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Organic Food Farming


Mar 21, 2007
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United States
Manoj Genani
July 15, 2018


The proud father and daughter duo have earned more than 200,000 rupees selling produce from their kitchen garden

On one of my visits to the remote villages of district Qambar Shahdadkot in Sindh, I noticed some endeavours for uplifting the underdeveloped communities in the region.

The way to Union Council Hazar Wah, was largely through barren land, but a parts of the landscape were dotted with greenish wheat crops, harvested only weeks ago.

In the village, I found a tea shop where some farmers and elderly men were enjoying tea. Inside the dhaaba, a vegetable vendor had also set up his shop.

Some 70 kilometres away from district headquarters at Qambar we reached the village of Sahibdad Brohi to meet the Brohi family who run an organic farm business. Partially shaded by neem and other indigenous trees, the Brohis’ humble home is separated from neighbouring mud huts by a small water drain Twenty-two-year-old Rashida Brohi was picking vegetables in her garden and piling them into a blue basket. She invited us into her courtyard where charpoys were laid out for guests.

Small-scale farmers are using organic methods for growing vegetables

Like many others, Rashida’s family faced chronic poverty after the 2010 floods inundated their area, forcing people to evacuate their homes for months. The inundation of their village was so quick that the residents hardly had time to collect their belongings — they could barely even save their lives.


Rashida watering the compost material

The Brohis struggled to make ends meet until 2014, when they started their organic garden.

Rashida’s father, Abdul Qadir Brohi, says, “Initially it was a challenge to grow a vegetable garden through organic methods. We were quite sceptical and thought perhaps it won’t work, but gradually it became our livelihood.” Presently, the kitchen garden provides enough means to feed their family of seven and also to have a bit left over as savings as well.

Rashida proudly shows off her organic kitchen garden laid out on 10,000 square-feet alongside their home. “We wanted everyone in the neighbourhood to consume uncontaminated, toxin-free vegetables,” she says. “This is primarily why we started growing organic vegetables on this small piece of land. Now everyone can have these vegetables at a nominal cost.”


Organic food served by Rashida

They took different training sessions on organic farming, and kitchen gardening organised by ActionAid with its local partner NGO’s Development Society. “NDS sensitised and strengthened us by multiple awareness sessions, trainings on producing organic food. And their technical support has changed our life pattern completely,” says Brohi enthusiastically.

Earlier, the Brohis used expensive pesticide spray to protect their garden. Now that they have learnt about organic methods, they only need neem tree leaves and soaps to make a liquid that is sprayed fortnightly on the plants. “Once the neem leaves and soap in water are mixed, I heat it for at least two hours and then it is cooled down at room temperature,” says Brohi. “Spraying this on the plants help increase production by saving the plants from harmful insects.”


Stove ashes and other waste from the home are collected to be dumped into a ditch to make organic fertiliser

Previously, they would spend approximately 8,000 rupees on pesticides and fertilisers for their quarter acre of land. But now with making organic sprays and fertilisers at home, they have brought the expense down to only 200 rupees a month. The yield is cleaner, fresher and more abundant than before.

As Brohi spoke to us about the family business, Rashida was busy collecting ashes from stoves and dumping them into a small ditch in the courtyard. The ditch serves as a natural container of organic compost; ash, animal waste, leaves and dust are thrown into the ditch and care is taken to not to throw in any plastic.


Collecting animal waste which will be used to make fertiliser

“Once the hole fills up with material, I put two cans of water and cover it with a plastic shopper for three to four days. This naturally creates compost which is natural and free of toxins,” explains Rashida.

Salma Bhatti is an activist who helps the villagers grow kitchen gardens and provide smallholder farmers, particularly women, with technical support. She further explains the process of making organic fertilisers. “Organic fertiliser is usually made from plants, animal waste or powdered minerals. They are actually soil conditioners rather than fertilisers, which improve the structure of the soil and increase its retention of water nutrients,” she says.

“We are trying to build an understanding among people about the use of pesticides which are harmful to health,” Salma adds. There are 15 more families who grow organic food in Shahdadkot and around 32 women are smallholder farmers who cultivate cash crops using organic methods. These initiatives have brought astounding results and we have completely eliminated the use of inorganic pesticides and fertilisers.”


