A multi-benefit alternative

Scaling up of natural farming will yield healthy crops, increase farmers’ income and preserve the environment; write Bibek Debroy, Pawan Sain & Akanksha Saini

A multi-benefit alternative

Agriculture and farming are the backbone of any society. We should thank our farmers for producing a wide variety of fruits and vegetables round the year for us to eat. It is the harvest of farmlands that helps sustain mankind. India has the second-largest arable land resource in the world. Agriculture, with its allied sectors, is unquestionably the largest livelihood provider in India, especially in the vast rural areas.

National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data indicates more than 50 per cent of all farmers are in debt due to increased cost of farm inputs like fertilisers and chemical pesticides. To reduce the debt burden of farmers, the Government of India has been promoting safer agricultural practices, and the Union Budget 2022 focuses on organic farming and natural farming. The Prime Minister has been talking about the need to reduce chemical fertilisers and promote organic and natural farming, at various forums including the United Nations convention. To realise the objective of doubling farmers' income, farm expenditure needs to be brought down, and natural farming practices like Zero-Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) have to be encouraged.

The phrase 'Zero Budget' means without using any credit, and without spending any money on purchased inputs. 'Natural farming' means farming with nature and without chemicals. Without the need to spend money on these inputs or take loans to buy them, the cost of production can be reduced, and farming can be made into a 'zero-budget' exercise, breaking the debt cycle for many small farmers.

There are four pillars of natural farming:

Bijamrita / bejamrutha: The process includes treatment of seed using cow dung, urine, and lime-based formulation.

Whapasa: The process involves activating earthworms in the soil in order to create water vapor condensation.

Jeevamrutha / jeevamrutha: The process enhances the fertility of soil using cow urine, dung, flour of pulses and jaggery mixture.

Acchadana (Mulching): The process involves creating a micro climate using different mulches with trees, and crop biomass to conserve soil moisture.

In the Union Budget 2022-23, the Government of India has clearly emphasised on the promotion of chemical-free natural farming. It is being promoted as Bhartiya Prakritik Krishi Paddhati Programme (BPKP) under the centrally sponsored scheme, Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (PKVY), which falls within the umbrella of the National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA). BPKP is aimed at promoting traditional indigenous practices which reduce externally purchased inputs. It excludes all synthetic chemical inputs. Currently, several states are undertaking natural farming through Central programmes like RKVY, PKVY and BPKP along with other state-specific programmes.

The Budget highlighted that "natural farming will be promoted throughout the country, with a focus on farmers' lands in 5-km wide corridors along river Ganga, at the first stage" and "states will be encouraged to revise syllabi of agricultural universities to meet the needs of natural, zero-budget and organic farming, modern-day agriculture, value addition and management".

Several studies have reported the effectiveness of natural farming through BPKP in terms of increase in production, sustainability, saving of water use, improvement in soil health and farmland ecosystem. It is considered as a cost-effective farming practice with scope for raising employment and rural development.

Andhra Pradesh is the frontrunner among all states in implementing natural farming programmes at a mass scale. In June 2018, Andhra Pradesh announced a plan to become India's first state to practice 100 per cent natural farming by 2024. The state has been promoting zero-budget natural farming through Rythu Sadhikara Samstha, a not-for-profit company since 2014. Zero-budget natural farming in the drought-prone regions of Andhra Pradesh is helping soils to produce more, offering decent livelihoods to small holder farmers. Farmers' organisations, together with the government, provide the training. They encourage local communities, particularly women self-help groups, to take up new farming practices that transform the land. The practices make farmers more resilient and enable them to fight climate change. Furthermore, the governments of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh are also adopting zero-budget natural farming techniques.

The shift to natural farming will help small and marginal farmers who spend a lot of money on chemical inputs, and can also result in higher net income for farmers. It can reduce the dependence on credit and help in freeing many farmers from exploitative and interlinked input and credit markets. It will also be helpful in reducing India's fertilizer subsidy bill.

At present, consumers are forced to purchase food with chemical residues in it. Certified organic food is more expensive, but the sheer cost savings in natural farming can ensure safe food at affordable prices. Fertilisers and pesticides also have adverse impacts on the health of farmers. Farmers are exposed to contaminants while applying chemical inputs. By replacing such chemicals with natural concoctions, the incidence of non-communicable diseases, respiratory diseases and even cancer — which are associated with the use and application of inorganic chemicals in agriculture — can be reduced. Furthermore, natural farming is environment friendly which can help mitigate climate change. High-input, resource-intensive farming systems have caused massive deforestation, water scarcity, soil depletion and high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. ZBNF has the potential to avoid residue burning by practising mulching. It also helps in reducing the contamination and degradation of rivers and oceans due to release of pesticides into water bodies.

To scale up natural farming, there is a need to go beyond the Ganga Basin by focussing on promoting natural farming in rainfed areas. Rainfed regions use only a third of the fertilisers per hectare compared to the areas where irrigation is prevalent. Therefore, the shift to chemical-free farming will be easier in these regions. Further, various ways should be explored to provide stimulus to smooth transition to zero-budget natural farming.

Bibek Debroy is Chairman, EAC-PM; Pawan Sain is Joint Secretary, EAC-PM and Akanksha Saini is a young professional at EAC-PM. Views expressed are personal

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