Sikkim India: From Green to Organic Revolution

“In nature’s economy the currency is not money, it is life.” – Vandana Shiva

“In nature’s economy the currency is not money, it is life.” – Vandana Shiva

On the brink of mass famine in the early 1960s, India’s rapidly growing population was saved by the introduction of fertilizers, pesticides and high-yield seeds — all products of the Green Revolution. The new technologies rapidly boosted food production across the country and  reduced reliance on foreign aid, but it wasn’t long before India saw a spike in cancer rates, infertile soils and polluted rivers. A country once rich in biodiversity and arable land slowly began dying.

Concerned about the harmful effects of chemicals on the land and its people, the little Indian state of Sikkim decided to phase out their use in 2003 —an ambitious project unprecedented in the world. To encourage skeptical farmers to make the switch from conventional to organic, Sikkim cut off its supply of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, launched education programs, and installed thousands of composting pits. By January 2016, Sikkim succeeded in being the first 100% organic state in India.

After fifteen years, the benefits of the radical experiment are clear. Not only has overall health increased in the state due to consumption of more nutritious foods, but the health of the soil has also been rejuvenated. Additionally, bee populations are rebounding: plants dependent on bee pollination have been producing larger yields in recent years. Cardamom yields, for example, has increased 23% since 2015. The change to organic has also helped to boost India’s rapidly growing economy: restoration of Sikkim’s fragile ecosystem and diverse wildlife in the shadow of Mt. Kanchenjunga, the world’s third-tallest peak, has attracted many visitors. In fact, tourism to the region has increased 25% since 2016.

These benefits have even been recognized by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has taken to embrace organic farming throughout India. In 2018, $119 million was set aside for supporting organic farmers worldwide.

However, as the wider community reap the rewards of organic farming, farmers complain of unfair prices that have reduced their income, claiming that the state is not doing enough to boost marketing of organic produce. They’re also not stopping non-organic produce from neighboring areas from entering the state, thus allowing competition to push prices down to near conventional levels. Moreover, the bio-pesticides (naturally occurring substances that control pests) now used to contain pests and disease attacks are proving futile, resulting in lower yields. Unable to make a living at market prices nor meet the local demand for fruits and vegetables, many farmers have either quit farming altogether, or else are entering a strike to demand the government to introduce price supports. Some are even requesting access to genetically engineered crops.

Government officials have responded with assurances that average yields have been increasing, and that as soon as more funding is available, that marketing initiatives will be taken more seriously. However, after more than a decade, the kinks have yet to be worked out and farmers are growing increasingly agitated and impatient. Thus, unless the state delivers its promise made to farmers 15 years ago - that organic produce would yield higher prices – the project cannot be a model of success for local state governments all over India to emulate. Given the many environmental, economic and health benefits seen in Sikkim since the transition to organic, it would be a real shame to dismiss all the progress that has been made thus far.