Poison for lunch: a farmer-entrepreneur’s perspective

Green field with red skull and crossbones in superimposed

Yesterday, in the popular TV show, Satyamev Jayate, actor Aamir Khan took up the issue of organic farming and how indiscriminate use of pesticides is poisoning everyone, including farmers. The show took me back to the book I have just finished reading—Simply Fly: A Deccan Odyssey.

Written by Captain G R Gopinath, the founder of Air Deccan, the first low-cost airline in India that transformed the face of aviation, the “warts and all book” has been hailed as an “eminently suitable guide for entrepreneurs.”

What I found fascinating was the chapter on Captain Gopinath’s experiences as a farmer.

Going by the reactions to the TV show, no one was in favor of continuing the use of “poisons” for the sake of “better yield”. Farmer Gopinath arrived at the same conclusion by following his instinct, by listening to ancient wisdom, by keen observation and by trial and error.

How do forests thrive without pesticides?

He lost his family’s jointly-owned farmland to a new dam. They got about 40 acres of dry tract land as compensation. It was not easy to reach this new piece of land and no one was inclined to move there. Captain Gopinath boarded a bus to “have a look at the land”.  After a long walk (eight kilometers from the nearest village), he climbed a hillock to see the land.  At that moment, he took the decision “to live there and work on the land.”

“Typical new-age farmers brought in heavy farm equipment to clear the existing vegetation. They dug up the earth with heavy bulldozers and clean shaved the undergrowth.

“I could not explain why but I was uncomfortable with this approach. Later I discovered how, from the fruit seeds in bird droppings amidst the vegetation, nature produced its own best conditions for the seeds to sprout with the first rains, grow into saplings, and, eventually, trees. Subsequently I discovered the first rule of farming: Do not clear up the land.

“Less farming is good farming. I set a diktat—nobody should touch anything that grew on the land, the rule extending right up to the periphery. I gradually learnt to recognize local tree and plant species and worked towards ensuring that they were allowed to thrive, selectively clearing the undergrowth to expose the soil.”

Captain Gopinath had been advised by the old and the wise to “be careful not to erode even an ounce of the precious topsoil. It is the topsoil which is holding this world together.  I, therefore, opened up the topsoil very gently and cautiously, like a surgeon would a patient’s skin. I put in place ridges and bunds to capture rainwater and to protect topsoil erosion.

“In traditional practice, farming is all about being in harmony with nature…. Modern framing is all about the conquest of nature.

“There were millions of insects on the farm. I saw that when they died their remains returned to the topsoil and replenished soil fertility. While the intensive use of fertilizer and pest-control chemicals brought in relatively high yields in a short time-frame, the techniques were double-edged.  Aggressive, intensive, deep-trench tilling exposed soil to the elements of nature, resulting in erosion. The use of fertilizers and chemicals acted on the biotic activity of the topsoil; they too stripped the soil of its natural layer of nutrients. Artificial fertilizers also altered soil chemistry and rendered it sterile.

“Farming was not just about phosphorous and nitrogen compounds or chemical pest and weed killers. These are the agents of interference that we had brought into play in our limited understanding. Farming is wholly about building and nurturing natural relationships. The first crop might benefit from the artificially introduced nutrient, but after one crop, the soil did not sustain the yield, unless greater quantities of chemicals were used.

“We have taken it upon ourselves to regulate natural agents. Forests sported the most luxuriant and wildest of growth and undergrowth but one did not hear of disease afflicting a prime forest.”

Leave their food alone; they will not eat yours

His own experiment with chemicals had disastrous consequences.

“When the termites attacked the coconut trees on the farm, we had used benzene hexachloride to get rid of them. When it rained the spray was washed down into the soil and stream nearby, carrying the residual chemicals along with it, polluting the soil, the stream, the ponds and the groundwater. One day, I told the workers not to remove any of the fallen remains of the coconut trees. Miraculously we found that the termites stopped attacking the coconut trees and were now feeding on the waste material around them.  I realized that termites were attacking the coconut trees because the soil was like a clean concrete floor, offering them no nourishment. In our obsession to keep the soil clean we had been removing all twigs, branches, dead organisms, thereby disturbing soil ecology.

“A successful harvest is directly related to the presence of an optimum number of insects in the cultivated field. While acknowledging the insect’s positive role, the farmer must also be willing to allow the insect to eat and not go hungry. It will eat what is readily available, the leaf of the crop the farmer is growing. This is a trade-off. A caterpillar eats leaf. There are thousands of varieties of caterpillars that become moths or butterflies. The butterfly is a pollen courier so if you get rid of the caterpillar you also lose the butterfly.”

On a visit to the US, he noticed that in the practice of no-till farming, the farmer applied a thick blanket of weedicide over the field after every crop. “The chemical analysis of water from depths of 100 to 150 meters showed that they were completely polluted and contained harmful compounds, far above the permissible levels.”

“A weed is an integral part of the ecosystem and to maintain the balance you have to recycle the weed back to nature.”

One day Capt Gopinath came home with 30 bags full of seeds. The bags contained insects that were steadily boring into the seeds. “I spread the seeds out to air them. On my return I found there were as many insects as there were seeds. There was a line of ants heading to and from the seeds. They were carrying away the insects and not the seeds. I had found my natural pesticide.”Cover of the book Simply Fly: A Deccan Odyssey

He used such “natural pesticides” in the cattle shed too. “I kept some country chicken and allowed them to forage in the cattle shed to control the ticks. Cattle egrets and mynahs are assiduous tick pickers. In modern enclosures, the birds do not get access to the cattle. The farmers end up using chemicals to get rid of the ticks.”

During the TV show, the only person who spoke in favor of pesticides was the chairman of a giant company that made pesticides. His argument was that without pesticides, farming would not be economically viable. After his arduous life as a farmer during which he “went through hell and saw heaven” Capt Gopinath came to the conclusion: “What is not ecologically sound is not economically viable in the long run.”

It would have been interesting if Capt Gopinath was in the Satyamev Jayate show.


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