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Biodiversity on Organic Farms in Telangana, India

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Most commercial agriculture around the world comes in the form of monocultures, where whole fields are devoted to a single plant. Monocultures are stark landscapes, built around the logic of factories rather than the logic of farmers or forests.

It doesn’t need to be that way. The monoculture way of thinking that underlies our contemporary food and agriculture systems is a fairly recent invention. Agricultural biodiversity has long been a part of the farmer’s toolkit, benefiting the natural landscape and agrarian life. 

Nowhere is this clearer than with cotton. Since 2012, I’ve researched the lives of farmers in India choosing between non-organic cotton cash crops and organic cotton programs, asking how people and their environments are affected by this agricultural decision. By learning how to work together, farmers and organic development groups can develop locally appropriate and mutually beneficial initiatives that reduce social and environmental vulnerability in these villages. 

When people living in North America or Europe imagine a cotton farm, they might picture a forest of white fluffy plants. That’s a perfect example of a monoculture. Planting only one kind of crop makes it simpler to sow seeds, harvest yields, fertilize crops, clear weeds and treat for pests, especially when the farmer in question is using chemicals and machines to help them in that work. All the tools are specialized to the task at hand, and all the work happens in one place, just like a factory that brings workers together and then divides up the labor under one roof.

Yet this kind of farming can be hard to keep up. If a farmer plants the same crop in the same field year after year, the plants use up the same nutrients from the soil and attract the same pests each year. Therefore, farmers planting monocultures have to work even harder to kill those pests and replenish the nutrients lost in the soil, locking them into a vicious cycle of chemicals, pests and farm expenses. 

Biodiversity is a problem for modern agriculture. Monocultures reduce the biodiversity of the land by transforming fields into areas where only one plant matters. By this way of thinking, plants and animals that creep onto the farm are interlopers who threaten productivity. 

Most Indian cotton farmers are planting genetically modified (GM) cotton, and have been steadily increasing their use of herbicides to control weeds in their fields. They are also placing their cotton plants closer and closer together. Both of these moves make their fields less biodiverse because they eliminate the possibility of planting fruits and vegetables in field gaps that spread out their agricultural risk. 

Because of international laws, farmers cannot certify GM crops as organic and sell them with organic premiums, even if they are grown without the use of chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Despite these downsides, Indian cotton agriculture is dominated by GM Bt cotton, a variety that has been modified to produce one or more insecticidal toxins as it grows. GM cotton fields also lack biodiversity, not because the plants are genetically modified, but because they are planted as monocultures. 

A biodiverse landscape is very different from a monoculture, and eliminates many of the problems monocultures face. Biodiverse fields take up and replenish a variety of nutrients, and attract a set of plants and animals that don’t need chemical help to sustain themselves over the years. Under the right conditions, diversity of plants in an agricultural space helps to prevent soil erosion, attract predators who feed on agricultural pests, supplement food security and provide a reservoir of plant life to spread out the risk of over-relying on a single crop for one’s livelihood.

Farmers need only two things to manage this biodiverse alternative: the technical knowledge necessary to manage a variety of plants and animals without herbicides, pesticides or chemical fertilizers; and a reason to buck conventional wisdom and branch out. Chetna Organic, an Indian organic cotton company working in south and central India, is providing them with both.

Chetna strongly encourages biodiversity on their partner farms. Non-cotton plants are a mandatory part of the organic certification with this group rather than a disappearing fringe advantage. The farmers I met in the Adilabad district of Telangana grew an average of 26 other plants in their cotton fields, including foods, medicines, ornamental flowers and heirloom staple grains such as sorghum and rice. These plants provide a much-appreciated buffer against food insecurity, especially for farmers who live in small hamlets far away from town centers and markets. 

To ease the burdens of planting biodiverse fields, Chetna Organic, like many such programs, connects farmers to services that provide free seeds or seeds that can be purchased with zero-interest loans.

The positive results from the practices of the company’s organic farm partners are easy to see. Every house carefully stores the heirloom sorghum they use to make their morning chapati bread, and saves the seeds from especially tasty fruits and vegetables for future planting. When farmers walk through their fields to choose seeds for the next season, they are greeted with a chorus of genetic diversity. Their plants carry the success of previous seasons against drought, too much rain, insect attacks, poor yields and competition from weeds.

Each harvest, farmers save seeds from the best crops, improving their population over time in response to local factors, from drought tolerance to taste. Some crops, including sorghum and pigeon peas, are stored over generations; others, such as tomatoes and eggplant, are given out through government extension services. All provide stores of preserved food to eat throughout the year, and develop the local knowledge necessary to save and improve heirloom populations.

Yes, the yields of organic cotton farmers are lower than those of their neighbors with monocultures of GM Bt cotton. Of course they are — as much as 20 percent of the organic cotton fields are planted with other crops.

By negotiating partnerships with those who take small farmers’ needs into account, Chetna has made the sacrifice worth it. Presented with cheap or free seeds, most farmers choose to plant them. Farmers are also asked to support organic means of eliminating pests and increasing soil fertility, including growing nitrogen-fixing trees. That way, organic agriculture programs help to underwrite the costs of biodiversity for farmers who are trying to succeed in a global market built for mono-cropping. 

Local farmers have recently been cultivating nitrogen-fixing plants as organic fertilizers, neem trees for their pesticidal leaves and fruits, castor plants as “traps” to attract cotton pests away from their cash crops, and marigolds to attract predatory wasps. Not only are the farmers inclined to cultivate a variety of crops to fill gaps in their household economies, the organic program underwrites the cost of planting certain crops by providing them the seeds, often free of charge.

This institutional push is by design. Chetna actively works to discourage strict cash-cropping system in favor of what it sees as more sustainable agriculture. ‘‘We need to encourage resilience,’’ one employee stated in an interview. 

Organic projects like Chetna maximize agrobiodiversity by recruiting relatively poor farmers living with relatively poor access to markets. This organic company guarantees that their farmers will have a biodiverse agriculture, irrespective of the organic methods used, by stressing food security as part of the program and then providing access to vegetable seeds. Ninety percent of these organic farmers manage fields that are more diverse than the average GM cotton farmer in Telangana.

There are several key takeaways from this research. One is that organic agriculture doesn’t naturally lead to more biodiverse agriculture. The certifications and our own cotton consumption aren’t nearly as important to these farmers’ lives as the mutual partnerships that farmers develop with NGOs and corporations who have learned to respect and listen to them: interest-free loans, local infrastructure projects and the guarantee that farmers will have enthusiastic buyers all help make biodiversity worthwhile on these fields. Through these programs, farmers don’t just get seeds – they get a reason to plant them. 

 Another is that, although there is still some diversity on GM cotton farms, the high incidence of useful plants on organic farms shows that monocultures are not a natural or inevitable feature of commercial agriculture. At the “cost” of lower overall yields, organic cotton farmers in this area gain food security and new markets for their cotton, and maintain a wide range of local technical knowledge that they can use to manage a biodiverse landscape.

Perhaps one of the most important lessons is that farmers can create long-term, trusting relationships with organizations that help them succeed in a global market built for non-diverse commodity agriculture. At the end of the day, the partnerships and investments made between farmers and perceptive development programs are what help sustain a more biodiverse world. 

All photos are owned by Andrew Flachs, and cannot be used or reproduced without permission.

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