Many farmers in Punjab are finding their eureka moments in bubbling containers of fermenting fruits to make bioenzymes. With nearly 11 lakh tonnes production of citrus in Punjab, of which 20-30% goes waste, Bioenzymes just might become the hook for enabling farmers to move towards sustainable agriculture.
The agricultural landscape of Punjab evokes disparate images. The lush green fields of paddy and wheat no longer hide the tremendous ecological cost incurred to maintain a focus on the grain yields. Known as a the country’s bread basket, Punjab contributes to nearly 20% of the wheat, and 12% of rice production in India. However, the state is a cruel paradox of supposed food security. These yields are largely an outcome of the Green Revolution practices based on the introduction of High Yielding Varieties (HYV) of wheat and rice accompanied by a cocktail of fertilisers, pesticides and intensive irrigation systems. A 2020 assessment found that most of the districts in Punjab had over-exploited the groundwater levels, and predicted the unavailability of usable ground water by 2050 if the trends continue. In many districts the available groundwater is highly contaminated by pesticides and agricultural run-off rendering entire populations susceptible to long-term effects of pesticide poisoning. The list of adverse consequences go on, and prevailing economic incentives of offering price guarantee for grains are doing little to change the mainstream agricultural practices. Yet, an alternate narrative maybe be emerging from unlikely quarters; A growing number of farmers are finding their eureka moments in bubbling containers of fermenting fruits.
A home-grown passion that turned into a mission
Vipesh Garg, a horticultural development officer at the Department of Horticulture,
Punjab Govt., describes himself as a passionate gardener. He explained, “I have been growing vegetables since I was young, and strongly feel that everyone should grow atleast some food on their own. Trying to find ways that people can grow food and add low-cost nutrients to their soil brought to bioenzymes.” Bioenzymes are organic solutions made through the fermentation of the organic waste including fruits, vegetables, plants. The organic waste is mixed with sugar, jaggery, and water and left for a period of 60-100 days to create a healthy culture of bacteria that can help improve soil fertility and pH. A popular, and low-cost method employed by home gardeners to use their kitchen waste, Vipesh immediately saw its potential at a much larger scale. He knew of dung-based concoctions, usually employed in sustainable farming, and its limitations in farmers’ unwillingness to handle to the work and odour. Bioenzymes on the other hand are easier to make and accept as an alternative. Vipesh set about building a narrative around bioenzymes highlighting its use for even personal hygiene as shampoos, soaps etc to build wider interest. His initial attempts to induct practitioners involved gifting almost anyone he met with a bottle of home-made bioenzyme. To scale the efforts he turned his attention to horticulturists in Punjab.
Brewing a fruity revolution
Apart from grains, Punjab also produces 10-11 lakh tonnes of citrus (Kinnow), with nearly 40,000 hectares under kinnow orchard cultivation spread across various districts. He knew that roughly 15-20% of the kinnows fall from trees before harvesting due to various weather conditions, or pest attack etc. Farmers usually try and bury the fallen kinnows as swiftly as possible to deter the spread of fruit rot or fly attack that can impact the healthy fruits as well. The efforts are labour intensive and the fear of pests drives farmers to spray even more chemicals on their orchards. However, breaking this cycle of behaviour is not easy. Vipesh recalls how he started convincing farmers by encouraging them to experiment at a small scale. “Back in 2018, I was given charge of 84 villages, and I wanted the farmers to switch to sustainable farming.
As I was frequently visiting villages, I ended up befriending an influential farmer, Kuldeep Singh of Mal Singh Wala village close to Faridkot. While talking to him, I noticed the carpet of jamun fruit lying at our feet and suggested to him to try making bioenzymes from the fruit since it would go to waste anyway. He agreed to make a batch of 10 litres and we were both amazed to see the vibrant purple of the prepared solution. He sprayed the liquid on a 2-acre patch where he grew chillies and was encouraged by the increased harvest and quality of chillies.” Soon Kuldeep Singh began making larger batches, and Vipesh used his farm as an exposure site to convince other farmers in the area. Farmers found multiple incentives for using bioenzymes, once they learned how to make it. They could reduce cultivation costs by buying less or no chemical pesticides, with the enzyme acting as viable alternative. Farmers like Gurraj Singh Virk, have reported saving nearly 2.5 lakhs in the past two years after switching to use of bioenzymes in their orchards, and eliminating the cost of fungicides that were typically used earlier. Encouraged by his experience, Gurraj Singh has since then conducted many workshops and become a vocal supporter of bioenzymes. In Abohar, the kinnow belt of Punjab, at least 1,000 farmers have reportedly switched over to using bioenzymes instead of chemical pesticides with significant savings in the cost of production.
Cultures in making
Well aware of the need to create cultural acceptance and a narrative, Vipesh began advocating various uses of bioenzymes beyond a pest repellent. He is confident that a vibrant market is possible for the sale of bioenzymes as personal hygiene products and household cleaners. He explained, “If farmers can sell a litre for even 20 rs, we can create a 3000 crore market in Punjab alone, given the fruit waste generated each year. I see bioenzyme as a design solution that is able to tackle multiple problems of waste disposal, depleting soil fertility, pesticide use and chemical pollution.” In his bid to popularise the use of bioenzymes and create a market, Vipesh facilitated bioenzyme workshops across many schools in Punjab. During his initial interactions with farmers, some of them thought they could get into trouble if the police thought this to be some illegal alcohol brewing network (which are rampant in many places) so Vipesh curated a workshop at the State Central Jail to create awareness amongst the police directly. However, he is also aware that large scale implementation will require consistent state support, and he has repeatedly tried to involve higher authorities at public events to help the movement gain some official legitimacy. Simultaneously, he has also collaborated with farmers to tweak the process, and shorten the preparation period to 45 days, with lesser stirring involved. He additionally runs an active Whatsapp group where farmers and other fermentation enthusiasts regularly post their experiences and questions, with even sale and purchase of raw materials or the finished product happening organically.
The case for cautious optimism
Alternate practices and methods are often criticised for lacking scientific rigour in terms of efficacy and evidence. Thus, in an effort to gain institutional validation, Vipesh has actively approached scientists in agricultural universities to test bioenzymes for their effect on plant health. Dr Urmila Phutela from Punjab Agricultural University is one of the scientists conducting research on the effects and uses of bioenzymes on different plant varieties. Slowly, other researchers are conducting systematic trials to establish the use of bioenzymes and standardise the optimal potency of the solutions. Such partnerships are integral to supporting and legitimising field experiences. Meanwhile, the increasing popularity has already spurred many enterprises selling bioenzymes for various purposes ranging from cleaning agents to health and hygiene products. One hopes that the momentum finds a solid footing in science and public perception.
Deborah Dutta is a Research and Documentation Consultant in the Living Farm Incomes (LFI) project, IRMA.