Going Organic : Is Organic farming feasible on commercial scale ?

Dr. Sanjay-Swami
Dr. Sanjay-Swami

Organic agriculture, without doubt, is one of the fastest growing sectors of agriculture production. It offers the most sustainable solution for developing the agricultural sector and provides food security with least negative impacts on the environment and also offers solutions for sound rural development, providing healthy food and creating job opportunities. Increasing consciousness about conservation of environment as well as of health hazards caused by agro-chemicals has brought a major shift in consumer preference towards organic foods. The organically produced fruits and vegetables cost almost twice as much. Even, the organic farmers have appealing to the Government to establish an Organic Bazar separately. In recent years, there is a lot of debate between the proponents of organic farming and a section of the community who questioned the scientific validity and feasibility of organic farming. What is behind the broad pro and con claims of the organic farmer? Let’s clear up the point now.

In India, a faction of people has grown up who call themselves “organic farmers.” These so-called organic farmers preach a strange, two-pronged doctrine compounded mainly of pure superstition and myth, with just enough half-truth, pseudo science and emotion thrown in to make their statements sound plausible to the uninformed. They believe that plant food from chemical fertilizers “poison the soil”, destroy beneficial soil organisms, make crops more susceptible to attacks by insects and diseases, encourage weeds, and damage the health of livestock and humans who eat the crops so fertilized. The positive side of their ridiculous dogma is a flat claim that organic matter alone is the answer to better crops and improved nutrition. Such “organically farmed” crops are supposed to yield more, to be free of insects and diseases, and to have wonderful health-giving qualities for the animals or humans who consume them. If this were true, it would be impossible for us to produce our food requirements, because all of the manure, leaves, twigs, grass clippings and crop residues available would fall far short of meeting the need.

This faction has sought to appropriate a good word “organic”, and has twisted its meaning to cover a whole crazy doctrine. These people apparently believe that by a play on words such as “organic” and “natural”, they have the key to an immortal truth. The facts are that organic matter, in its true sense, is an important component of the soil. Ever since we have had Soil Scientists, they have recognized the values of organic matter. The loss of soil humus through cultivation has long been a matter of concern. So these people have nothing new to offer on that score. Organic matter is often called “the life of the soil” because it supplies most of the food needs of the soil organisms which aid in changing non-available plant food materials into forms that are available to the plants, and contains small quantities of practically all plant nutrients. It is also a soil conditioner, bringing about beneficial chemical and physical changes. It has a tremendous influence on the tilth of the soil, and on ability of soil to absorb and retain water. The chemical role of organic matter is particularly important, as it is the storehouse for the reserve nitrogen supply. When soil nitrogen is not combined with organic matter it can be lost rapidly by leaching. Considerable phosphorus and small quantities of practically all other mineral elements in the soil are made available via the organic matter.

The anti-chemical fertilizer doctrine makes a great point of the fact that plant food in organic matter is in “natural” form, while in chemical fertilizer it is “unnatural” and thus supposedly is harmful, if not downright poisonous. The fact is that plants absorb all the nutrients as inorganic ionic forms only whether it came from organic matter, or from commercial fertilizer. The plants do not and cannot differentiate between the nutrients supplied through manures and fertilizers. Practically all plant-food elements carried by organic matter are not used in their organic form; they are changed by micro-organisms to the simple chemical forms which the plants can use - the same form in which these elements become available to plants when applied as chemical fertilizers. For example, plants can absorb nitrogen either as NH4+ ions or as NO3- ions, irrespective of the source of these ions being a nitrogenous fertilizer or manure. The behavior and functions of the nutrients within the plant will also be same irrespective of their sources. The nutrients from the organic and inorganic sources differ only in their relative availability for crop uptake. The nutrients from the fertilizers are readily available as most of the fertilizers are water soluble while the nutrients supplied through organic manures would become available for crop uptake slowly and gradually but would be available for longer duration due to slow decomposition of the organic manures and gradual release of the nutrients into the labile pool. After being released into the labile pool, the nutrients from the fertilizers as well as the manures will behave and interact similarly. So, it is foolish to say that nitrogen in commercial fertilizer is “poisonous” while nitrogen from organic matter is beneficial. The basic nitrogen is the same in either case.

To sum it up, agriculture on commercial and profitable scale cannot be sustained for long through total organic farming, as we do not have enough organic manure for all our arable lands. Chemical fertilizers stand between us and hunger.  It is true that total inorganic farming using fertilizers and agricultural chemicals alone that too not in balanced proportions without manures may become hazardous in the long run. A feasible, desirable and viable alternative to sustain agriculture on commercial scale with quality produces is the integrated soil fertility management involving manures, fertilizers and bio-fertilizers wherever necessary in judicious combinations.

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