India’s (and the world’s!) first 100% organic state in 2016, Sikkim has a lot to be proud of. 75 years of independence later, how far have we come and where do we stand today?
In 2003, Sikkim first passed a resolution to stop the use of chemicals and pesticides. This was effectively the beginning of a gradual journey to the 100% organic state we know it to be today.
The state was crowned the first of its kind on both national and global platforms. They even received an award from the Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome. So what does organic farming culture in the Sikkim of 2022 look like?
First, some context
Following the ban on chemical imports in 2003, the government was forced to move quick. If policies promoting agro-ecological and sustainable food systems were not put in place, it was the farmers who’d have to bear the brunt. It was meant to be a slow shift, then a complete ban.
In 2010, the State Government launched the Sikkim Organic Mission in hopes of fast-tracking the 100% achievement. Farmers were showered with seeds, manure, and training.
According to official data, the transition benefitted over 66,000 farming families, spearheaded rural development and even promoted sustainable living. Bio-villages, with expensively constructed vermicompost pits, were created. Farmers were trained extensively in various organic farming practices including the production of compost and natural fertilisers.
Furthermore, the government launched special market complexes entitled Sikkim Organic Market. Organic products were sold at a higher price than their non-organic counterparts, promoting it in the state doubling as an effective market linkage between farmers and buyers.
So far, so good
Besides proving transformational for both public health and the environment, it also promoted tourism. Additionally, bee populations began to rebound, restoring Sikkim’s fragile ecosystem.
Cardamom yields increased by a significant amount. To improve soil health management, the government provided around 40,000 soil tests annually. Furthermore, the three livelihood schools for organic farming managed to educate 836 unemployed people, 695 of whom are now employed as field supervisors.
Well no, not from the looks of it. According to Naresh Shrestha – Asst Gen Secretary, Sikkim Hotels and Restaurants Association, it’s not really possible.
“Sikkim is a really harsh terrain, there isn’t that much farmland. We don’t really have the luxury of cultivating several crops for the variety of ingredients used. It’s just whatever we’re able to farm, we use it across restaurants. Most of the vegetables and stuff that comes in is from other places. Onions simply won’t grow in these regions,” he stresses.
Executive Chef Siddharth of Vivanta Sikkim, Pakyong agrees, adding, “If I’ve to get organic vegetables, then I’ve to get organic oil and all other ingredients so that the dish can be 100% organic.”
The government’s initial focus was on five crops, namely large cardamom, ginger, buckwheat, turmeric, and orchid. While the plan was later expanded to include all crops that could be cultivated in the region, there is unfortunately minimal data to corroborate the same.
Speaking to a few restaurants and bakeries from the region as well, they’re immediately upfront about the inability to take organic from a boutique to commercial level.
What are the challenges?
A menu promoting organic food has been on Chef Siddharth’s radar for a while. Across the hotel, he hopes to create a tasting or limited-edition seasonal menu. But it’s not a smooth sailing dream.
“Transport is the challenge. It’s a bit difficult to source all ingredients from various villages of Sikkim. If you want fresh things, it’s going to take a long time to get to where you are. And by then, the freshness of the vegetables is gone. It’s also extremely expensive to source in comparison,” says the chef.
The problem goes a few layers deep too. According to Tenzin Tash, co-founder of Rai’s Kitchen, farmers aren’t made aware of the demand for their produce. They’re then exploited with low-profit margins, and so people would rather take up cab-driving and other odd jobs.
“We’ve tried our best to make farmers aware over a period of time, working with the FPOs to ensure they get the best possible returns,” he explains. Having run a purely organic business from day one, he agrees that it isn’t the easiest thing in the world to source local organic produce, and also provides only limited options.
There’s also the common concern of no adequate storage facilities, creating more waste than anything else. Add to that a decrease in the number of people taking up organic farming, and the revolution seems to be taking a hit.
As Naresh simply puts it, “People just don’t want to take it up. It’s hard work. I’m also a city boy I’ve just come to the village, but it’s hard work digging pits and I wouldn’t even say I really know how to plant a potato. So yeah young people are moving out, and nobody’s really left behind with the knowledge to take things forward in spite of the supportive government schemes.”
The potential for hope
Salvation may yet be in sight. With the pandemic fuelling health and wellness trends as well as revenge tourism in its wake, organic food and farm stays are shaping up to be the saviour duo.
And Chef Siddharth is hoping to cash in on the trend and see his organic vision through. “We’re going to be sourcing from other farms for the organic menu. That’s only in a couple of months post-winter though, because this time is a lean period in Sikkim owing to the landslides etc. I’m going to make the menu entirely seasonal, so it can’t be part of the ala carte menu. Just limited-edition.”
Apart from restaurants attempting to promote organic produce, the farm-to-table concept comes through beautifully at the local homestays in Sikkim. Although most places use produce from their own farms, they refrain from calling it 100% organic. It’s still a much better choice than most though, without burning a hole in your pocket or forcing you to go too rustic.
“If you want to experience real organic food, then a random hotel in Gangtok isn’t going to cut it. You need to visit some of the farm stays and home stays across Sikkim, where they serve farm-to-table food. I believe if the government put in enough thrust into policies supporting and promoting such places, the farm-to-table concept can help,” says Naresh, who owns his own farm stay.
With 178 countries involved in organic farming, the global market for such produce reached $89.7 Billion USD in 2016. It’s only been expected to grow exponentially in the coming years. If workarounds can be found for the few but key obstacles in the growth of Sikkim’s organic farming, it’s destined to be a win-win for all.