Organic cane sugar:
Farmers in India bet on your sweet tooth and the future of their children.

Flat, dry, hot and dusty – since Ben Kingsley portrayed Ghandi on the Salt March that’s the general impression of what rural India looks like. The 1982 movie ‘Ghandi’ could have been filmed in Solapur, a district in the southern part of the Indian state of Maharashtra. Around 17,000 farmers and their families live here. Most of them have no more than 1 to 1.5 ha land and whoever can do so grows sugarcane.

‘Last year irrigation saved us’, says Pradeep Kanchan from Suminter, an Indian organisation that helps small farmers to grow, process and market organic produce. Pradeep Kanchan is in charge of the Suminter cane sugar project in Maharashtra. In 2009 he facilitated the first farm-conversions to organic, today 1,500 farmers in 12 villages in Solapur District grow certified organic sugar cane. In 2014 Suminter helped one of the co-operatives to get a Fairtrade certification; 500 farmers now receive a Fairtrade premium for their organic cane sugar. Why just one co-operative? Why don’t all Suminter famers profit from Fairtrade? The answer is simple: We don’t buy enough Fairtrade organic sugar. ‘We get calls from farmers every day who want to become members of Suminter and transition to organic’, says Pradeep Kanchan, ‘but as long as the market for Fairtrade certified organic sugar doesn’t grow, we can’t accept new members. We have to pay for the annual organic and the Fairtrade audits, that’s pretty expensive. It doesn’t help anyone if we produce more certified organic and Fairtrade sugar than the market will take’.

A rather sad conclusion, given that even the first year under Fairtrade showed clearly that the premium does help improve things: the farmers decided to use the Fairtrade premium to purchase a drip water irrigation system. During the last few years a number of dams have been built in the region and a network of canals now provides irrigation water to almost all farmers.

But in India, too, the effects of climate change are clearly visible, the start of the monsoon has become unreliable, in some years the rains don’t come at all and the water table in the reservoirs falls dramatically. Most farmers use electric pumps to flood their fields with water from the canals – a wasteful method, given the fact that there is not enough water for everyone in drought years. Switching to drip irrigation is expensive, but in the long run it conserves water and that’s the only way to prevent complete yield failures.

In a good year – that is one with plenty of rain – the sugarcane seedlings are planted after the start of the monsoon in June. It takes at least 10 months for them to mature. The time of harvest also depends on the capacities of the sugar mills. After the weather, politics is the second most important factor for sugarcane farmers in India. The sugar market is regulated by the federal government, and there are frequent protests and disputes between farmers and the mills.

In order to guarantee a consistent high quality, Suminter works with a mill that only processes organic sugarcane. Because organic sugar is sold at a premium the famers get a better price – if Suminter manages to sell the sugar to international buyers. In this part of Maharashtra the problem remains that sugarcane is the only cash crop.

‘It’s good that organic farming has provided a new source of income’, says Pradeep Kanchan. Suminter organises courses to teach farmers skills that may provide an additional income: making worm compost and organic pesticides like a neem oil extract (neem trees grow throughout India and neem extract is not only used in organic agriculture but in medicinal and cosmetic products, too). Suminter encourages farmers to keep some cows, buffaloes or chicken to produce milk and eggs for the local market. Even if there is just enough to sell to a few neighbours, any kind of additional income helps, in particular as it is mostly the women who generate such additional income. And earning your own money means taking your own decisions …

In the past few years infrastructure and communication in Maharashtra have improved considerably, says Pradeep Kanchan. That has brought new jobs to rural areas – small work- and repair shop, shops in which one can order online and collect the goods once they have been delivered, companies that install solar panels. Gone are the times when only the oldest son stayed on the farm while all other children were force to move to cities of Pune or Mumbai in order to earn money, says Pradeep Kanchan. Today well-educated young people, too, stand a chance to find a job in the countryside – organic agriculture and companies that provide services organic farmers need are among them. In the end you can’t rest your hopes for the future on people in Europe consuming more organic Fairtrade sugar.