Rashida holds a basketful of vegetables from her garden to prepare the day’s lunch

For the past two years, Rashida has been growing seasonal vegetables such as potatoes, tomatos, chillies, cucumbers, onions, coriander, eggplants, carrots, radishes, mint and spinach in her organic kitchen garden. With the passage of time, her small oasis’ yield has increased in quantity as well as the quality.

Rashida’s income register shows that, last year, her family earned more than 237,000 rupees from their small plot of land. She says the turnover was unexpected. Her dream now is to invest in another plot of land so that she can provide organic food to people outside her neighbourhood as well.
ISLAMABAD: The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) partnered with the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) to create a programme to train Pakistani banana farmers in the proper methods to turn crop waste into compost.

“What farmers are burning as waste is actually a valuable resource,” Dr Shoukat Abro of the Sindh Agricultural Extension Department pointed out.

Farmers in Sindh produce 90% of bananas in Pakistan and have traditionally burned the waste produced by the crop. USDA began a three-year Improving Soil Fertility and Soil Health through the agricultural extension project in an effort to get farmers to use those waste materials to benefit from land and increase crop production. A USDA team visited a banana farm in Tando Allahyr to observe the progress of the programme.

ICARDA is directing ten other Pakistani institutions involved in this project to train farmers to properly turn the leaves and stems left over from banana harvest into compost.

The compost can then be used to enrich their soil. There are currently 43 sites throughout Pakistan for farmers to learn about the process of mixing organic matter like banana harvest waste with manure in order to create compost.

The project looks to expand into other crop production areas to identify more organic materials that can be converted into compost.

USDA, through funding provided by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), has provided technical expertise and guidance to farmers throughout the country. Their focus has been on using the established method of applying compost to nutrient depleted soil to enrich it with organic matter and improve its water holding capacity.

Agriculture is Pakistan’s second largest sector, accounting for over 21% of the GDP.

It remains by far the largest employer, with 46% of the labour force working in the sector. For 62% of Pakistani population in rural areas, agriculture is a vital part of daily life. USDA supports Pakistani scientists and farmers to enhance agricultural productivity in Pakistan, support economic objectives and meet food security needs.
Pakistan farmers go organic

Given the imperatives of saving water and coping with erratic weather, farmers in Pakistan are going the organic way, but without proper certification the quality of produce is hard to guarantee


Khalid Khan, a farmer on the outskirts of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, has been cultivating organic wheat and vegetables, not just to save money on pesticides and fertilisers but also to cope with water scarcity. What started off as an experiment has become a way of life with his income trebling.

The 58-year-old is one of the small but growing number of farmers being encouraged to go organic in a bid to conserve water, adapt to climate change and boost income.

According to the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council, the total area under organic agriculture has grown from 35,000 acres in 2005 to 150,000 acres in 2010. An estimated 33% of farmers in Pakistan are going organic and this number is projected to double in the next couple of years.

“The demand for organic products is high in the market and I earned three times more just in six months,” said Khalid, who first cultivated organic vegetables in 2011. Encouraged by the success, he then started growing organic wheat on his sprawling seven acres of farmland in an Islamabad suburb.

And it has its environmental benefits too. “This also helps me conserve a lot of water and save money as we don’t use pesticides and fertilisers for the crops,” he said.

Given the imperatives of saving water and protecting the environment, the Council is providing expertise, bio-fertilisers and indigenous seeds to farmers to encourage organic farming.

“Indigenous seeds used for organic farming are more resilient to severe weather conditions than the hybrid seeds available in the market,” Qurban Hussain, water director at the Council.

Small farmers are also encouraged to use bio-fertilisers for their crops as this helps sustain the harvest on less water, he said. Moreover, bio-fertilisers don’t pollute the crops or the environment.

Muhammad Farooq, a director at the National Institute of Organic Agriculture, agrees that organic agriculture is fast increasing because farmers are getting better yields from their crops by using less water and saving money on pesticides and fertilisers.

