In June 2018, Maharashtra government banned the sale of five extremely toxic insecticides and cancelled the licenses of six companies, after pesticide-related accidents consumed the lives of 62 farmers across the state. The Ministry of Agriculture, Govt. of India issued the Pesticides (Prohibition) Order, 2018, banning the use of 18 pesticides. The ban applies to registration, import, manufacture, formulation, transport, sale and use of all these pesticides. Despite this, farmers across the country continue to use toxic chemical pesticides driven by the urge to maximize production. However, phasing out the use of harmful chemical pesticides is urgently needed for the safety of the farmer, consumer and the environment.

Pesticide residues accumulating in the soil and plant parts are responsible for the contamination of underground water sources, environmental pollution and the attendant human health costs. The awareness about the harmful effects of chemical pesticides is growing in India. Stories of chemical pesticide pollution are reported from different parts of the country. However, creating awareness alone doesn’t suffice. We also need to ensure that the pesticide-free foods are made easily available to the consumer to create a demand-driven shift towards sustainable agriculture. Safe Harvest Private Limited (SHPL) is a company engaged in this task, trying to establish pesticide-free food as a category in retail markets. SHPL has been promoted by a group of civil society organizations who have come together to form the Non-Pesticide Management (NPM) Network. The NPM network motivates farmers to take up chemical pesticide-free agriculture.

SHPL offers remunerative prices to farmers and strives to find a place for their produce in organized retail markets. SHPL currently works with about 1 lakh smallholder farmers who are members of 25 Farmer Producer Organizations (FPOs) that are spread across 11 states. A majority of these farmers are women and lack access to organized markets. SHPL insulates these farmers from the risks of high input conventional farming while offering them a fair price by instituting transparent procurement mechanisms. In many cases, the intervention of SHPL has raised farmer incomes by 25% or more. In addition to obtaining Mandi prices at the farm gate, farmers also gain on account of lowered input costs. To consumers, SHPL promises a range of affordable pesticide-free natural food products. It has a strong system of testing every batch of every product it procures for 127 pesticide residues as per the Jaivik Bharat standards, to ensure that the products are pesticide-free.

NPM agriculture is not about eliminating pesticide use alone. NPM agriculture promotes ecologically sustainable farming practices that save water. Agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of the total freshwater withdrawals globally and in India. The limits to water withdrawals, especially from underground, have been reached in many parts of the country. Water levels have been falling and wells and borewells have been drying up. It is clear that water conservation and higher recharge alone cannot solve the problem. The binding constraint lies in the demand for water. Hence, NPM agriculture stresses the need for demand-side management of water, thereby reducing the water footprint of crops and cropping systems. Promotion of water-saving cropping patterns through price incentives is the mandate of SHPL. For instance, farmers in Karnataka grow paddy under the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) to economize the use of water. By providing a market connect for these farmers, SHPL encourages them to continue cultivating through the SRI Method. Similarly, SHPL offers a market connect for pulses produced by rainfed farmers in Maharashtra, and for wheat varieties grown with limited water in Madhya Pradesh.

Another promising solution to the current agro-ecological crisis is millets. Millets are a great replacement for 'fine grains', rice and wheat. They are more resilient, consume lesser water and are naturally resistant to pests/disease. In many parts of India, they have been displaced by Rice and Wheat promoted during the Green Revolution. Millets are again seeing a resurgence as people in urban areas are becoming more health conscious and are realizing the health benefits that they offer. Moreover, state governments like that of Odisha and Karnataka are promoting millets on a large scale, as can be seen by Karnataka's annual trade fair for Organics and Millets.

Safe harvest is helping revive millets by providing a market to the millet cultivators. To create greater consciousness amongst the masses with regard to the benefits of millets, the Safe Harvest team has come up with specific communication material for millets. If you chance upon their website you will find different appetizing millet recipes such as Bisibele Bath. These recipes are thoughtfully curated keeping in mind the majority of urban consumers who are often at a loss as to how to cook millets.

The experience of SHPL demonstrates the role market can play in combating water crisis by offering remunerative prices to farmers, thereby encouraging them to promote and practice less water intensive agriculture. We must also realize that that unless price incentives are provided and a minimum income is assured, ecologically sustainable methods of farming are not going to be adopted. SHPL is still a drop in the vast ocean of farming sector in India but it has set a precedent in addressing the twin challenges of ecological sustainability of farming and livelihood security of farmers.

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