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Farmers in India, tens of thousands of them, have joined a quiet but growing rebellion, one that could affect how the world feeds itself. They're going organic. They've stopped farming with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, a chemical system of farming introduced to India more than 40 years ago. At the time, crop yields soared, but what followed were water shortages, pollution and crushing debt. And now the organic alternative is attracting support from surprising places. NPR's Daniel Zwerdling has this report.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Amarjit Sharma farms right in the middle of the region they call the breadbasket of India. He's in the state of Punjab, up north, and he says when the green revolution came to his village, he was one of its biggest boosters. But after about 20 years, things unraveled.

Mr. AMARJIT SHARMA (Farmer): (Through Translator) We had, at that time, realized the vicious circle in which we were stuck. We realized that we didn't have anything under our own control.

ZWERDLING: As Sharma tells his story through my interpreter, we're walking through his fields. The green wheat stalks come up to our waists.

When was the last time that you sprayed chemical pesticides on your crop?

Mr. SHARMA: (Through Translator) 2005, sometime before April. Four years ago.

ZWERDLING: And when was the last time you sprayed synthetic fertilizers?

Mr. SHARMA: (Through Translator) Four years ago.

ZWERDLING: Why?

Mr. SHARMA: (Through Translator) The Punjabi farmers' problems have reached such levels that he wasn't making any profit. We also saw that the environment was getting destroyed. Natural farming seemed like the only way out.

ZWERDLING: Sharma's story symbolizes the dilemma that developing countries are facing around the world. What's the most sustainable way to grow enough food? The answers will eventually affect you, because you think the world is unstable now?

(Soundbite of music)

ZWERDLING: Think what could happen if India and Africa and other parts of the world can't feed themselves.

(Soundbite of video)

Announcer: Global agriculture faces one of the most important challenges of the 21st century.

ZWERDLING: That's a video from Monsanto, the huge agribusiness firm.

(Soundbite of video)

Announcer: By 2050, there will be nine billion people on Earth.

ZWERDLING: Monsanto says genetic engineering will help save the day. As you might know, Monsanto scientists are taking genes from animals and bacteria and they're inserting them in plants, so the plants grow faster and fight insects naturally.

Monsanto's spokesman in India is Christopher Samuel. He says over the next 20 years, they're going to invent crops that produce twice as much food.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER SAMUEL (Monsanto Spokesman in India): That's the first part, produce more, while reducing the amount of land, water, and energy and that's fertilizer there by 30 percent by 2030 - so protecting the environment and its natural resources.

ZWERDLING: But activists say we've heard Monsanto's kind of promises before about the green revolution, and it turned out that the system caused serious side effects. They say why should anyone assume that biotechnology won't cause long-term problems, too? So activists have been preaching that organic farming...

(Soundbite of door closing)

ZWERDLING: …is the only way farmers can survive. Amarjit Sharma heard their sermon.

Mr. SHARMA: (Foreign language spoken)

ZWERDLING: Now he's a convert. Back in his fields, Sharma says organic means you have to farm in a more thoughtful way. For instance, he used to grow nothing but wheat in every direction, or nothing but rice later in the year. The government subsidizes farmers to do that. But studies show it destroys the soil. And Sharma says he had to buy more and more fertilizer every year just to grow the same amount of crops. But now that he's gone organic, he's growing wheat and two other crops in the very same field, all mixed together. He's planted beans, because they add nitrogen to the soil naturally.

Mr. SHARMA: (Through Translator) In natural farming, there's a lot of savings. We don't have to buy fertilizers.

ZWERDLING: And Sharma's growing mustard with bright yellow flowers, because when you have a variety of crops, they attract good bugs.

Mr. SHARMA: (Foreign language spoken)

ZWERDLING: Ah, a ladybug.

Mr. SHARMA: (Through Translator) It's a friendly insect. It's a friend. It will eat up whatever pests will come on the plant.

ZWERDLING: So Sharma doesn't have to buy pesticides anymore. Okay, fine. But the big question is: What's Sharma's bottom line? He says he can show us, but we have to go back to his house in the village. He's right near the temple.

(Soundbite of music)

ZWERDLING: Sharma has us wait in his courtyard, just a few feet from his jumpy cows. And he goes inside to find his financial records. Meanwhile, his wife is scooping up the manure with her bare hands and she's patting it into disks. When it dries, they use it to fuel their cooking fire. Now Sharma comes back with a sheaf of papers.

Does anybody have a calculator on your mobile phone?

And the numbers are mixed. First, here's the good news. Sharma's organic rice crops are doing well.

Mr. SHARMA: (Through Translator) With rice, we're almost at par with the commercial agriculture, especially with basmati rice.

ZWERDLING: And he saves a lot of money not buying chemicals. But here's the bad news. He's harvesting only half as much wheat as he did when he used chemicals.

So you are farming organically based partly on faith, right, that your crop yields will keep going up?

Mr. SHARMA: (Foreign language spoken)

ZWERDLING: Sharma says, remember, India's government has spent billions and billions of dollars over the last 40 years trying to perfect chemical farming. Just think how much food organic farmers could grow if the government did research to help them. He says he'll never go back to the chemical way.

Mr. SHARMA: (Through Translator) We are not worried about how much yield we're going to get. We are worried about our families and our children. We will never sell or eat poison.

ZWERDLING: A few days after I visited Sharma, I met with one of the most influential officials in Punjab's agriculture industry. I figured he'd denounce organic farming, he'd say it's a pipe dream. Instead, he said the opposite.

Mr. GURCHARAN KALKAT (Director, Punjab State Farmer's Commission): Farmers must go to organic farming.

ZWERDLING: Did you catch that? Gurcharan Kalkat is director of the Punjab State Farmer's Commission. They study agriculture for Punjab's government. And one of their latest studies concludes that organic methods could make most farms across the country better. Kalkat says most farmland isn't very good. The farmers use dangerous amounts of chemicals. And organic farming could help cure that. He has a heavy accent for the American ear, so listen again with a voiceover.

Mr. KALKAT: (Through Translator) Farmers must go for organic farming.

ZWERDLING: On the other hand, the study does not agree with activists who say everybody should go organic. For instance, the state of Punjab is the most intensive farming region in India, and the study says if they stopped using chemicals completely, crop yields would fall and hurt national security. Still, Kalkat says...

Mr. KALKAT: (Through Translator) For 70 percent of the area in the country, farmers must go for organic farming.

ZWERDLING: And he says government scientists should help them.

Mr. KALKAT: (Through Translator) They should collect all the new techniques so that over the next two years, we're in a position to say that if you want to do organic farming, this is the way to do it.

ZWERDLING: But a lot of farmers aren't going to wait. An environmental group in India estimates that more than 300,000 farmers have gone organic, or they're in the process. That's 30 times as many as in the United States.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

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