Although Sikkim is tiny in area, India’s First 100% Organic State matters for the future of farmers and the future of food
By Lindsey Oberest, editor for the Food Revolution Network (with minor additions by James O’Donovan)
Though we might wish otherwise, progress often starts small and takes time. An organic country and an organic world are inspiring visions for our health, our environment, our climate, and our animals. But to get there, we have to keep taking steps, learning lessons, and celebrating good news and developments as they come. In a mountainous region in eastern India, Sikkim is now a 100% organic state, with no chemical pesticides or fertilizers and no GMOs. This matters because it shows that organic food in an entire region is possible. Now, other people in India and throughout the world are learning from Sikkim’s success, and beginning to ask, “Could organic food succeed in other areas, too?”
India has one of the lowest rates of meat consumption (4kg per person per year) and has recently banned live exports of animals for slaughter. But it still has a high rate of dairy consumption. So when the state transitions to a completely vegan organic agricultural system then they will truly be showing non-violent leadership. (Comment by Vegan Sustainability)
How Sikkim became a fully organic place
In 2003, due to chemically intensive, conventional farming methods, the Himalayan state’s food production faced serious environmental and health problems. As a solution, the Chief Minister of Sikkim, Pawan Chamling, announced his vision for Sikkim to be India’s first organic state. Twelve years later, by the end of 2015, all Sikkim’s farms were certified organic by an independent certifying body. On January 18, 2016, at Sikkim’s Organic Festival, the Prime Minister of India declared the state fully organic.
How did this happen?
For one, Chief Minister Chamling got reelected five times, so he oversaw the entire process. Farmers had time to prepare for the change, and support to do so. The state gradually banned chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. The laws had teeth, and carried fines and even jail time for anyone who broke them.
But what the state did really well was to make its intent clear and to get its people on board. The Sikkim Organic Mission Project, the state’s organic policy, spread awareness about why, what, and how the mission would be accomplished. Millions of Indian viewers were introduced to the project through a popular talk show in 2012.
Organic farming was added as a subject in school. Farmers attended required training on organic farming led by organic experts and scientists. And they began using natural alternatives, such as compost and manure made from dung, decayed leaves, and dry grasses. Various indigenous technologies were used, like pheromone traps to control fruit flies, biopesticides, and biofertilizers.
The Sikkim government helped make organic seeds and manures more available, helped farmers market their produce, and even sent some farmers outside the state for advanced training. They committed fully to make their vision happen. And it did.
Why organic food is important
Organic agriculture is important for our health and the future of our world for many reasons. It’s needed to sustainably feed the world. It carries far fewer toxic pesticide residues, and is grown using no GMOs. It doesn’t poison farmworkers or the micro-organisms living in the soil that produce healthy, drought-resistant crops. Organic farming is also better suited to climate change, protects biodiversity, enhances soil fertility, and, to top it off, organic foods are more nutritious and taste better.
But without pesticides and other tools known for producing high-yield agriculture, would organic food really be able to produce enough food to feed people? Many studies from around the world show that organic farms can produce about as much if not more food than conventional farms. It may take several seasons for farmers to learn the new ways and see success, but as the soil and biodiversity recover, yields go up. And in places where most of the world’s hungry live, yield gaps for organic food disappear.
Another problem the world faces is global drought. According to NASA, at 21 of the world’s largest 37 aquifers, water is being taken out faster than it’s being replaced. This is not a sustainable situation. But could the best way to preserve our water supplies, be with organic farming? Organic soil is better able to hold onto water because it uses organic material. Therefore, plants have more access to water, and they produce more food.
A way to make organic food cheap
Organic food sometimes costs more. But experts say the way to make organic food cheap is to get everybody on board. One entrepreneur in India who has experience in agriculture put it like this: “What happens ordinarily in organic is that a retailer deals with small quantities from a wide range of farmers. The supply chain is broken and disorganized. This adds to the cost of produce. When a state is 100% organic, then the costs that go into segregating, packaging, labeling, and differential pricing, are saved. When everything is organic, the price automatically falls.”
How Sikkim is benefitting from becoming an organic state
Sikkim’s transition to an organic state is good for public health and the environment in the area. It’s also good for the economy. Tourism to the area is also increasing and bringing in more money. Guests can stay in organic villages, where they are able to enjoy the abundant natural beauty and eat fresh, organic meals.
