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India's Organic Farming Revolution

What It Means for Our Global Food System

Sapna E. Thottathil

Publication Year: 2014

Should you buy organic food? Is it just a status symbol, or is it really better for us? Is it really better for the environment? What about organic produce grown thousands of miles from our kitchens, or on massive corporately owned farms? Is “local” or “small-scale” better, even if it’s not organic? A lot of consumers who would like to do the right thing for their health and the environment are asking such questions.

Sapna Thottathil calls on us to rethink the politics of organic food by focusing on what it means for the people who grow and sell it—what it means for their health, the health of their environment, and also their economic and political well-being. Taking readers to the state of Kerala in southern India, she shows us a place where the so-called “Green Revolution” program of hybrid seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and rising pesticide use had failed to reduce hunger while it caused a cascade of economic, medical, and environmental problems. Farmers burdened with huge debts from buying the new seeds and chemicals were committing suicide in troubling numbers. Farm laborers suffered from pesticide poisoning and rising rates of birth defects. A sharp fall in biodiversity worried environmental activists, and everyone was anxious about declining yields of key export crops like black pepper and coffee.

In their debates about how to solve these problems, farmers, environmentalists, and policymakers drew on Kerala’s history of and continuing commitment to grassroots democracy. In 2010, they took the unprecedented step of enacting a policy that requires all Kerala growers to farm organically by 2020. How this policy came to be and its immediate economic, political, and physical effects on the state’s residents offer lessons for everyone interested in agriculture, the environment, and what to eat for dinner. Kerala’s example shows that when done right, this kind of agriculture can be good for everyone in our global food system.

Published by: University of Iowa Press

Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication

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Abbreviations and Acronyms

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pp. ix-x

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Foreword: From India to My Plate

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pp. xi-xvi

When the British government announced in 2000 that it would cut 60 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 to mitigate climate change, no one expected that this plan would conflict with sustainable development and poverty alleviation in countries like India. Unfortunately...

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pp. xvii-xx

Over eight years of research and thought went into writing this book, which emerged from my PhD dissertation work at the University of California at Berkeley. I am indebted to the many people who gave me extensive time and resources to conduct my research and then write...

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1. Globalization and Organic Food Systems

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pp. 1-15

In the south of India is a land of coconuts — Kerala, as it is called in Malayalam, the local language. Several sizes and varieties of coconut trees fill every possible corner, swaying behind train stations in groves and along city streets, lining the sides of every canal and waterway, and...

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2. Crisis in Indian Agriculture

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pp. 16-39

Bananas, particularly salty, deep-fried plantain chips, have become an increasingly popular snack and gift in Kerala. People eat them during afternoon teatime, bring over bags of freshly made chips when visiting the homes of friends and family, and regularly snack on them while on the go...

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3. The Third World’s Model for Development

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pp. 40-56

In the 1990s, famed environmentalist Bill McKibben penned that Kerala was “weird — like one of those places where the Starship Enterprise might land that superficially resembles Earth but is slightly off.”1 He went on to laud the South Indian state as “the Mount Everest of social development...

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4. Forging a Statewide Organic Farming Policy in Kerala

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pp. 57-82

At the turn of the twenty-first century, Kerala’s agrarian crisis was reaching its peak. The Green Revolution was taking its toll throughout the state. Many farmers found themselves without substantial income from their pepper and coffee gardens because of pesticide-induced diseases...

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5. The Social and Ecological Benefits of Organic Farming

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pp. 83-110

It was going to be a hot day. It was only 8:00 a.m., yet the temperature was already around eighty degrees Fahrenheit. I was en route again to Palakkad District, Kerala’s rice bowl, to spend more time with Thanal. This time I was heading straight for the Palghat Gap, a valley in the Western...

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6. Local versus Organic Markets

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pp. 111-135

Stories of food contamination and poisoning are not uncommon these days, from outbreaks of multidrug-resistant salmonella in American chicken supplies to milk laced with melamine from China. It often seems as if the food produced in our globalized food system cannot be trusted...

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7. Organic — a Good Option for Dinner in Our Globalized World

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pp. 136-150

Wrapped in a sleeve of gold-colored foil, with an early European trade ship on the front, the “Incredible India” extra-dark chocolate bar made its debut at the International Sweets and Biscuits Fair in Cologne, Germany in 2011. Containing over 70 percent cocoa, it was the first candy...

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Afterword: The Ongoing Work

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pp. 151-156

I caught up with Usha over the phone after Kerala’s government released its 2013–2014 budget. Funding for organic agriculture under the new budget looked promising: the UDF government had increased funds for the organic farming policy to over 100 million rupees, close to $2 million...

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Appendix: 2010 Kerala State Organic Farming Policy, Strategy and Action Plan

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pp. 157-176

India has a glorious history of farming, starting probably from the 6th millennium BC in the Indus Valley [with the] harnessing [of] annual floods and the subsequent alluvial deposits. The Indus Valley Civilization was founded on sustainable farming practices. Subsequently, our culture and ethos became reflections...


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pp. 177-178


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pp. 179-204


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pp. 205-206


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pp. 207-224


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pp. 225-231

E-ISBN-13: 9781609383015
E-ISBN-10: 160938301X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781609382773
Print-ISBN-10: 1609382773

Page Count: 253
Illustrations: 5 b&w photos, 2 tables
Publication Year: 2014

Edition: paper