The pandemic showed that human interventions in natural processes can have disastrous consequences; we should now scale up natural-positive food systems that would simultaneously promote crop, soil and human health
In the mid-1960s, the new strategy of intensive application of modern agricultural practices in relatively resource-rich regions fundamentally transformed the farming sector in India.
In the initial years of what we now know as the Green Revolution (GR), India’s food production grew at an unprecedented scale and farm incomes also improved substantially.
High yielding varieties of seeds, chemical fertilisers, assured irrigation and pesticides were key components of this high-input technology. However, the rise in food production has come at a price in the form of groundwater depletion, land degradation, yield stagnation, loss of agri-biodiversity and the long-term impact on farmers’ and consumers’ health.
There is growing consensus among agri-scientists, policymakers and farmers that the GR has reached its limits and raised several issues of environmental sustainability.
It is now time to move from resource-intensive to sustainable agriculture. The Budget 2022-23 and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent call to take agriculture out of chemical laboratories and connect it with nature’s laboratory reaffirms this realisation.
A holistic approach
The call now is to move away from extractive and input-intensive practices towards a low external input and sustainable system of agriculture. There are different forms of this ranging from organic to natural to pesticide-free farming.
The overarching intention is to bring a more holistic approach to farming thereby reducing the use of chemicals in farming without affecting the yields.
While the GR-promoted standardisation was centred on wheat and rice, sustainable farming brings back diversity to farming by promoting crops and crop-varieties suited to different agroecological zones of India.
The transition to natural farming and organic farming however, is a lengthy process. Years of depletion of natural nutrients and soil degradation make a complete withdrawal of synthetic chemical fertilisers a difficult proposition as it would bring down yields and affect the incomes of the small and marginal farmers.
Pesticides, on the other hand, are relatively easy to be replaced. Non Pesticide Management (NPM) agriculture encourages farmers to engage in synthetic pesticide-free agriculture and create a unique identity for this produce in the consumer market.
Since 2005, farmers who follow the NPM approach have adopted a range of immensely beneficial practices to increase the natural defences of the crop ecosystem and maintain soil health.
This starts with choosing pest-resistant varieties of crops and practicing crop rotation, intercropping and mixed cropping that are well adapted to the local agroecological systems to enhance the overall health of the crop ecosystem.
If there is need, farmers go for preventive and curative sprays of locally prepared bio-inputs and herbal extracts that keep pests at bay. Most of these bio-inputs are made by the farmers themselves with locally available materials that reduce their costs and debts considerably.
Farmers use natural alternatives such as a mix of chili, ginger, garlic, neem to ward off bad pests without harming the good pests (earthworms, birds, etc) and prevent an ecosystem imbalance. In these ways, they replace expensive and toxic chemical pesticides with natural substitutes that are fairly less expensive.
This shift in thinking is also timely as awareness about the need to avoid chemical-laden foods has increased exponentially among Indian consumers post the pandemic.
Consumers are now more conscious of where their food comes from, the nutritive value, processes followed and are willing to pay a small premium for a superior product.
Since the leading threat to consumer health from food comes from pesticide residue, going pesticide-free is the most practical and sustainable option for consumers in addition to its benefits for farmers and the environment.
The way forward
Farmers recognise the ill-effects of using chemicals on their land and health. But this is not enough to encourage them to switch to natural or pesticide-free farming.
One of the major lessons of the GR experience is that immense state support is needed for such a transition to take place in the farm sector. There is a need to provide end-to-end support to farmers to create an enabling environment for this transition.
First, we have to identify and establish cultivation practices that are crop, soil and region-specific. More agricultural research has to go into developing seed varieties and cultivation practices using locally available materials.
Second, more support is needed for post-harvest management in areas such as transportation, storage and value addition. Since chemical contamination can also occur after the produce leaves the farm, we need to follow the value / supply chain approach and cover all aspects.
Third, the incentive system available to crops has to change. The present system of minimum support price-based public procurement is concentrated in a few areas and crops. Diversification of the procurement basket is important to ensure they get a fair price for their produce.
Fourth, provision of financial services like credit and insurance at affordable price is vital for a vibrant and efficient farming system. Crop insurance, as a risk mitigation mechanism, can protect the small and marginal farmers from climate variations.
Fifth, farmer collectives and farmer producer organisations (FPO) need to play a big role in the transition to a sustainable and pesticide-free farming system. While many farmers practice natural farming producing a superior quality product, their produce tends to be clubbed with conventional produce.
To overcome this, organisations like Safe Harvest, where I work, partner with FPOs to procure directly from farmers at the farmgate and give their produce the recognition it deserves.
Farmers practicing NPM and working with Safe Harvest earn approximately 20 per cent more than farmers cultivating conventionally. This encourages small and marginal farmers to continue farming sustainably.
Finally, there is need for support to encourage entry of many MSMEs in the pesticide-free food chains and to raise awareness among the consumers on a large scale, to raise demand and develop territorial markets.
The pandemic has reinforced the need to search for sustainable and nature positive ways of living and working. The pandemic showed that human interventions in natural processes can have disastrous consequences.
This is an opportune moment to scale up natural-positive farming and food systems that would simultaneously promote crop, soil and human health and also inform us how we should respect and never overstep our planetary boundaries.
Rangu Rao is CEO, Safe Harvest
Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth
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