Bengaluru: Nearly 3.8 million hectares, or 2.7% of the total area under farming in India, is farmed organically or through natural methods, which means using natural processes and inputs to improve the health of soil, crop yield and quality, a move away from commonly used chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

The objective of natural farming, said the government's 2021 Economic Survey, is elimination of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, the indiscriminate use of which pollutes the environment, and to promote "good agronomic practices", which means using science and technology to manage crops. In the 2022 budget speech, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced that "chemical-free natural farming will be promoted throughout the country, with a focus on farmers' lands in 5-km wide corridors along river Ganga, at the first stage".

This move towards chemical-free farming is juxtaposed against a large workforce (43%) employed in agriculture and related jobs, a sector that contributes to just 18.8% of India's gross domestic product. Increased farmer indebtedness due to costly agricultural inputs like chemical fertilisers, pesticides, seeds, the increasing cost of cultivation, climate change, and low farm produce prices, have aggravated India's farm crisis, even as the government has said that farmer income will double by 2022.

But experts are divided on whether a complete transition to natural and organic farming would work in India's favour, especially if it is pushed top down, and follows a rigid definition of what natural farming entails.

Supporters of natural farming believe that it will reduce farm input costs, improve soil health and water efficiency and lead to an increase in farm produce prices. Though natural farming might be able to reduce costs and mean that farmers use methods that suit the agro-ecology of a region, say experts, there are concerns that yields from natural farming could be lower, especially in nutrient-deficient soil in many parts of the country.

While we need a forward-looking sustainable model in agriculture and not a revivalistic model that talks about farming practices centuries ago, existing [government] schemes are getting politicised, said G.V. Ramanjaneyulu, executive director of the Secunderabad-based nonprofit, the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture. "The focus should be on reducing agro-chemicals, water use and energy utilisation."

In a multi-part series, IndiaSpend will explore the different facets of natural farming, its implementation in India, and the possibility of success. In this first part, we explain what natural farming is, and where it is being practised in India.

What is natural farming?

India became food secure by using high yielding varieties of seeds, fertilisers to nourish the soil and pesticides to keep crop damage at bay. But this was accompanied with environmental damage through overuse of fertilisers, and impacted human and ecological health.

Due to the impact of the Green Revolution, "heightened further" by the pandemic, "there is an urgent need to scale up alternative approaches" of farming, wrote economist Mihir Shah, in a January 2022 report in the journal Ecology, Economy and Society.

In December 2021, during a conclave on natural farming, Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasised the need for working on alternative methods of farming, while acknowledging the importance of chemicals and fertilisers in the Green Revolution. "We have to take our agriculture out of the lab of chemistry and connect it to the lab of nature," he said.

This refers to agroecology, which guides public policies towards sustainable agriculture and food systems, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). While there is no specific set of practices that are classified as agroecological, it includes those methods that maintain and enhance natural processes related to soil, water and climate in agricultural production, reduce the use of purchased inputs, like fossil fuels and agrochemicals, and create resilient agroecosystems, noted a 2019 High Level Panel of Experts for Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) of the FAO. These methods focus on promoting crop diversification, restoring and rebuilding natural cycles in the soil, and reducing water demand, among others.

Natural farming and organic farming, both come under agroecological practices and are terms used interchangeably in India. In natural farming the focus is on the use of bio inputs prepared from farm and local ecosystems instead of purchasing those from outside. "Organic farming is defined now more from a perspective of product certification. Except for such certification, organic and natural farming in India are largely similar," said Sridhar Radhakrishnan, activist and independent agriculture researcher based in Thiruvananthapuram.

What binds organic and natural farming proponents "is the thrust on the absence of application of chemical fertilisers or chemical pesticides during cultivation", said R. Ramakumar, an economist at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). In organic farming, farmers might use "external agricultural inputs" such as rock phosphate, biopesticides and biofertilisers, he added.

"But [some] natural farming proponents argue that even these external applications are not required, as the farm itself can generate much of the inputs required," he said, adding that, "therefore, they call it Zero-Budget Natural Farming."

Zero-Budget Natural Farming is one of the many methods of natural farming, popularised by agriculturist Subash Palekar (later known as Subash Palekar Natural Farming). According to the approach, a concoction of natural inputs like cow urine and dung, jaggery, lime, neem among others are used to improve soil health, nutrients and reduce input costs, among other benefits.

