natural plant cycle; understand the behaviour and role of insects and birds; that the real transformation takes place. They’re also able to reap larger benefits-of better health, cleaner food for their families and more sustainable farm economics.Kumar, who set up a ‘bee yard’ on his farm to produce honey and is planning to grow mushrooms, says that converting to organic has changed his pers-pective, “I start planning ahead and try out new ideas. I’m more aware of how the environment affects what I grow.” He points at a hedge of marigold he has planted along the periphery of the farm-the bright orange flowers attract the pests and act like the first barrier-giving him sufficient time to plan a natural counter-attack! The clean foods campaign It began 12-years-ago, when Gupta took a train to his ancestral village in the Sirsa district of Haryana, and never went back to his job as operations manager in a firm in the National Capital Region. Having researched on the harmful effects of chemical farming, he decided to switch to natural methods. “The first year, I failed miserably. The crop sank without a trace,” he recalls. Village elders told him to go back to his job in the city and leave farming to the locals. But he stuck on. Gupta realised that the traditional knowledge of local farming practices and natural methods to deal with pests had been erased once chemical farming swept over the region. Back home, his second crop showed promise. So he decided to rope in more farmers into the practice, campaigned across Punjab, stopping at villages, camping for the night in Gurudwaras and speaking to people. “I travelled through what is now the cancer hotbed-Muksar, Sangrur, Bathinda, Patiala and Faridkot districts. Cancer was just about coming into the picture then. Few farmers joined me,” he recalls. But the word had spread and the Punjab government (PAGREXCO) gave him some funds and a target to convert 30 farmers to organic each month. The project ran for just 6 months, but it helped him grow his network among farmers and think up models to market the produce well. “Even today, more farmers will switch to organic farming if they can market the produce,” says Gupta. Soon after, the Haryana Agro Federation (HAFED) roped him in to “develop a model to promote organic.” Along the way, he set up Dharini Suphalam with other farmers, which is primarily working to market the produce so the farmers can focus solely on growing. Recognising that the steep cost of certification acts as a deterrent from making the switch, they approached the state government to support group certification-which it did for 3 years. Next, they built strong links and networks with retailers in urban markets to make it a profitable business model for the growers.Green to ever greenOrganic farmers tend to be more progressive. “Since they’re no longer caught in the debt spiral, there are no recorded suicides among organic farmers,” reveals Gupta. Santosh grew up with the looming threat of debt, before he converted. “The cost of pesticides and fertilizers was making farming unsustainable. Now, my cattle help me make organic pesticides and manure, and earthworms improve the quality of my soil. The soil is living, and provides everything we need,” he says. Their friendly-practices have earned them a good name in their villages. “More people know us, we are  respected. And we’re happy that our children are eating healthier food and that we will be able to afford better education for them,” says farmer Amrik Malik in Khedi Sikandar. Cleaning up his farm has sort of given him a roadmap for the future. “I want my daughter and son to go ahead and get a terrific education. But I’ll be happiest if they decide to come back to the soil, to the farm.”What’s on your plate?Make sure it’s not food grown along the river beds.If you live in the Capital, there is no way you’d have missed the quaint farms that dot the Yamuna bed. The small farmers who live here, grow vege-tables round the year, and sell them in the local markets where this fresh produce is lapped up by consumers. But veggies grown along the banks of polluted rivers have been found to have high concentration of heavy metals from industrial wastes and E coli from sewage besides pesticide residues. Back in 2003, a study by the pollution watchdog Toxics Link showed high levels of heavy metals in spinach found in Delhi. “Since then, things have only got worse,” says Ravi Aggarwal, Director, Toxics Link. A latest study by TERI confirms his fears.The study also found the levels of metals like nickel, manganese, and lead, in the Yamuna. The soil samples from the river bank showed very high quantities chromium and mercury while  lead levels ranged from below detection to 40 times the permissible limits. “Root vegetables and spinach have more residues. Rice absorbs more cadmium. Other veggies like cauliflower and spinach are prone to surface pollutants because of their structure that can hide environmental dust and fumes from vehicles,” says Aggarwal.Another 2010 study by Consumer Voice showed that the levels of pesticides in amaranth, bitter and bottle gourd, brinjal, ladyfinger, potato, pumpkin, and tomato were several times higher than permissible limits. When Prevention visited the farms, we witnessed the farmers liberally using fertilizers and pesticides. “We need to spray for different bugs at least once every 5 days. If we don’t, the crop is lost,” said Udayveer, a 19 year old farm labourer. In a crop cycle of 60 days, that is 12 doses of pesticides! The Delhi High court which filed a suo moto PIL after the report in Consumer Voice, is still to come up with a verdict on how these levels should be controlled. Till that happens, what can you do to safeguard your family’s health? Know what you’re buying, and ask questions: Where was this grown? How was it stored? Is there a cleaner alternative? This will help you make an informed choice.-India Today