From 6am every morning, Karma Dechen happily tends to his organic vegetables, weeding and watering his fields on the hilly terrain on the Indian side of the eastern Himalayas.
But he hasn’t always been a farmer. When he previously worked in the state government’s police department, Dechen experienced various health problems.
So when Sikkim’s mission to become India’s first 100 per cent organic state began in 2003, he started growing his own food and soon noticed that his symptoms improved: “That inspired me to become an organic farmer and it feels stress-free now,” says Dechen, who grows cauliflower, cabbage, garlic, potatoes, rice and spices such as turmeric and ginger.
“So much flora and fauna were disappearing because of pesticides and fertilisers. Seeing that biodiversity thrive now gives me inner happiness,” he explains.
Dechen’s organic farm is one of 66,000 in the state of Sikkim in the northeast of India that have reverted to more traditional methods. Switching from monocultures to intercropping - growing a mix of vegetables in one field – has increased soil fertility, according to Dechen who is president of Sikkim Farmers’ Producer Organisation, whose 4,000 farming members collaborate via support groups in each village.
In Sikkim, one of India’s least populated states with just 10 per cent farmland across 70,000 hectares, most crops are sold on roadside stalls or carried in sacks to local organic farmers’ markets; there isn’t much contract farming.
But since November 2020, tens of thousands of farmers have been protesting in New Delhi against new laws passed by the Indian government that allow farmers to sell directly to big companies, bypassing the ‘mandis’ or wholesale agricultural markets.
Many farmers worry that the loosening of these laws weakens their bargaining power and Dechen is concerned about these controversial new reforms: “The bill that is being passed is not in favour of small village farmers; most profit will go to the big companies. The income of farmers hasn’t increased, that’s just hearsay.”
Sikkim, home to 600 varieties of butterflies and 100 different types of plant, relies heavily on a rich network of small-scale farms, according to Tshering Bhutia, farmer and general secretary of the Sikkim Farmers Producers’ Organization, who would have travelled to join the protests, had Covid restrictions not prevented travel.
“I feel very sad about what’s happening right now,” says Bhutia, who grows coriander, radish, spinach, peas and corn in her own small allotment. “The bill states that farmers have to buy seed and pesticides from a few corporate suppliers so big companies will have much greater control over the food supply chain of India. We don’t want to lose our small-scale farming and independent shops but [the system] is full of corruption.”
Bhutia works hard to educate local farming communities about biodiversity and best practice. “Food is the most essential commodity but many don’t want to come into this field of farming because it’s not well-respected,” says Bhutia, who hopes to inspire the younger generation to become farmers. Avocados are a major crop while some farmers are diversifying to produce essential oils and herbal teas using native plants.
“Most farms used to be organic here but when the government started distributing fertilisers, farmers used them without really knowing the full effects,” describes Bhutia, who spoke about Sikkim’s organic mission alongside Dechen at the recent Oxford Real Farming Conference. “I remember my grandmother growing vegetables organically for our own consumption, it used to be like that for every household.”
The transition to 100 per cent organic was really about reconnecting with Sikkim’s roots, Bhutia explains, adding: “Now, farmers are reverting to traditional crops that are better suited to this ecological system. That’s still a challenge because we do have deer, rats and monkeys that come onto our crops.
“But we’re very spiritual people and we believe in karma and dharma so we consider this giving back to nature. We share our crops with the wildlife because it has to balance somehow.”
In 2015, 12 years after the chief minister for Sikkim announced a commitment to become 100 per cent certified organic, this vision was achieved following various pilot projects, education schemes and the launch of ‘bio-villages’, where farmers learnt how to use organic inputs such as industrial vermicomposting using earthworms.
Certain requirements became mandatory, with the reduction of subsidies and gradual banning of agricultural chemicals plus financial incentives for organic alternatives. By 2014, the Sikkim Agricultural, Horticultural Inputs and Livestock Feed Regulation Act was passed, prohibiting the import of any chemical inputs for agriculture and horticulture into the state.
Organic certification has been funded and developed by the government body, the Organic Mission, with various certifying agencies carrying it out, while the bulk of what is produced is sold locally, aside from a Sikkim Organic retail outlet in New Delhi.
Now, anyone found using illegal pesticides could be fined up to $1,400 or even sent to jail for up to three months. But according to Bhutia, farmers understand the long-term benefits and are proud of what they have achieved. Very few haven’t complied.
Other states are beginning to follow suit. In 2018, Uttakarand became the second Indian state to promise broader support and more federal funding to organic farming for its 1.6 million farmers. Just across the border, Bhutan is reducing fertiliser use and has committed to becoming 100 per cent organic by 2023, while farmers in nearby Nepal and Pakistan are interested in setting up their own organic communities.
Bhutia’s advice to others is to remember that “food is your identity”. “People need to understand their own native food to see the beauty of their own country. Without that, you lose the knowledge of your own country and traditional foods,” she says.
It’s a vision for a new food system, but also a new way of life. As Bhutia puts it: “When you start learning about organic farming, you learn about nature and all of the living things around you. It’s a beautiful thing."