“At the moment, we are focusing only on small farmers and helping them grow organic crops,” he said, adding that small farmers cannot afford the high prices of petroleum products and electricity to get water from tube wells.

As awareness increases so does the demand for organic food and Pakistani farmers have been increasing their profit margins by exporting vegetables and dried as well as fresh fruits to the Middle East and Europe.

According to Farooq, “The export of the organic products stands at US$100 million a year and we are struggling to double it in a couple of years.”

There are problems. He admitted that there is no proper certification system available for organic products. “We are setting up a laboratory for certification and this will help in ensuring quality.”

At the moment, some multinational companies are exporting organic food from Pakistan after proper testing and certification, he said.

To help small organic growers, Kuch Khaas, a civic organisation in Islamabad, arranges a weekly Farmers Market on its premises where growers bring their produce for sale.

Ayesha Maqsood, an Islamabad resident, is one of those who regularly visits the market to stock up. “My family loves organic food because it is nutritious and healthy,” she said.

She is conscious of the fact that the products are not certified by any organisation but says are far better than the vegetables and fruits being sold in the open market. “People want to buy and consume healthy food but there is need to create awareness about benefits of the organic food.”

Global organic boom

A 2012 report of the Food and Agriculture Organization says that organic agriculture is the fastest growing food sector in the world in both land use and market size, although this fact is tempered by the fact that it was virtually non-existent until very recently.

The report also says that growth rates in organic food sales have been in the range of 20- 25% for the last 10 years. In 2002, the total market value of certified organic products was estimated at US$20 billion and that value doubled to US$40 billion by 2006.

Critics, however, say pure organic farming in the present circumstances is almost impossible as the soil and water are contaminated with numerous pollutants and chemicals.

Tanveer Arif, head of Pakistan’s Society for Conservation and Protection of the Environment, suggests that the government introduce food safety standards and food safety regulations to keep a check on the quality of produce being sold as organic.

He said the government should also keep in mind the issue of food security while promoting organic farming. “Organic farming produces lower yields and it may exacerbate the issue of food security if it is adapted at a larger scale,” he said.

There is a lot at stake.

The World Bank says that more than two-thirds of Pakistanis live in rural areas, of which about 68% are employed in agriculture – 40% of the total labour force. The agriculture sector accounts for about 22% of the national GDP.

The bank also says that about 2% of households control more than 45% of the land area in Pakistan. Large farmers have also captured subsidies in water and agriculture, as well as the benefits of agricultural growth.

Mountain Fruits

“God has given us clean, natural protected sites to grow organic foods but, unfortunately, they are being used as battlefields instead of organic fields” – Sher Ghazi

A broken pick-up, a generator, discarded furniture, a computer and a printer from the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, and a modest sum of two million rupees were the only resources that Sher Ghazi possessed when he decided to turn his dream of launching an improved apricot drying project to reality. Today, he is the CEO of Mountain Fruits (Pvt Ltd), the only fruit-production company in Pakistan to sell organic, Fairtrade apricots.

Ghazi worked with the AKRSP for 13 years after graduating in Food Technology from the University of Agriculture in Faisalabad. Today, Mountain Fruits exports organic walnuts, almonds and dried apples to Fairtrade markets in Europe along with the distinctly flavoured Hunza apricots. He dreams of bringing more farmers under the Fairtrade umbrella to aid them in securing international markets and preventing over-payment to agents.

Q: A notable thing about Mountain Fruits is that it is certified by the Fairtrade Labelling Organisations (FLO). How do you maintain your certification and what problems, if any, does the company face?

A: Fair trade is an ethical business that is aimed at the socio-economic development of small producers and workers. In a Fairtrade certified business, the Fairtrade organisation, farmers and the company itself, agree upon a minimum price, which is always higher when compared to what other companies pay their workers. Only those companies that continually fulfil the required FLO standards are certified. Fair trade gives opportunities to small and marginalised producers to sell their products in an international and high-value market.

Being Fairtrade-certified also means that ILO conventions on child labour, forced labour, bonded labour and other human rights issues are met in addition to the social development agenda for the small farmers. Fairtrade not only ensures a minimum cost, covering the price and providing a sustainable market for the contracted producers, but also pays the farmers back a fair trade premium that is used to cover the socio-economic development of the producers.

