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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The government's top civil servant for health and family welfare in Punjab, Health Secretary T. R. Sarangal, says more time is needed to study the problem. "Certainly, we are in a danger zone as far as the toxicity and danger of fertilizers are concerned," says Sarangal. But the last time cancer rates were measured officially in southern Punjab—about seven years ago—the rates were actually below the national average. The state government is now commissioning two new cancer survey studies in an effort to document the extent of the problem, and it is also financing two new public-private partnerships for the construction of cancer hospitals in Punjab.

"It is a perception by the hospitals and by the households that cancer rates are much higher than in previous decades," says G. P. I. Singh, a public health expert who has worked in southern Punjab for over 25 years. "The entire area of Punjab today is overloaded with pesticides. What is troublesome are the chronic effects. They take generations or decades to manifest themselves."

Some doctors, like Singh, and activists are pressing farmers to go back to earlier agricultural techniques, even at the expense of reducing India's farm production. "What are you achieving by feeding people at the cost of their health?" says Singh.

Umendra Dutt, a towering, energetic environmental activist with chest-length locks and a thick beard, goes a step further, arguing that "the Green Revolution has devastated the entire ecosystem of our society—the ecology and economy—we have lost almost all of our biodiversity. [It] is input intensive, techno-centric, resource-guzzling. It is not a cultural transformation leading to self-sufficiency." Not in the way that organic farming is, he argues. "Our [organic] farmers are living a life that is much more sustainable," says Dutt.

The organic movement, if it qualifies as a movement, is running up against the strong incentives the government provides farmers to support Green Revolution techniques: from the minimum price support the government offers farmers for wheat and rice made with the aid of fertilizer and pesticides to the social pressure to prevent farmers from changing decades-long practices.

Can the economics pay off? That's unclear. Sharma, who is now the custodian of his village's organic seed bank, says his wheat yield is half that of his neighbors, who used pesticides and fertilizer. But he is able to sell his organically grown crop for something more than twice the going price. In addition, he doesn't have to buy costly supplies such as hybrid seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, purchases which put many farmers into debt at the start of each growing season.

Sharma uses traditional homemade pesticides such as cow manure mixed with urine, soured milk, garlic, chilies, and the leaves of a native plant to ward off parasitic insects. He is making a bet that over time, organic farming will narrow the productivity gap if his methods are able to improve the quality of soil damaged by chemically intensive farming. The major difference between chemical farming and organic farming is that with chemical farming, the yield either decreases or stays stagnant over time while with organic farming, the quality of the soil increases, he says. "After two or three years, the yield will be equal."

But while some farmers talk of going organic, India faces what could become a new controversy over expanding the use of genetically modified seeds in what supporters envision as a second Green Revolution. This may promise salvation for a hungry world but, in rural India, the pluses and minuses of the first Green Revolution are still being tallied.