In July 2022, the government announced that it would constitute a committee to "promote zero-budget based farming, to change crop pattern keeping in mind the changing needs of the country, and to make MSP [Minimum Support Price] more effective and transparent…". On natural farming the committee will make suggestions for programmes for value chain development, strategies to introduce natural farming curriculum in universities and suggest farmer-friendly alternative certification systems for natural farm produce.

Is natural farming better than 'conventional' farming?

Various state governments have supported organic farming as an alternative farming option in the last few decades. But there are debates worldwide on the impact on crop yield by transitioning to agroecological farming methods and discarding conventional practices that use chemical inputs, especially where soils are nutrient-deficient.

If biofertilisers, rhizobium and acetobacter can fix soil health to an extent, there is no need for heavy chemical use, said Ramanjaneyulu. This would also help the government cut spending on fertiliser subsidies, which cost Rs 1.4 lakh crore ($18.7 billion) in 2021-22 and are estimated to cost Rs 1.1 lakh crore ($14.7 billion) in 2022-23, which could rise to Rs 2.5 lakh crore due to higher import prices.

But compared to 'conventional farming', according to a 2019 ICAR-National Academy of Agricultural Research Management report, "organic products are usually 3-4 times more expensive due to higher labour cost, certification costs, handling costs and comparatively lower yields".

The jury is still out on which method or which combination of methods would be the best for crop yields. There are knowledge gaps on comparing relative yields and performance of different agroecological practices, according to the HLPE report.

"..out of the 504 times that yield results were recorded during 2014–19, 41% of the times yields were highest with organic approach, followed by 33% with integrated and 26% with inorganic approach," said the February 2022 CSE report that analysed the All India Network Project on Organic Farming (AI-NPOF) of the Indian Council of Agriculture Research and other scientific studies. It reported evidence of highest net returns and best soil health under the organic approach in study centres.

"There is scientific evidence on the benefits of natural farming, but the government has to take the initiative to formally collate like it did under AI-NPOF," said Vineet Kumar, deputy programme manager of Sustainable Food Systems at CSE.

On the other hand, the 2019 NAAS report highlighted that studies initiated by the Indian Council of Agriculture Research-Indian Institute of Farming System Research "clearly indicated that yield levels were drastically reduced in rice-wheat cropping system by 59% in wheat and 32% in basmati rice" when tenets of zero-budget natural farming were followed. It further showed a three-year natural farming experiment that showed "a yield decline" in crops tested which "established that food security will be seriously challenged along with farmers' income, if ZBNF [Zero Budget Natural Farming] is adopted".

There is concern that yields will fall with natural farming because 59% of soils in India are deficient in nitrogen, 49% are low in phosphorus and 48% are low in potassium, said Ramakumar. "Organic or ZBNF methods do not replenish enough nutrients in the soils as much as the plants uptake them every season."

Organic and natural farming can be scaled up only to a level, because of several reasons. These include a lack of a national action plan to promote organic and natural farming, dependence on expensive certification for organic produce, which smaller farmers cannot afford, inadequate funding, target-driven and timeline-based policies for natural farming, among others.

Why painting all other farming methods with one brush isn't right

When proponents of organic/natural farming use the term 'conventional farming', they use it to denote all cases of misuse or overuse of chemicals in agriculture, none of which are sanctioned by agricultural scientists.

"..condemning the technology that ushered in Green Revolution for the negative impacts on the environment and health is neither fair nor justified. It was the injudicious, indiscriminate and excessive use of agro-chemicals which is to be blamed," said a 2019 National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) report on Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF).

Some say scientific conventional farming can be considered closer to natural farming than most think.

Scientific farming involves the use of both organic manures as well as chemical fertilisers, but only where required, after a soil test and in prescribed quantities, which scientists call balanced nutrient management, said Ramakumar. "Similarly, they prescribe 'integrated pest management', where you use natural means to control pests and diseases and use pesticides only as a last option. I would like to consider this as 'conventional farming'."

Government schemes for natural farming

The Union government's 2005 policy on organic farming was "not successful in bringing necessary attention towards organic farming", noted a 2020 CSE report. Since then, the government has had several initiatives and sub-missions under ​​the National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA), which began in 2014-15, the Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (PKVY), which began in 2015, and the Mission Organic Value Chain Development in North East Region (MOVCDNER), which started in 2015.