Q: You run the first local fruit processing company to hire women. What prompted that decision, and in which other ways do you empower women at Mountain Fruits?

A: I have been inspired by the mission of His Highness the Aga Khan and the services of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). I wanted to pursue the same philosophy of empowering women in society, and train them in the improved method of drying apricots so that they could increase their earnings. We employ 60 to 100 women in the factory, paying them the minimum wage (Rs 6,000 per month).

A food factory needs technical staff along with the labourers and, often, it is hard to find trained and skilled women. I didn’t want to have the men and women work together in the same area in the culturally restrictive environment that exists in Gilgit. Instead, we selected some educated women and trained them in computers and processing so that they could work as supervisors.

One of these women, Ms Shahina, is currently training in food technology at the Karakoram International University in Gilgit. We are trying to send her to the UK for a short training course in food processing in our partner’s company, where she will mainly learn how to hygienically process the food. I also want her to go to the UK for practical training in further products development. Currently, we do not hire women during winter or during the off-season – but by training Ms Shahina, we can work during the off-season by producing fruit bars and candy, and thus employ women throughout the year.


Fairtrade fruit: Mountain Fruits ensures farmers are not exploited and that they have access to high-value international markets.

Q: Your products are organic, which can be both difficult and expensive to produce. What does it mean to you to have certified, organic produce?

A: Organic certification costs Rs 320,000 per year. This is an international fee and covers the expense of international consultants to do the social auditing of our company. We pay this amount because our company needs to be a transparent and socially audited company.

Personally, I love organic foods because I know the ill effects of agrichemicals on our health. Organic produce has very high value in a developed society; this certificate guarantees that a product with an organically certified logo has no agrichemicals and is 100% free from all preservatives.

Q: The basic structure of Mountain Fruits involves organising small farmers to help increase their income. How do you select individual farmers? Do you train the farmers as well?

A: Fairtrade is open to everyone without discrimination, but a company must have the ability/expertise to organise small-scale, marginalised and disadvantaged producers looking for guidance. Mountain Fruits is willing to invest time and resources to bring change and development in these farming communities. We want them to have the skills to develop an internationally acceptable product.

At Mountain Fruits, we do not only train the male and female producers but we also distribute the materials farmers require to dry the fruits. Originally they were using pieces of old cloth or stones and mud roofs, which is definitely not hygienic. So, we provide them with wooden trays to dry the fruits so that they may be of export quality, on interest-free credit. We recover the amount later when these farmers sell the dried fruits (the end product) to our company. So far, we have distributed 23,000 fruit drying trays among farmers on credit.

Q: Do you feel that more companies in Pakistan should implement fair trade policies?

A: All Asian Fairtrade producers are members of the Network Asia Producers (NAP), which attempts to promote the sale of Fairtrade products in developed markets of the world. As the Pakistan director for NAP, I have invited companies in Pakistan to register themselves as Fairtrade. Unfortunately, under the current system, industrialists do not have the requisite government support in their facilities; they’re struggling to survive. Fairtrade demands a social agenda for the development of the producers or hired labour. Nobody is ready to do that.

Q: Many have supported the movement to use GM Foods to feed the world. Do you think that arbitrary distinctions such as “Fairtrade” and “organic” make a difference in a country like Pakistan?

A: Well, when you are in trouble, you have to survive even by eating grass. Thank God that today we at least have wheat in the market, regardless of whether it is GM or full of chemicals. Most people have no idea of the pesticide residue we take in each day when we buy fresh vegetables in the market. Unfortunately in Pakistan, we are fighting for our survival. In such conditions, if we do not grow GM foods, we should at least attempt to grow more hybrids with high production potential.

God has given us clean, natural protected sites to grow organic foods but, unfortunately, they are being used as battlefields instead of organic fields. We can earn higher incomes by producing organic rice, cotton, sugar and fruits to sell in the international market.

Q: Do you believe that farmers have a responsibility to produce organic foods in order to minimise the ill effects of agrichemicals?

