Natural Farming – Can it be a game changer?

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Author : Dr. Suseelendra Desai, Dean, NMIMS School of Agricultural Sciences &Technology

Natural (nature) farming has suddenly become a catchphrase among researchers and policy makers as well as drawn the Government attention. Natural (nature) farming is practicing agriculture following the laws of nature by taking into cognizance the balance of natural biodiversity around the farm to ensure least disturbance to the agro-ecology. Historically, after shifting from nomadic hunting food gatherer life style to secondary food producer, humans produced a variety of agricultural products and started to use all natural materials around them for enhanced farm productivity.

From around 1 billion in 1800, the population touched 2 billion level in 1930 and then surged to 8 billion by 2020 demanding higher agricultural production. Chemical agriculture started only with the industrial revolution in early 20th Century for enhanced farm productivity and nitrogen fertilizer formed the crucial component of crop production. India launched ‘Green Revolution’ by Introducing fertilizer and water responsive varieties and thereby transformed from a ‘begging bowl’ to ‘Food Self-reliant nation’.  The Global Hunger Index in 2021 decreased by 30% but still India is at 101st position out of 116 countries.

Despite a plateau, in the quest of reaping higher yields, farmers started indiscriminate use of inorganic fertilizers and pesticides contaminating the food chain. It further disturbed the delicate ecological balance polluting the soil, water and air. The pesticide sprays destroyed the natural biodiversity of beneficial organisms such as honey bees, pollinators etc. Like in other systems, misuses and abuses have inflicted damage to the agriculture also, especially the soil microbial health.

‘The One-Straw Revolution’ by Masanobu Fukuoka reemphasized natural farming with minimum human interference and letting the natural processes to maximise crop outputs. While it is not abandonment of farming but to gradually take it back to nature with reduced human interference over years. Government of India also introduced Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (PKVY) to promote organic farming and in 2020-2021 introduced sub-scheme ‘Bhatariya Prakritik Krishi Padhati (BPKP)’ to promote traditional indigenous practices. Following the Union Budget 2022, Indian Council of Agricultural Research and Education has constituted a committee to develop the syllabus for formal natural farming education. Taking cue from Mr. Subhash Palekar, A.P., Karnataka and Maharashtra promoted Zero Budget Natural Farming which promotes use of home-made recipes of organic manures and pesticides as well as soil moisture conservation practices. Interestingly all these organic inputs are also used in organic farming, but in watershed due to non-availability of quality organic manures.

Definitely, human and animal health as well as conservation of natural resources for the posterity are of paramount importance. So, it may be easier to make the current stabilized agricultural systems sustainable with some mid-course corrections. These include reduction in indiscriminate use of fertilizers and pesticides, promotion of alternate green inputs for enhanced crop production, promotion of agro-ecological agricultural systems, and conservation of natural resources etc.

A study published in Lancet in 2020 projects population of India by 2048 to be 1.6 billion which will require about 332 million tons of food grains. A meta-analysis in Nature 2021, suggests global food demand to increase by 35-56% with increased hunger risk. On the other side, ICAR-NAARM reported that natural farming reduced available nutrients in the produce, variable soil microbial populations, reduction in yields except in finger millet, and stressed for institutional arrangements for marketing. However, as many farmers are practicing since last 15 years or so, a systematic long-term scientific study is required to understand these dynamics under different agro-climates, soil systems and cropping systems which was also endorsed at the BioAg Asia 2022. Further, it was felt that under inelastic arable land scenario, even after using permitted external inputs, organic agriculture yielded less by about 20%. At current lower productivity levels in many crops, even if yields recover after 4-5 years, how to compensate the farmer for reduced yields is a question. And, assured premium prices on a sustainable basis is also a debatable issue. In this backdrop, to attain the entailed goals of natural farming the following issues need to be addressed

  • Contextualising the traditional farming practices to contemporary modern production systems of the crops, varieties and crop husbandry with supporting data to avoid disruption in the food supply chain,
  • Forecasting the per capita food grain availability scenario under both current agricultural systems vis-à-vis natural farming systems, and projected timelines for achieving the natural farming outcomes using robust modelling tools before transition is initiated.
  • Developing SOPs for natural farming to harmonize the systems across agro-ecologies to ensure reproducibility, traceability and safety.
  • The possibility to develop hybrid models promoting sustainable farming systems vis-à-vis safe and nutritious produce.
  • A road map to meet the huge quantities of organic fertilizers and quality bio-inputs as the animal component is dwindling in agriculture
  • Wherewithal for setting up a strong extension system for smooth transfer of technology
  • While most advocate for a premium price, already some entrepreneurs are marching forward offering organic produce at normal prices. A critical analysis of such models would be worth.

Hence, the natural farming could be initiated for niche crops in niche agro-ecologies through long-term trials for understanding its impacts. Simultaneously efforts should be made to educate people about misuse and abuse of the chemicals. Natural farming is knowledge-intensive and needs an extensive extension network which is most wanting as on today.