Invest in organic and natural farming

The agro-ecological movement has started gaining momentum (Image: India Water Portal Flickr)
The agro-ecological movement has started gaining momentum (Image: India Water Portal Flickr)
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Centre for Science and Environment’s (CSE) new report ‘Evidence (2004-20) on holistic benefits of organic and natural farming in India: Evidence (2004-20)’ presents irrefutable evidence of the benefits of non-chemical agriculture.

The country successfully adopted the Green Revolution in the 1960s—an input and chemical-intensive agriculture model—to overcome food scarcity by use of high yield varieties, pesticides, fertilizers, and agriculture machinery and irrigation systems.

However, over the years, this resulted in several negative impacts related to ecological, economic and existential aspects of agriculture. This includes declining soil fertility and food diversity, an increase in farmers’ debt, dependence on agrochemicals, and pest resistance. In addition, chemical-intensive agriculture adversely affects the health of humans and animals.

“Despite the push given to it through periodic pronouncements from India’s leaders, the country’s efforts to upscale non-chemical farming practices have largely remained half-hearted at best. on the subject presents robust evidence which makes it clear that we can upscale organic and natural farming. It is time to invest adequately in a well-funded nationwide programme for this,” said Sunita Narain, director general, CSE releasing the report at an online event on February 2, 2022.

The ‘community’ release of the report wherein representatives of the communities that have been practising or promoting organic and natural farming across the country joined in during the event. “The coming of the report immediately after the budget is especially opportune. The Finance Minister has made a pitch for promoting chemical-free natural farming, and has encouraged states to revise the syllabi in their agricultural universities keeping in line with this new push,” said Amit Khurana, programme director, Sustainable Food Systems programme, CSE and co-author of the CSE report.

The negative impacts of chemical agriculture have been deliberated upon extensively in the last few decades and even more so in the last few years. As a result, the agro-ecological movement has started gaining momentum. This includes efforts by champion farmers and civil societies.

While the government passed its first policy on organic farming in 2005, subsequent action was minimal. In 2015–16, it came up with a flagship programme, called Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (PKVY), which apart from being limited in scale, continues to face implementation challenges.

All this while, barring a few exceptions, action at the state level has been suboptimal. This explains why only 2.7 per cent (3.8 million ha) of net sown area (140.1 million ha) in India is covered under organic and natural farming as part of different policies. This includes 0.41 million ha of natural farming.

In a recent shift, the government has started talking publicly in favour of organic and natural farming. The Prime Minister, highlighting the ill-effects of chemical-based farming, recently appealed to make natural farming a mass movement in the country.

“But, the budget mention is a relatively small step compared to the need of the hour, and especially after the prime minister's appeal in December to make natural farming a mass movement. Though the budget promises to promote chemical-free natural farming, it is a half-hearted promise at best, as no separate allocation has been made in it,” adds Khurana.

Over the last two decades, the government’s action to upscale agro-ecological practices has been half-hearted and severely limited. One main reason is the lack of conviction among policy makers, which has prevented them from taking ambitious action to mainstream organic and natural farming.

This has largely been due to the limited consensus among the scientific community in favour of organic and natural farming and the singular view of yield to assess these non-chemical agricultural practices. This has been attributed to limited evidence, which was building up over the last two decades but failed to catch the attention of policymakers.

“Hopefully, the new report, which highlights that there is strong long-term evidence that organic and natural farming is not only profitable and sustainable but also productive, will propel the country to invest more adequately to upscale and encourage such a mass movement," adds Khurana.

“It is surprising how the results of the government’s own All India Network Project on organic farming, which has been present in the public domain for the last several years, did not get the required attention. It is also a concern how the entire issue so far has focused on yields and not on livelihoods and soil health benefits,” said Khurana.

“It is evident that organic approach has fared better than integrated on profitability and sustainability and is almost at par with it in the case of productivity,” points out Abhay Kumar Singh, programme manager, Sustainable Food Systems Programme in CSE and a co-author of the report.

The report recommends actions needed to upscale organic and natural farming – building a well-funded ambitious programme; training and supporting farmers during transition; making available quality organic fertilisers and biofertilisers; enabling agriculture extension systems; farmer-friendly certification; enabling market access; and action at the state level.

 “There is proof that natural farming involves low costs and helps in introducing resilient crops, energy and water efficiency, plant and animal biodiversity, carbon sequestration and climate mitigation,” adds Abdul Halim, a co-author of the report and the Programme’s deputy manager.

The report makes a case for holistic benefits of organic and natural farming

This report consolidates and presents the evidence on holistic benefits of organic and natural farming such as on yield, livelihood, soil health and environment. This is done by analysing the results of the government’s own long-term research project from 2004 and other scientific studies over the last decade.

The report presents evidence collected and collated on aspects such as crop yield; cost of cultivation, income and livelihood, soil health and environment, and food quality and nutrients. It is based on two sets of sources:

  • Results of the All-India Network Project on Organic Farming (AI-NPOF), 2004-19 -- The project is currently being implemented across 20 centres in 16 states. The report compares result of three approaches -- organic, integrated (which partly involves chemicals) and inorganic (dependent on chemicals).
  • About 90 scientific studies on organic and natural farming published during 2010-20 in India – these collectively add to and complement the overall evidence.

Specifically, through the AI-NPOF results, it presents long-term evidence on how the benefits of organic approach outweigh that of inorganic approach (and also integrated approach to a large extent), with respect to profitability parameters such as net returns and soil health parameters like organic carbon, macronutrients, micronutrients, bulk density and rhizosphere microbial population.

The evidence collected by the report bring out some interesting details:

Evidence on crop yield: Out of the 504 times that yield results were recorded during 2014-19, the yields were found to be highest 41 per cent of the times with organic approach, followed by 33 per cent with integrated, and 26 per cent with inorganic approach.

Evidence on income and livelihoods: Out of 61 cropping systems, net returns have been seen to be the highest in 64 per cent with organic approach at 12 centres, 11 per cent with integrated approach at four centres, and 25 per cent with inorganic approach at five centres. The five-year mean net returns with organic approach are higher than inorganic in 67 per cent cropping systems.

Evidence on soil health: Cropping systems with organic approach have scored the highest in terms of all the parameters on soil health – organic carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. The report’s findings on soil bulk density, soil bacteria, fungi, micronutrients etc. also offer a similar verdict.

The study recommends the need to develop a roadmap that sets the long-term agenda for adoption of agro-ecological approaches across different parts of the country in view of its benefits on multiple and crosscutting aspects such as nutrition, livelihood of farmers, natural resource conservation, biodiversity, resource efficiency, soil health, disease resilience and mitigation of climate crisis. This roadmap should also consider mechanisms for incentivizing farmers to adopt agro-ecological practices such as payments for ecosystem services.

It also suggests that organic certification process should be improved to make it farmer-friendly and low cost. Measures should be taken to address concerns about the PGS-India certification system and its implementation to make it more farmer-friendly. An alternative certification that is simpler for farmers and trustworthy for consumers could be explored for well-connected local markets.

The problem could also be addressed by introducing traceability mechanisms. Implementing measures to increase the credibility and popularity of PGS certification among consumers is the need of the hour. Consumer trust will generate more demand.

“We now know that there are enough reasons to upscale organic and natural farming. We hope that the larger scientific community and policymakers recognise the strong case that we now have to transform the non-chemical farming initiatives in our country into a mass movement,” said Narain concluding the discussions at the release of the report.

Post By: Amita Bhaduri