In the Union Budget 2022-23.2, the Government announced that it would be focusing on chemical-free natural farming in a big way in the months to come. Their initial focus will be on farmlands in a 5 km wide corridor along the Ganges.
Bharatiya Prakritik Krishi Paddhati (BPKP)which falls under Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (PKVY) promotes traditional indigenous practices like natural farming. The scheme has a total outlay of Rs 4645.69 crore for the period 2019-20 to 2024-25. It aims to promote these farming practices in 4.09 lakh hectares during this period. As part of the scheme, it provides everything from financial assistance to continuous handholding to certification, and more. So far, eight states (Andhra Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand) have opted for this scheme.
The question is, what put natural farming in the spotlight all of a sudden? For that, we will have to understand what natural farming is, and what bought us to this point.
Birth of natural farming
Natural farming also known as Zero-Budget Natural Farming relies on no manufactured inputs or equipment. Instead, it relies on the living organisms in each particular local environment. Studies have shown that it prevents water pollution, biodiversity loss, and soil erosion, while providing ample amounts of food.
The natural farming model that we know today was developed by Subhash Palekar, an agriculturalist from Belora village in Maharashtra in the mid-1990s. He created it as an alternative to the methods introduced by the Green Revolution, namely the intense use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. He saw how these methods would initially create a spike in production, but reduce the crop output over a period of time. He also observed how forests had robust ecosystems that supported lush vegetation without any help. From 1989 to 1995, Subhash experimented with natural farming techniques and compiled his research to form the ‘Zero Budget Natural Farming’ (ZBNF) technique. ZBNF uses on-farm biomass recycling( biomass mulching), cow dung-urine formulations, periodic soil aeration in place of synthetic chemical inputs. Over time, it will reduce and ultimately remove the dependency on purchased inputs. This is good news for smallholder farmers who spend the majority of their profits from sales on buying farm inputs.
Subhash Palekar received the “Padmshri” Recognition in 2016 for his efforts. In June 2017, he was appointed as an advisor on Zero Budget Farming to the state of Andhra Pradesh. Today ZBNF has been widely adopted in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, and Kerala. Results show that apart from being budget-friendly to the farmer, ZBNF improves soil health, groundwater quality and levels, and the farmland ecosystem. In the long term, it can provide more employment opportunities and rural development.
Importance of natural farming
There is an urgent need to increase food production to feed the estimated 10 billion strong population of 2050. But today, the focus is not just on increasing crop yields, but also on being environmentally conscious in the process. Climate change has pushed many to factor in greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production and to stop deforestation for the purpose of creating arable land. Consumers too are more aware of what they eat, and everything from farm inputs to farmers’ welfare has become hot topics for debate. Today the focus is on providing comprehensive sustainable solutions that can enhance the experience of the farmer, the consumer, and everyone in between. This is why complementary farming practices like natural, sustainable, organic farming, etc. are gaining popularity.
Scope for natural farming in India
As per Niti Aayog member Ramesh Chand, India can double the acreage of chemical-free farming to 15% immediately and grow it to 30% by 2030. He said this would not hurt national food security as the resultant loss in output and exports would be compensated by the reduction in fertiliser subsidies. However, he cautioned against the adoption of natural farming without a long-term plan. Instead, a long-term plan which gradually phases out chemical fertilizers and pesticides is what is required.
In the inaugural address at the five-day Online Master Trainers Training Program organized by National Institute of Agricultural Extension Management (MANAGE), Union Minister of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare, Shri Narendra Singh Tomar said that 30,000 Gram Pradhans will be educated on natural farming practices via 750 awareness programs. These programs aim to cover all the districts and states before August 15, 2022. He said that India is a food secure nation as of now and therefore has the luxury of focusing on high-quality, safe, sustainable agricultural produce through organic and natural farming. In the long run, this would enhance soil health, cut down on fertilizer, pesticide, and irrigation costs for the farmer, and also bring in good profits.
Shri Tomar urged FPOs to be more involved in the promotion of natural farming. He also complimented the role played by MANAGE in the active implementation of this ambitious program. MANAGE will act as the Nodal Agency for the promotion of natural farming. MANAGE is currently creating a pool of natural farming experts by organizing a Master Trainers Program. These programs are for officials from various State Agricultural Universities, SAMETIs, ATARIs, KVKs, ATMAs, and ICAR Organizations. The trainers’ programs also aim to draw in experienced professionals and farmers from civil societies and private sector organizations.