Sikkim organic retail stores offering pulses, rice, mandarin oranges, ginger, cardamom, and turmeric have been set up by the government in New Delhi. More stores are planned for other major cities. Due to the surge in demand for Sikkim’s organic produce, farmers are now earning 20% more.
Some things to consider about Sikkim
When thinking about the success of Sikkim, you might also want to consider the advantages this state had to begin with. The state is small and culturally homogeneous. And many of the farmers already had knowledge of traditional, organic ways of farming.
But Sikkim still had to overcome considerable challenges. And there are lessons to be learned from their journey. Every area will have it’s own unique challenges and advantages. Perhaps the most important aspect of the Sikkim example is that it will inspire other areas to go organic, or at least, to try out more organic farming methods and use fewer toxic chemicals. This will go a long way in improving our food production and the health of our world.
How Sikkim’s achievement affects the world
India is a place with high rates of pesticide use. As a result, it is a nation tragically marked by very high rates of farmer suicides; of children dying from pesticide-laced school lunches; and of trains of people with pesticide-related cancer. But Sikkim can serve as a model to help other states go organic. Already, this is happening.
One of the goals behind Sikkim’s Organic Festival in January was to spread the message of organic movement to other states. The prime minister encouraged other states in India to follow Sikkim’s example. He invited them to try organic farming and see what happens. “If the experiment succeeds,” he said, “farmers in other places will follow it on their own. Farmers may not be influenced by any amount of lectures by scientists…For them, seeing is believing.” Indian states, including Kerala, Mizoram, and Arunachal Pradesh are already working towards becoming organic. And in a country where pesticides are still in use that have been banned in more than 67 countries, any increase in organic farming will make a positive difference.
At an International Conference on Biodiversity and SDGs in Gangtok, Sikkhim in May 2018 the environmental NGO Navdanya, led by Vandana Shiva noted that their study on Sikkim during the 90’s showed “that biodiverse organic farms generate more than two times the income of the monoculture commodity farms using chemical inputs. This is the way to farmers prosperity, this is the way to doubling farmers’ income. Navdanya’s farmers are earning 10 times more than the commodity farmers as the Navdanya report, Wealth Per Acre, which measures True Costs has shown. Biodiversity organic farming is the only lasting solution to the SDG on climate change in terms of mitigating, adaption and as well as climate resilience. The commitment was made that the initiative of Organic Sikkim will spread through the Himalaya with the initiative of Biodiverse Organic Himalaya 2022. We will work towards an organic India 2047 when it has a 100 years of Independence and fulfil the universal call towards an Organic World by 2050. This commitment made in Sikkim jointly by the Sikkim government and the Navdanya movement is to commit to a liveable planet, for protecting our biodiversity, rejuvenating her soil, her water, her health, ending the agrarian crises as well as creating happiness and well-being for all.” (quote by Vegan Sustainability)
The growth of organic farming is needed not only in India but throughout the world. Thankfully, Sikkim is not the only place seeing success with organic food. For example, in Cuba, large-scale organic farming exists, although it began out of necessity, due to a trade embargo with other nations. Denmark has ambitious plans to become an organic country. And a growing number of farms in the U.S. are organic success stories. Organic food sales in the U.S. have been increasing every year since the 1990s, and the trend is continuing. In 2015, organic food sales in the U.S. neared an estimated $37 billion, up 12% from the previous year. And when even more people demand organic food, more farmers will produce it, and prices will go down.
If we want a world with less toxic food, a world that is safer for our health, our environment, and our climate, we have a lot more progress to achieve. And everyone can play a role if you choose to take action and support organic. Whether you’re a farmer or a consumer, you can make a difference. As the Indian prime minister said: “Sikkim has shown the way and what we are seeing today is the result of tremendous hard work and belief in an idea.” Increasing organic agriculture around the world won’t be easy. But it will be worth it.
Lindsay Oberst is the Lead Editor for Food Revolution Network. As a journalist and writer, Lindsay focuses on health, nutrition, and sustainability, among other topics. She is passionate about playing with words and living a healthy, conscious, fun-filled life — and helping others do the same.