Organic food is still somewhat of a fad to the general populace, but there’s no doubting that interest has grown manifold in recent times.
We hear a lot about how the vegetables we buy, after meticulous inspection to choose the best produce and at best price, are often heavily contaminated with chemical fertilizers and insecticides. You must have sighed and groaned at the prospect of harmful toxins entering your body, and dreaded future health implications.
Once upon a time, all farming in Nepal was organic. In most villages, people grew organic (not certified, as such) but they would rely on cattle and kitchen waste. The use of pesticides started in the early 1950s, when DDT (Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane) was extensively used in the Terai for eradicating malaria. Later, Parathion was imported in large quantities, followed by other chemicals such as Endirin, Chlordane, Aldrin, and Dieldrin during the 1950s and 1960s. Studies have revealed that, since then, Nepali farmers have a preference for highly toxic insecticides with broadspectrum activity, which result in immediate knockdown of pests. Most of these pesticides have been banned, but Methyl Parathion is still in use, being one of the most popular insecticides.
Also, over a period of time, the population of Kathmandu Valley has been rising, with ever growing demand on food, fuel, and other essential supplies. To meet this demand, commercialization of agriculture is necessary. This entails high-value of commodities based on intensive agriculture, which often involves increased use of pesticides. Agriculture hotspots such as Paanchkhal in Kavre, and districts like Morang, Chitwan, Siraha, Sindhuli, Dhading, Makawanpur, Parsa, Bara, Rautahat, Kaski, Dang, Banke, Kailali, and Kanchanpur are quite notorious for the use of chemical pesticides. During my undergrad years, we had done a case study on the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides at Paanchkhaal, a popular hub for growing different vegetables. We were dismayed to find that locals referred to those chemicals as ausadhi (medicines) that supposedly made the produce better.
While commercial farming has benefitted farmers in terms of yield and income, they have also started complaining about the side-effects and downsides of chemical pesticides. Additionally, they have low knowledge about pesticides and their uses, as a result of which, general precautionary measures are lagging. The enforcement of pesticide regulation is quite poor; thus increasing their potential to impact human health. In Paanchkhaal, chemical fertilizers and pesticides have escalated the degradation of soil, making it brittle and unproductive. Moreover, highly toxic insecticides with broad spectrum activity are killing off not only harmful insects, but useful ones, too. Situation has become so worse, that now, nothing grows in the soil unless and until they apply huge amounts of chemical fertilizers. Hence, owing to these facts, and also media campaigns against the use of pesticides and consumers’ awareness on organic food, many farmers have started going organic.
The culture of organic farming is growing slowly. Inspiration is flowing in from abroad, and today, several NGOs/INGOs promote their use. Thanks to intensive awareness campaigns, farmers have chosen to go organic. To discourage use of pesticides, big hoarding boards have been installed in rural areas showing how pesticide-laden food would lead to adverse health effects. Today, many organizations, home stays, and organic farms promote organic farming. The farm owners are seen training national and international students/researchers/farmers on the methods of bio-intensive agriculture, based on deep-digging, use of compost, and insect control through diverse cropping pattern and homemade botanical sprays. Pioneers like Judith Conant Chase, an American who started her organic farm back in the 1980s, have influenced local farmers to start the same. An electrical engineer turned organic farmer, Sudarsan Karki, grows different kinds of fruits and vegetables in his farm, Kavreli Family Farm. And, near Thimi, Bhaktapur, there is this beautiful Danish-affiliated organic farm named Soebogaard that has been conducting trainings, and has helped over 200 small farmers and dairy producers go organic.
It is almost two years now that Saurav Dhakal has been encouraging organic farmers from Fulbari, Patalegaun, in value chain management. As an investor in an organic farm, he is involved in marketing of seasonal and value-added organic produce. When I ask him about the certification, he says that the products have not been certified as organic per se. “We do not use chemical fertilizers and pesticides at all, so the products are organic. However, we have not certified them,” he says, adding, “We are seeking consumers who prefer organic food, and have created an online-platform-based marketing of value added products, so that we can supply them on a regular basis.” He is working on the concept of “farm to home”, encouraging locals to consume organic food.
The global appeal of going ‘green’ by opting for a more sustainable approach to food production is leading to a paradigm shift even in Nepali agriculture. Today, locals and tourists alike are seeking out places that serve organic food. A few entrepreneurs in Kathmandu are trying to foster a culture of farmers’ market, offering fresh organic produce.
However, going organic is not as easy task. Studies have found that heavily contaminated agricultural lands must be left barren for three-four years before going organic. Hence, prospective organic-in-transition often calls for technical assistance, as well as financial support. Meanwhile, farmers are known to have grown amala and timmur in the transition plots without adding extra chemical fertilizers. These plants are said to ‘purify’ soil faster, and also help farmers get some economic benefit, instead of leaving the land barren.
It is, however, important to be aware that not everything that is labeled ‘organic’ is necessarily ‘green’. Today, an organic product is also somehow labeled as a ‘fancy product’, says Dhakal. According to him, many consumers demand it, but do not necessarily consume it. People still prefer to buy it from the local market, pedantically examining it and bargaining with vendors. “Organic produce is usually displayed ostentatiously, while buyers are still used to buying vegetables and fruits from local markets,” he says. It seems that the majority of bourgeois families want to taste, but do not want to consume it regularly. There are a few middle class and upper middle class consumers who are becoming more conscious of what they eat, and are willing to pay extra more for organic produce.
I ask Dhakal if price is another issue for the organic market. “I do not think price is the problem. The price is not so expensive because our prices are not affected by the Indian market.” Whilst organic produce sold in posh areas vying for international consumers might have raised their prices, it seems the price of organic product is affordable. “Sometimes, if we provide our products in cheaper price, buyers become skeptical about the quality and ask if the produce is really organic or not!” he shares.
In a nutshell, the cost of certification (here, organic verification is done through Organic Certification Nepal; an expensive mechanism, as Dhakal confides), little awareness on organic constituents, lack of enforcement of stringent legislation, and loose mechanism on consumer safety are the things that keep the food you consume from being truly organic.
Five places where you can go for organic food
1. Saurav Dhakal
Patalegaun Organic Farm
For home delivery of seasonal and value-added organic produce
2. Bu Keba, Bakhundole
3. Kheti Bazaar, Dillibazaar
4. The Green Organic Café and Salad Bar
5. Prithivi Bar and Café, Sanepa