Indian states step up natural farming adoption

Natural farming movement led by farmers and civil society has spread to states such as Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra among others 

By Vineet Kumar
Published: Wednesday 09 September 2020
Natural farming movement led by farmers and civil society has spread to states such as Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, among others in the last few decades. Photo: Sopan Joshi

This is the third in a four-part series on the state of organic farming in India

Chemical-free agriculture, popularly known as organic agriculture, has been gaining traction in India for quite some time now. The NITI Aayog prefers calling it ‘natural farming’. Most civil society members and farmers use ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ farming terms interchangeably.

People often use the term natural farming, if most farm inputs used are managed from the farm system or from nearby local ecosystems. Under organic farming, externally purchased farm inputs like bio-fertilisers and vermin-compost are also used on farm.

Organic / natural farming is native to India. The farmers of ancient India were known to have evolved nature-friendly farming systems and practices such as mixed farming, mixed cropping and crop rotation.

States coming forward 

States such as Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka and Kerala are promoting natural farming. Andhra Pradesh is the frontrunner among all states in implementing natural farming programme at a mass scale.

According to the Andhra Pradesh government, as of March 2020, 0.62 million farmers (10.5 per cent of all farmers) were enrolled in the programme. Of the enrolled farmers, 0.44 million farmers (7.5 per cent), were actually practising natural farming on an area of 0.45 million acres, which works out to 2.9 per cent of the net sown area spread across 3,011 gram panchayats.

In the last few decades, natural-farming movement led by farmers and civil society has spread to states such as Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, among others. More than one lakh farmers have been estimated to follow natural farming practices in these states.

Karnataka recently initiated implementation of zero budget natural farming (ZBNF) on a pilot basis in 2,000 hectares in each of the 10 agro-climatic zones of the state. Only a few farmers have been doing it at individual scale in other states.

Andhra’s ambitious natural farming programme started at mass scale and has generated a fresh interest in other states to make ambitious targets.  

Himachal Pradesh, too, has set an ambitious target of converting entire state to natural farming by 2022. It is implementing the state-funded scheme Prakritik Kheti Khushal Kisan since May 2018.

It has claimed to exceed its targets of year 2019 by covering more than 50,000 farmer families Kerala, Gujarat and Haryana have conducted multiple mass level awareness programmes, trainings and workshops for hundreds and thousands of farmers to promote natural farming.

A push from the Centre

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been talking about need to reduce chemical fertilizers and promotion of organic and natural farming at various forums, including the United Nations convention. Union finance as well as agriculture minister have also been talking about promotion of natural farming at various occasions.

In a recent online convention organised by NITI Aayog, Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar and vice-chairman of NITI Aayog, Rajiv Kumar, strongly advocated for natural farming and agroecology.

NITI Aayog has been suggesting states to adopt natural farming for quite some time now; it did a press conference on the same in 2018.

As per 17th Loksabha standing committee on agriculture report dated March, 2020, the The Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare (MoAFW) proposed ‘Bhartiya Prakritik Krishi Padhati’ (BPKP) as a new sub-mission under Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojna (PKVY).

Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojna is a sub-component of Soil Health Management scheme under National Mission of Sustainable Agriculture and aims to develop sustainable models of organic farming through a mix of traditional wisdom and modern science. 

A proposal was submitted by the agriculture ministry for implementation of the BPKP with a total budget of Rs 4371.7 crore for 1.2 million ha, or Rs 36,430 per ha for five years. The major thrust under the proposed programme was capacity building of farmers through continuous handholding, input support, certification, value addition and innovations.

A senior agriculture ministry official informed that BPKP has been introduced as sub-component of existing PKVY scheme and approved by Centre recently. It is not clear if any separate fund is allocated for BPKP, as no such announcement has been made in the public domain.

Union budget estimates for the PKVY scheme was Rs 500 crore for year 2020-21. Implementation of BPKP will be done from existing fund of PKVY and could also be converged with other existing schemes, according to a senior agriculture ministry official.

