The Toxic Consequences of the Green Revolution

In India, farmers find that benefits of pesticides and herbicides may come at a tragically high cost.

Indian farmers harvest wheat in a field near the village of Bathinda.

Indian farmers harvest wheat in a field near the village of Bathinda.

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JAJJAL VILLAGE, INDIA—Four decades after the so-called Green Revolution enabled this vast nation to feed itself, some farmers are turning their backs on modern agricultural methods—the use of modified seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides—in favor of organic farming.

This is not a matter of producing gourmet food for environmentally attuned consumers but rather something of a life-and-death choice in villages like this one, where the benefits of the Green Revolution have been coupled with unanticipated harmful consequences from chemical pollution.

As driving their actions, the new organic farmers cite the rising costs of seed, fertilizer, and pesticides, and concerns that decades of chemical use is ruining the soil. But many are also revolting against what they see as the environmental degradation that has come with the new farming techniques, particularly the serious pollution of drinking water that village residents blame for causing cancer and other diseases.

"People are fed up with chemical farming," says Amarjit Sharma, a farmer for 30 years who began organic farming four years ago. "The earth is now addicted to the use of these chemicals."

For now, their numbers are small, perhaps 5 percent of farmers around the agricultural region in the Punjab state, known for its cotton production. But this is a trend that could become important if their numbers grow and cut into India's agricultural productivity in an era of tightening global food supplies.

Starting in 1965, India's Green Revolution transformed the country's few fertile regions into veritable breadbaskets, quadrupling India's output of wheat and rice. The revolution brought new irrigation techniques, hybrid seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and mechanization. Punjab's farmers became heroes of a self-sufficient India no longer dependent upon shipments of foreign grain and making a clean cut with a past full of mass starvation and food aid from the United States.

Times have changed, says Prof. R. K. Mahajan, an agricultural economist at Punjabi University. "The Green Revolution is not as green as it was earlier—it has now become brown and pale," he says. "The profit margins have skewed to the minimum."

The Green Revolution hardly seems to have made much of an impact in terms of well-being here. Rural poverty abounds, malarial mosquitoes breed in stagnant pools of water, and bullock carts far outnumber motor vehicles.

And behind the walls villagers speak of cancer, which they say is on the rise along with other ailments such as renal failure, stillborn babies, and birth defects that researchers attribute to the overuse and misuse of pesticides and herbicides. Punjab represents only 1.5 percent of India's geography but accounts for nearly a 20 percent share of its pesticide consumption.

In many cases, rural farmers don't know proper usage and disposal techniques, with few using protective clothing or equipment when handling highly toxic chemicals. In farming villages, pesticide containers are sometimes reused as kitchen containers. And many farmers assume that applying more pesticides and herbicides is better, without understanding that the heavy use is gradually poisoning water supplies.

Lying under a tree on a charpoi, a traditional bed made of taught rope, Santosh Rani, 30, believes she is one of the victims. "I have cancer," she says, her voice barely above a whisper as she clenches her stomach. Since 2001, 40 people have died from various forms of cancer in Rani's village of about 3,300; until 10 years ago, village residents say cancer was very rare or at least largely unknown by villagers who now regard it as a menace stalking all of them.

Some research does support their fears. A recent Punjabi University study found a high rate of genetic damage among farmers, which was attributed to pesticide use. The study found DNA damage affecting a third of the sample group of 210 farmers spraying pesticides and herbicides, a level apparently unaffected by other factors such as age, smoking, and dietary habits. A second study, also made public this past year, found widespread contamination of drinking water with pesticide chemicals and heavy metals, all of which are linked to cancer and other life-threatening ailments.