Benefits of Natural Farming(NF)
NF increases yields by taking maximum use of available labour, soil and equipment. It does away with the need for chemical inputs like fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.
Improve soil health
Overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides removes the inherent nutrients in the soil. The ideal ratio of the three major plant nutrients of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium is 4:2:1 and this has been disrupted. A CEEW report (“Can Zero Budget Natural Farming Save Input Costs and Fertiliser Subsidies- Evidence from Andhra Pradesh”) showed how ZBNF farmers who cultivate rice use 83–99% less fertilizers compared to conventional farmers.
Conserves the environment
Agricultural activities produce the largest share of global methane and nitrous oxide emissions. The use of fertilizers in conventional farming is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. NF works on an agroecology framework and does not rely on chemical fertilizers and pesticides at all.
Climate change can be felt throughout the world in the form of droughts, heat waves, and flooding. Crops grown with NF have shown greater resilience in the face of these conditions. This is mainly due to the enhanced soil and plant diversity. A report by CEEW (“Zero Budget Natural Farming for the Sustainable Development Goals Andhra Pradesh, India”) showed that paddy crops withstood the winds and water-logging brought on by cyclonic winds in Vishakhapatnam in 2017. The crops cultivated through NF also weathered the Pethai and Titli cyclones of 2018 in much better condition than conventionally cultivated crops.
Reduces water consumption
70% of the total accessible freshwater in the world is used for agricultural purposes. In India, groundwater is used for irrigating 60% of the total irrigated area. NF is popular for minimal water consumption and has been shown to improve the water retention capacity of the soil too. This ultimately impacts groundwater reserves.
Native livestock sustainability
Cow dung and urine are used extensively to create the natural fertilizers (Jivamrit and Beejamrit), herbicides, and pesticides required in NF. Most farmers who take up NF rely on manure and urine from indigenous cows rather than crossbred cows, bullocks, and buffaloes. The growing trend can revive the livestock sector in India
Increases farmer’s income
NF reduces the cost of farming be it the purchase of chemical farm inputs or irrigation. Farmers prepare decoctions of essential plant fertilizers and pesticides with easily available materials. Irrigation costs are cut down with NF. All these ultimately contribute to more profits.
Improves farmer’s health
The use of pesticides and fertilizers can be toxic not just to the crops, but to the person applying it too. Farmers exposed to high levels of chemicals increase the occurrence of non-communicable diseases like chronic neurotoxicity, respiratory illnesses, and even cancer. NF replaces chemical inputs with natural ones that do not harm the health of the farmer or the community.
Things to consider
Thanks to increasing consumer awareness, changing food preferences (e.g. plant-based protein) and environmental consciousness, we are seeing new policies and increased investments in agribusiness. Growing health consciousness is also playing a part in consumer’s food choices. Since natural farming is all the rage now, it is easy to forget that it is still in its nascent stage. Much has to be done before we start seeing a definite shift. To begin with, natural farming practised in different agro-climatic conditions needs to be categorized. Certification systems and standards would have to be set.
The next challenge is to bring this learning to the farmers. Therefore, widespread training programs have to be initiated. Exposure visits whereby farmers are given opportunities to visit farms in other states where natural farming has been implemented successfully can be very effective. Digital learning programs can also be introduced.
Even though natural farming is profitable in the long term, some loss of income or yields may occur during the transition from conventional to natural farming. Incentives like input-based subsidies can be provided. This may look like the provision of drums required for mixing decoctions of Jeevamrit, Beejamairt, etc. Similarly, incentives can be given to compensate for yield loss due to the adoption of natural farming.
At the trading level, the correct positioning of natural farming produce can make it more profitable. There is a growing demand for organically and naturally produced foods. Mandis that can be trading points for natural produce need to be identified. Online trading platforms like Bijak, etc. can be leveraged too. This can help farmers easily take on the role of the entrepreneur.
What are your views on natural farming? If you are a natural farmer or organic farmer, then we would love to hear from you. Stay tuned for more such in-depth articles from the Bijak blog. Bijak is India’s most trusted Agri trading platform that brings together farmers, Buyers (commission agents), and Suppliers from across the country. It oversees daily trade in over 150 commodities. Please do like, share, and follow the Bijak blog for weekly updates.