For example, convergence could be made with:

  • Farmer Producer Organisation scheme of MoAFW, along with Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying on issues related to purchase, maintenance of cows, establishment of goshalas;
  • National Rural Livelihood Mission and other schemes of Ministry of Rural Development for utilising the strong socially mobilised groups;
  • Seed village programme of MoA&FW for organic seed production;
  • Mission for Integrated Development of Horticulture for promotion of horticulture crops.

MoAFW recently shared BPKP guidelines recently with state governments to invite their proposals, according to the senior agriculture ministry official. According to the official, Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Kerala have already submitted the proposal to Centre for approval.

BPKP makes a provision of cluster with contiguous area of 1000 ha in a block.

There can be three broad differences in approach of BPKP and existing PKVY. First, financial assistance for external bio-inputs under BPKP will not be provided. Instead, focus will be to prepare on-farm bio-inputs by recycling farm waste and through various other natural farming methods.

Second, there will be manpower deployment in the form of experienced farmer cum trainer to provide continuous handholding and training support to farmers throughout the year. Third, the targeted contiguous area for making group of farmers will be larger in BPKP than the provision made under PKVY.   

What does existing research say

Interestingly, there has been a lot of discussions around the results of zero budget natural farming, especially, since the Union finance minister mentioned the same in Budget 2019-20. A lot has been written in media, which either supports or raise question mark on performance of natural farming.

Various research institutions are currently conducting the research to assess results of natural farming. Some research is based on field experiments, while others are based on surveys with practicing farmers. Institutions are getting mixed results. Some show encouraging results, while other not so much.

Most research works are still in progress. Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has also set up a committee to validate ZBNF results, the decision for which is still awaited.

Research by ICAR- Indian Institute of Farming Systems Research (IIFSR), Modipuram for Subhash Palekar’s ZBNF in the rice-wheat system in north India showed reduction in ZBNF yield by up to 40 per cent in the initial years as compared to chemical-based integrated crop management. The study was presented at a National Academy of Agriculture Sciences (NAAS) meeting in August 2019.

Similarly, the NAAS, a think-tank of agriculture scientists in India, said through a policy brief that ZBNF is an unproven technology and no verifiable data or authenticated result from any experiment is available so far.

However, some research institutions indicated that ZBNF performance was better than that of chemical-based farms.

A survey of ICAR’s National Academy of Agricultural Research Management, Hyderabad, of ZBNF in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, found that ZBNF reduced farming cost, increased farmer income and had ecological and social benefits. ZBNF yield results were mixed: While some crops showed higher ZBNF yield, others showed a decrease.

Similarly, research by Chaudhary Sarwan Kumar Himachal Pradesh Agriculture University, Palampur, presented at the 2019 NAAS meeting, indicated that the ZBNF yield in 2017 increased by up to 22 per cent for crops such as gram, lentil, soybean, black gram and red mash and decreased by up to 2 per cent for crops such as wheat, paddy, ogla and ragi as compared to inorganic farming.

A research survey by Abdul Nazir Sab State Institute of Rural Development, Mysore, Karnataka, found positive impacts of ZBNF on farmers. It concluded that ZBNF was farmer-friendly, cost-effective, gave optimal yield and with no decline over time. It also did not require farmers to take crop loans because of reduced input costs, freed farmers from the debt trap and instilled confidence in them.

A research survey of ZBNF farmers by Amrita Bhoomi Centre, Karnataka, and El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, Mexico, showed positive results with regard to yield, soil conservation, seed diversity, pest attacks, quality of farm produce, seed autonomy, household food autonomy, income, production cost and health, ending debt cycles and stopping farmer suicides in Karnataka.

Chaudhary Charan Singh Haryana Agriculture University (CCS-HAU), Hisar, found improvement in soil health in ZBNF farms as well.

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