It's a sunny day at Rosie and Peter's Kitchen Garden and Food Forest in Anjuna, a village in the coastal state of Goa, India.
Long after the harsh summer, a torrential coastal monsoon, and the dreaded October heat have come and gone the farm reveals abundance. Verdant, almost overgrown, it requires careful navigating over ridges and mulch-covered trenches, to explore the interiors. It's hard to imagine that just nine months ago, this 26,000 square foot piece of degraded land was filled with with debris and junk. Today, it is home to over 45 varieties of vegetables and fruit (likely to double in the coming months), including tomatoes, spinach, red and green amaranth and roselle leaves.
To Peter Fernandes and Rosie Harding, this isn't unconventional. It's just farming the way it used to be. And the government is encouraging similar efforts. In October this year, the State Department of Agriculture in Goa, launched a program offering 50 percent assistance to those using organic inputs to raise food crops in a push to encourage local farmers to adopt organic practices and methods that preserve threatened soil health and clean water.
Last year, the northeastern state of Sikkim became India's first 100 percent organic, GMO-free state, converting 75,000 hectares of agricultural land into certified organic farms. Today, its 800,000 tons of organic produce contributes to nearly 65 percent of India's overall output.
Goa is trying to catch up. The coastal climate here makes it a fertile space to experiment, and the work of individuals like Fernandes and Harding is proof. Their journey has been completely self-taught: rigorous reading and research followed by live experiments, trial and error helped them discover sustainable systems, specific to the climate, soil conditions and local produce of Goa.
Fernandes and Harding use their farms as live laboratories to develop methods to help people sustainably grow much of the food they need. It all started a little over four years ago, when they were seeking out produce that they could consume without thinking twice—food grown by methods that preserved their nutritive value—and realizing there was absolutely nothing.
"We're taking a lot of trouble to bring poisonous crap to our tables. Frankly, I just got a little pissed off with the notion that we live in a state that has no dearth of fertility, enjoys an excellent climate—and yet the only way to eat healthy food was to grow it ourselves," Fernandes told me.
Their philosophy is centered round a simple premise: Growing food that sustains not only its consumers, but also its environment.
"The scope of our activities is quite wide, taking in kitchen gardening, urban farming, you'd have to throw in agroforestry, land regeneration, permaculture, water management, local food security, health and local economies, and a few more things we can't label quite clearly yet," said Fernandes, describing his efforts as aiming for a sustainable way of life itself.
Very early on, the couple realized that much of the information in the public domain cannot be applied to Indian conditions. Simply replicating methods used in places with climate nothing like it is in India, doesn't work. Take raised bed gardening, for example. It's very commonly used across Europe and North America, where temperate climes cause the ground to freeze under during winter, but that's not the case in India.
"The trouble is everybody wants to grow cash crops rather than stick to something more fundamental and staple," Fernandes said. "Goa's unique soil pathogens do not allow natural cultivation of most certain cash crops, like tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, potatoes."
He said poly-tunnels and PVC pipe structures commonly used to grow vegetables are not local to the state. These methods kill all traces of life in the soil, which in turn robs the produce of a major chunk of its nutritional potential.
The couple is also concerned about chemical fertilizers. They're widely touted for their ability to aid soil fertility and promote growth, but little is done to promote information and awareness about their side-effects on soil health, like mass destruction of naturally occurring micronutrients that render soil useless over time. The government has recently recognized this soil crisis, which can lead to failed crop rotations, and created incentives for farmers to better understand the nutrients in soil.
According to a WaterAid report on the impact of agriculture on on the quality of groundwater, "In Asia a quarter of the growth in rice production has been attributed to increased fertiliser use." While there has been a deceleration in the use of nitrogen fertilizer in industrialised countries, Asian countries have tripled the use of these same fertilizers.
While chemical fertilizers can help increase food production, they can have the dangerous side effect of contaminating groundwater through nitrates that pass passed through the soil. Nitrate is the principal nutrient leached to groundwater and is highly soluble, mobile and not readily degraded under aerobic conditions.
Even so, quickly jumping on to "organic" or similar bandwagons, without thoroughly testing out a set of methods, has its disadvantages. For one, organic food is not necessarily any healthier than conventionally grown food, as Stanford University reported in a study back in 2012. It's also prone to unsustainable trends.
"We've seen a number of instances where a particular crop became the poster child of the year and got heavily promoted, especially after a few early adopters did very well financially. Invariably, this would lead to a 'gold rush', with everybody and his uncle jumping on the same bandwagon," Fernandes said.
Many argue that organic farming will never produce enough yield to feed the world. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, reduced yield (compared to conventional farming) is the primary reason organic farming might never be enough to feed the world.
The same piece, however, stresses the need for higher funding, governmental intervention in terms of more research and intelligence being invested, as has been done with conventional farming. In Sikkim, the yield for some crops has decreased after the state's push to go organic, but other crops, like maize, have increased.
It's also crucial to know what methods to use where, how and why. Post-tsunami farming rehabilitation projects in Tamil Nadu have proven that using right methods is key, when a large yield is needed in a short time, in a focused area.
Fernandes and Harding are looking into the more obvious but overlooked answer, which is to invest precious time and effort into building a robust set of practices, in a format that can be imparted clearly and concisely and most importantly, in a way that it doesn't suffer in the retelling. This, is a vital part of the support farmers need.
They have no business plan and no commercial ends. Hesitant to immediately work with policy-makers and government agencies, they hope to create a space for knowledge and awareness-building through workshops and seminars. Meanwhile, an active Facebook page with more than 3200 followers and enthusiasts from seemingly obscure parts of the country has a surprisingly diverse reach.
"Chemical farming has had 60 odd years to solidly entrench itself in our agricultural systems. We don't expect to make a huge dent in it overnight. We believe that the more carefully we lay our groundwork, no pun intended, the more likely we are to succeed in make a noticeable impact," Fernandes said.
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