Pakistan farmers go organic

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The Third Pole, Islamabad, Pakistan

Pakistani growers are turning to organic farming to cope with water scarcity and boost incomes, but without proper certification the quality of produce is hard to guarantee

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Organic products for sale at a farmers market in Islamabad. (Photo by by Aamir Saeed)

For the last three years, Khalid Khan, a farmer on the outskirts of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, has been cultivating organic wheat and vegetables, not just to save money on pesticides and fertilisers but also to cope with water scarcity. What started off as an experiment has become a way of life with his income trebling.

The 58-year-old is one of the small but growing number of farmers being encouraged to go organic in a bid to conserve water, adapt to climate change and boost income.

According to the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council, the total area under organic agriculture has grown from 35,000 acres in 2005 to 150,000 acres in 2010. An estimated 33% of farmers in Pakistan are going organic and this number is projected to double in the next couple of years.

“The demand for organic products is high in the market and I earned three times more just in six months,” said Khalid, who first cultivated organic vegetables in 2011. Encouraged by the success, he then started growing organic wheat on his sprawling seven acres of farmland in an Islamabad suburb.

And it has its environmental benefits too. “This also helps me conserve a lot of water and save money as we don’t use pesticides and fertilisers for the crops,” he said.

Given the imperatives of saving water and protecting the environment, the Council is providing expertise, bio-fertilisers and indigenous seeds to farmers to encourageorganic farming.

“Indigenous seeds used for organic farming are more resilient to severe weather conditions than the hybrid seeds available in the market,” Qurban Hussain, water director at the Council.

Small farmers are also encouraged to use bio-fertilisers for their crops as this helps sustain the harvest on less water, he said. Moreover, bio-fertilisers don’t pollute the crops or the environment.

Muhammad Farooq, a director at the National Institute of Organic Agriculture, agrees that organic agriculture is fast increasing because farmers are getting better yields from their crops by using less water and saving money on pesticides and fertilisers.

“At the moment, we are focusing only on small farmers and helping them grow organic crops,” he said, adding that small farmers cannot afford the high prices of petroleum products and electricity to get water from tube wells.

As awareness increases so does the demand for organic food and Pakistani farmers have been increasing their profit margins by exporting vegetables and dried as well as fresh fruits to the Middle East and Europe.

According to Farooq, “The export of the organic products stands at US$100 million a year and we are struggling to double it in a couple of years.”

There are problems. He admitted that there is no proper certification system available for organic products. “We are setting up a laboratory for certification and this will help in ensuring quality.”

At the moment, some multinational companies are exporting organic food from Pakistan after proper testing and certification, he said.

To help small organic growers, Kuch Khaas, a civic organisation in Islamabad, arranges a weekly Farmers Market on its premises where growers bring their produce for sale.

Ayesha Maqsood, an Islamabad resident, is one of those who regularly visits the market to stock up. “My family loves organic food because it is nutritious and healthy,” she said.

She is conscious of the fact that the products are not certified by any organisation but says are far better than the vegetables and fruits being sold in the open market. “People want to buy and consume healthy food but there is need to create awareness about benefits of the organic food.”

Global organic boom

A 2012 report of the Food and Agriculture Organization says that organic agriculture is the fastest growing food sector in the world in both land use and market size, although this fact is tempered by the fact that it was virtually non-existent until very recently.

The report also says that growth rates in organic food sales have been in the range of 20- 25% for the last 10 years. In 2002, the total market value of certified organic products was estimated at US$20 billion and that value doubled to US$40 billion by 2006.

Critics, however, say pure organic farming in the present circumstances is almost impossible as the soil and water are contaminated with numerous pollutants and chemicals.

Tanveer Arif, head of Pakistan’s Society for Conservation and Protection of the Environment, suggests that the government introduce food safety standards and food safety regulations to keep a check on the quality of produce being sold as organic.

He said the government should also keep in mind the issue of food security while promoting organic farming. “Organic farming produces lower yields and it may exacerbate the issue of food security if it is adapted at a larger scale,” he said.

There is a lot at stake.

The World Bank says that more than two-thirds of Pakistanis live in rural areas, of which about 68% are employed in agriculture – 40% of the total labour force. The agriculture sector accounts for about 22% of the national GDP.

The bank also says that about 2% of households control more than 45% of the land area in Pakistan. Large farmers have also captured subsidies in water and agriculture, as well as the benefits of agricultural growth.