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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
[“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.
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.
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.
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.”
The writer is a staffer at the Herald.
This article was published in the Herald's December 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.