A: Yes, but it is the duty of the government to support them, provide them with opportunities. You can find bread for Rs 2 in some parts of the Punjab, but in the rest of the country it is for Rs 10. Is this a policy for sustainable development? No. We are far behind in the world and still drowning speedily
Why organic farming is an uphill task in Pakistan

Fatima Shaheen Niazi


Rabia Khan giving instructions to a worker at her farm in Malir | Photos by Mohammad Ali, White Star

Vendors at the Karachi Farmers Market sit calmly in front of their stock of organic vegetables stacked neatly on tables. Customers stroll by, trying to gauge which table has the best produce. Men are dressed comfortably in shorts and jeans while women look casual yet stylish with their branded bags tucked under their arms and their sunglasses perched on top of their heads. Laughter of children running around can be heard over soothing music playing in the background. With omelettes being made at some stalls and some vendors selling fresh juices, the market looks like a food festival.

This is how a small group of people, who have switched to consuming organic food, spend their Sunday mornings. They believe organic vegetables will reduce the health risks non-organic ones expose them to. Most importantly, they are willing to pay extra.


Cauliflower grown using fertilisers and pesticides at an inorganic farm

Noorul Amin is the manager of a two-and-a-half acre organic farm near Dumlotti wells, a British-era water supply scheme situated on the north-eastern outskirts of Karachi. The plants at the farm are tiny and sparse and their yield measly. During an early morning inspection in November, he picks an eggplant. It has no sheen, its skin is not smooth and its size is small.

Amin has to ensure the vegetables being grown at the farm survive ants, pests and other blights. Three other workers help him tend to the crops. He has trained them in organic methods to protect the produce without using chemicals.


A woman picking spinach at an organic farm

By midday, Amin will head to a conventional farm of his own. The 18-acre piece of land is blooming with cauliflowers and eggplants ready to be plucked. The vegetables are glistening under the sun — looking like a still life painting. No ants, bees or any insects are in sight.

Industrially-produced and chemical-based fertilisers that give plants the nutrients they need to grow faster and bigger are an essential ingredient at inorganic farms. “[These] fertilisers to plants are what hormonal injections are to chickens,” Amin explains. And they can also be as dangerous as steroids.

A study conducted in 2015 by the American-Eurasian Journal of Toxicological Sciences in Algeria on 34 farmers revealed that the use of fertilisers led to high nitrate contents in food which, when consumed over a long period of time, created toxicity in blood. It also caused respiratory ailments, headaches and skin rashes among farmers.


An inorganic eggplant being plucked

Organic farmers, therefore, avoid using fertilisers. “Even the manure we use in organic farming comes from animals who are not given hormonal injections,” says Amin.

Still there are things he cannot control. The same tractors that plough non-organic farms are used at organic farms. “We wash them before using them but it is still likely that some chemicals stuck in tractor wheels get transferred to organic crops,” Amin says.

Buying a tractor, costing as much as 1.2 million rupees, for exclusive use at a small organic farm does not make economic sense.


Green chillies grown organically

Muzammil Niazi’s farm has been operating in Karachi’s Malir area for the past 10 years and is spread out over six acres. He grows vegetables and salads such as rocket leaves, coriander, green onion, radish and eggplant. He also raises goats and chickens on organic feed.

“We do not say we are 100 per cent organic,” he says. “Our label instead states that we grow our vegetables organically.” There is an inorganic farm right next to his — nothing separating the two except a few feet of land. “If pesticides are sprayed on the other farm, they are likely to reach my crops in small amounts.”

Niazi, who is in his seventies, lives on his farm with his wife Rabia Khan. The vegetables they grow are sold in many super markets in Karachi as well as online. The two are also the founders of the Karachi Farmers Market.


A woman plucking green onions at an organic farm

Niazi’s farms differ in many ways from neighbouring ones that use sewage water for irrigation. Niazi, on the other hand, irrigates his vegetables with fresh water extracted from the ground and sends water samples to a lab every four months to check if there are any harmful pathogens or germs in it.

