Despite what Big Agriculture would have us believe, the tide of opinion is changing about whether organic farming can feed the world.

Photo: Aminah Hermann

It is pretty widely accepted that organic farming yields benefits such as lessened rates of erosion, chemical pollution of drinking water, death of birds and other wildlife. And tests by several governments have shown that organic foods carry just a tiny fraction of the pesticide residues of the nonorganic alternatives; there is even some evidence that crops grown organically have considerably higher levels of health-promoting antioxidants. (Worldwatch)

However, a study published in 2016 also showed that organic farming could feed the world. Researchers modelled 500 food production scenarios to see if we can feed an estimated world population of 9.6 billion people in 2050 without expanding the area of farmland we already use. They found that enough food could be produced with organic farming, if people eat a more plant-based diet with lower meat consumption (arguably the only sustainable way of feeding the world anyway). (The Guardian)

Studies have even shown that in areas that are climatically challenged (eg by drought), organic farming methods actually give higher yields than non-organic methods. This is probably because of organic farming’s emphasis on cover crops, compost, manure, and other practices that increase organic matter (which helps retain water) in the soils (Worldwatch).

Rajan and Valli with students learning how to grow kitchen gardens. Photo: Aminah Hermann

Organic farming is what the Anisha Foundation does best. Anisha is based in the Martalli Region of southern India.  Since 2006, Ms. Valliammal Palaniyappan (Valli) and her husband Rajan have dedicated their lives to working with 21 villages in this impoverished drought-prone area of south-eastern Karnataka State, 190 km south of Bangalore.

Since the introduction of expensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides into India through the green revolution of the early 1960’s, its soils have become increasingly unproductive and devoid of the organic material that was used for centuries by India’s farmers to produce inexpensive and nutritious produce for their families.  The Martalli Region is located in a degraded forest area of India’s Eastern Ghat and struggles with lack of rain as a daily fact of life, especially since the advent of global warming.

70% or more of the area’s population struggles to survive economically as members of India’s lowest economic class, with many of its youth leaving school after 7th grade and going to work alongside adults in local quarries, or staying home and marrying early.   The diet of many of these people has little significant vegetable consumption.  Life is very hard in Martalli and many families are forced to abandon their homes and migrate into the dumping grounds of the big city slums.

Anisha fieldworker Chinnathayi surrounded by students. Photo: Aminah Hermann

In this context, Anisha is working hard every day to promote the benefits of organic farming along with these people to help them improve their lives and standard of living. It is hard to imagine a family living in the 21 targeted villages of the Martalli area that has not experienced some kind of positive impact from Anisha’s work.

– At least 1,500 farmers have been trained in organic farming procedures since 2006, and more than 220 of these farmers are now farming organically.  Approximately six to seven tons of organic vegetables are grown every year by these farmers.

– Anisha has taught farmers to make their own organic fertilizers and pesticides, and facilitated the conservation and sharing of traditional seed varieties that are best adapted to local dry land (non-irrigation) farming conditions. To date, more than 251 varieties of native seeds have been conserved at Anisha’s native seed bank and can now be passed along by farmers to their children and grandchildren.

– Anisha also changes lives by creating women’s self-help groups that offer micro-loans to promote income-generating activities for many local women.  They also facilitate a weekly farmer’s cooperative group that supports their organic farming interest and efforts.

– Anisha conducts a program targeting post-7th grade students by supporting them to remain in school.

Photo: Aminah Hermann

– Anisha is currently conducting its four-year Kitchen Garden Project that will eventually educate at least 1400 students on how to grow their own gardens at home.  Data collection after the first year showed that 743 student gardens were planted, maintained, and monitored, producing over 13,000 pounds (5,900kg) of organic vegetables – despite the almost complete lack of rainfall. The programme is designed to have a multiplier effect as more students are brought on board.  The systematic education on organic farming theory and practice can potentially help move agricultural practices in this area in the direction of organic farming, with all of its resulting benefits.

This is all essential work that is boosting the fertility of an area where drought and years of chemical use have made the soil unproductive.

Increasing the productivity of the soil was the concern of Jayadi Paembonan, permaculture practitioner, who participated at a Human Force camp at Anisha in 2012. He then went on to spend 3 months as a volunteer at the project in 2013 with his family, working to implement aspects of permaculture design, which were taken on board by the organisation in its regular practices.

You can watch videos about Anisha and support Anisha’s Kitchen Garden Project here.