A scheme to promote chemical-free organic farming in clusters of land, PKVY provides financial assistance of Rs 50,000 per hectare for three years for creating farming clusters, capacity building, incentive for inputs, value addition like processing, packaging and marketing of organic produce.

In 2020-21, Bhartiya Prakritik Krishi Paddati (BPKP), a subscheme under PKVY, was launched to promote natural farming including Zero-Budget Natural Farming. Nearly 410,000 hectares has been covered in eight states with a total fund of Rs 49.8 crore. The 2022 allocation for PKVY is not clear and as of 2022-23 it has been rationalised under the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana, a Union government scheme to develop agriculture and allied sectors.

Have other countries adopted natural farming?

There have been various agroecological initiatives in different parts of the world. In November 2021, 45 governments, led by the UK, pledged urgent action and investment to protect nature and shift to more sustainable ways of farming at the 26th Conference of Parties, the climate change conference in Glasgow, according to a UK government press release. It said that the commitments would help leverage over $4 billion of public sector investment into agricultural innovation to improve soil health, helping make these techniques and resources affordable and accessible to farmers.

In May 2020, the EU announced the Farm to Fork Strategy, as a part of the European Green Deal to "make food systems fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly". As part of the strategy, the European Commission announced a 50% reduction in the use and risk of chemical pesticides, and in the use of more hazardous pesticides by 2030.

But as countries are promising to transition to sustainable agriculture, Sri Lanka's experience of transitioning to the first organic farming nation failed. The country's government, which fell after weeks of massive protests and an ongoing economic crisis, had announced, in April 2021, that only organic farming would be allowed across the country. It proceeded to ban imports of chemical inputs, impacting millions of farmers. Following farmer protests, the ban was revoked in November 2021.

"The chemical fertiliser ban, combined with bad weather, led to falling crop yields and contributed to inflation hitting a 47-month high of 8.3% in October with food inflation at 11.7%," said a November 24, 2021 Reuters report.

The way ahead

Experts believe that there are far too many debates on methods of natural and conventional farming, rather than the impact and design of the schemes being implemented.

For instance, Subash Palekar's method for Zero-Budget Natural Farming is considered too rigid, and has created a dichotomy about farm practices that were organic or natural, said Radhakrishnan, the independent agricultural researcher. "Although this is not a criticism of ZBNF, in some ways the government prioritises ZBNF over other agroecological farming practices."

In addition, "there are a lot of concerns about BPKP and PKVY", the government programmes, said Kumar of CSE. "Usually, these schemes are implemented by the state agriculture department who may not have adequate training on this."

There is a need to invest more resources, including trained agriculture staff, and funds for science and technology and research, to better understand organic and natural farming practices, experts say.

"A modern agricultural scientist may not even be able to explain why a concoction sprayed by a farmer increased yield in natural farming, while the scientist may understand how chemicals work," said Kavitha Kuruganti, a social activist with the Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA). There is a need for the government to support alternative farming methods rather than only supporting farming that uses chemicals, she added.

The 2022 Union budget announced that states will be encouraged to "revise syllabi of agricultural universities to meet the needs of natural, zero-budget and organic farming, modern-day agriculture, value addition and management".

The government needs to invest in processing and packaging of products, and ensure that products are procured in sufficient quantities to ensure remunerative prices for farmers. Due to gaps, for example, in PKVY, " the absence of direct linkages with processors, retailers and exporters, farmers are dependent on middlemen to market their produce", said the 2020 CSE report.

The agroecological methods need to be based on local contexts in various states and regions and use bio-inputs based on local ecosystems. Andhra Pradesh (AP community-managed natural farming) has established a ZBNF system to suit its requirements, while other states like Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka and Kerala have also initiated it. Karnataka initiated implementation of ZBNF on a pilot basis in 2,000 ha in each of the 10 agro-climatic zones of the state.

Ramakumar reiterated that India needs to trust its agricultural scientists. "Only by practising scientific agriculture can we attain the goals of raising farm incomes, raising yields and reducing chemical use in agriculture. And this science has to be promoted in the public sector and not through private corporates."

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