He also uses certified organic seeds, often procured from abroad, manure and natural pesticides. “We spray our own pesticides on the crops,” he explains. These contain chillies and garlic, that blind insects, and tobacco, that makes them faint. He also uses insect-eating plants.

“These methods do not hurt the human body,” Niazi says. “Bottles of chemical pesticides, on the other hand, have human skulls drawn on them. What does that tell? That those substances are lethal.”


Spinach grown at an organic farm being prepared to be sent for packaging

The World Health Organisation (WHO) verifies this. According to a recent report, around three million cases of pesticide poisoning occur globally each year, leading to nearly 220,000 deaths in developing countries.

Crop rotation also distinguishes organic farming from conventional farming. “If we have spinach on one plot today, we will have some other vegetable in that plot in the next crop cycle,” says Niazi. Such rotation gives soil the time it needs to recuperate. “If the current crop is taking iron from the soil, the next crop should take fibre instead,” Niazi explains.

The practices he follows at his farm are mandatory for any farmer wishing to sell their produce at the Karachi Farmers Market. Since there is no government authority in Pakistan to certify a produce as organic or otherwise, those operating the market every Sunday regulate it on their own.


A stall at the Karachi Farmers Market

[“T]here are about 5,000 small organic farms in Pakistan,” says Qasim Tareen, one of the founders of the Pakistan Organic Association (POA), that is yet to be registered. The organisation was formed nearly two months ago to protect and promote organic farming in the country. “We need the government to support these farms,” he says.

This is an important cause, Tareen argues, because organic farming has noticeable benefits for the environment. It reduces the use of fossil fuels for the production of fertilisers and pesticides and it also consumes less water. “Primary nutrients in chemical fertilisers require ten times more water than organic ones,” according to Tareen. “If we switch to organic farming, we will not have a shortage of water.”

He also believes there are ways and means to increase crop yields without using fertilisers and pesticides. However, he says, that will first and foremost need lands not already polluted by chemicals. Such lands are available aplenty, he says, in mountainous areas in the north of the country and also along the Pak-Afghan border.


Employees packaging organic vegetables to be sold at superstores

And many existing small organic farms are already showing what can be possible. “They are producing four to eight tonnes of produce every month.”

These farms are located either in Sindh or Hunza (in Gilgit-Baltistan) but “most of their produce never reaches the domestic market”. Almost all of it is exported.

Tareen’s organisation is currently working on devising a government-led system of certification for organic products being grown in Pakistan. It has approached the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council, a government entity that once had a division by the name of the National Institute of Organic Agriculture. The council so far has shown no interest in devising a certification process, he alleges.

However, an official at the council states that the institute of organic agriculture shut down long ago. He also does not have any knowledge of a certification regime being set up.


The farmers market in Karachi

Imagine picking an eggplant that looks bright and beautiful. As you cut it to cook, you find an insect nestled inside. Disgusted, you throw the whole thing away. No one wants to eat pest-infested vegetables.

Rabia Khan believes a pest in a vegetable does not make it inedible. The produce can be consumed after the insect is removed, she says. “Agricultural industries have brainwashed people into believing that vegetables and fruits have to be perfect. It is natural for them to have blemishes,” she says.

Sitting on a charpoy on a recent weekday, Rabia Khan is wearing a hat and branded running shoes. With a pink digital watch adorning her wrist, she looks like someone who means business.


Eggplants at an inorganic farm in Karachi

Organic farmers, she says, have a number of disadvantages. For one, according to her, they have to pay more for irrigating their crops with uncontaminated water. “The government can fix the problem by creating a farm sprinkler system fund.” A sprinkler large enough to irrigate an acre of land costs 200,000 rupees and is not affordable for a small farmer without help from the government, she adds.

Organic crops also take longer to mature. A mint plant grown inorganically is ready for harvesting in 40 days but it will take almost two months when produced organically. “Sometimes we are unable to control pests so a whole crop goes to waste,” says Niazi.

“Organic vegetables are expensive because they are difficult to grow.”
Wow, it's truly heartwarming to hear about the Brohi family's success with their organic farming business. It's amazing to see how small-scale farmers are using organic methods to grow vegetables and make a living.
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