Natural Farming – process, advantages and challenges – Explained, pointwise

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Introduction

Recently, the Prime Minister urged all state governments to introduce natural farming. The Prime Minister observed, “We need to unlearn the wrong practices that have crept into our agriculture.”

Andhra Pradesh has been promoting natural farming for some time now. Australian soil microbiologist and climate scientist Walter Jehne has said, “regenerative agricultural practices adopted in Andhra Pradesh have fundamentally changed the economic viability of farming and enormously empowered local communities to take charge of their future.”

What is Natural farming?

Natural farming is related to soil microbiology. It involves chemical-free farming and livestock-based farming methods.

It is a diversified farming system that integrates crops, trees and livestock, allowing the optimum use of functional biodiversity.

It has many indigenous forms in India, the most popular one is practised in Andhra Pradesh called Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF).

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How Natural farming is different from other methods?
Note: Plants, by way of photosynthesis, use CO2 and water to convert solar energy to biochemical energy or food. About a third of the food manufactured by plants is required by the shoot system over the ground, while 30% is used by the roots. Almost 40%, however, is pushed into the soil as root exudates, which feed microbes. These microbes—bacteria and fungi—in a symbiotic relationship, make the nutrients available to plants. 

Modern agriculture is based on the principle that the soil has to be replenished by chemical nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous, depending on the intake by the crop. Using chemical inputs reduces the microbe population and hinders this natural process.

In organic farming, similarly, the soil is replenished by applying organic manure like cow dung. But since cow dung contains very little nitrogen, massive amounts have to be applied, which may be difficult for a farmer to arrange.

Natural farming works on the principle that there is no shortage of nutrients in soil, air and water, and healthy soil biology can unlock these nutrients.

How are the soil nutrients managed in Natural farming?
Source: NITI Aayog

A cow dung-based bio-stimulant is prepared locally by fermenting dung with cow urine, jaggery and pulses flour. The requirement of dung is very low compared to organic farming, just about 400 kg for an acre of land.

The fermented solution when applied to fields increases the microbial count in the soil, which supplies the plants with essential nutrients (Jivamrit).

This farming method also uses a host of other interventions. Seeds are treated with cow dung-based stimulant which protects young roots from fungus and other soil and seed-borne diseases (Beejamrit).

The fields are managed to have some green cover around the year to aid carbon capture by plants from the air and nurture the soil-carbon-sponge. This also keeps the microbes and other organisms like earthworms alive which helps the soil become porous and retain more water (Whapsa).

During the cultivation of main crops, crop residues are used as mulch (Acchadana or Mulching) to retain soil moisture and prevent the growth of weeds.

Growing multiple crops in the same patch of land also raises soil fertility.

About Natural farming in India

Bharatiya Prakritik Krishi Paddhati (BPKP) is a sub-mission under the Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (PKVY) which falls within the umbrella of the National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA). The scheme aims to promote traditional indigenous practices, which give freedom to farmers from externally purchased inputs.

Initiatives at the state level

Andhra Pradesh launched natural farming as a state policy in 2015. The state is now home to the largest number of farmers in India who have transitioned from chemical nutrients to applying locally prepared natural inputs.

Further, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh have adopted natural farming as part of the state policy.

Read more:  What is Zero Budget Natural Farming? Critically examine whether Zero Budget Natural Farming should be included into agricultural policies or not?
What are the advantages of shifting to Natural farming?

Small and marginal farmers who spend a lot of money on chemical inputs will benefit the most by taking up this type of farming.

Improving farmers’ income: The use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides can be replaced with locally prepared stimulants while maintaining comparable yields. This will reduce cost of cultivation by 60-70%. Natural farming also makes soil softer and enhances the taste of food. Thereby, it can result in higher net income for farmers.

A study undertaken by Andhra University (surveyed over 3500 natural and conventional farms) found that Net revenues for paddy farmers were higher by 15-65% depending on the crop season, while for commercial crops like chillies, cotton and onion, net revenues were 40-165% more than conventional farming. Average net returns from natural farming were 50% higher.

Reduce the dependence on credit: A panel survey of 260 farm households which were surveyed in 2018-19 and 2019-20, found that natural farming reduced the dependence on credit, freeing many farmers from exploitative and interlinked input and credit markets.

Reduce India’s fertilizer subsidy bill: India’s fertilizer subsidy bill, driven by a spike in natural gas and other raw material prices, is estimated to touch a staggering ₹1.3 trillion in 2021-22. Promoting natural farming can reduce these costs to the exchequer.

More flexible than organic farming: Organic farming is more about certification, while natural farming is a gradual process. But, there is relative flexibility in natural farming for adoption. This makes it easier for small farmers to transition.

Benefit end consumers: 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.

Helps in combating climate change: Natural farming not just create cost savings for farmers, but also ensure higher carbon fixation into the soil, which can mitigate climate change.

Natural farming based land management and farming practices can rehydrate and re-green the global landscape. Further, it can meet fertility (requirements of soil) and the nutritional integrity of the food.

Reduce Ocean acidification: Since natural farming eliminates chemical fertilisers and pesticides, it reduces ocean acidification and marine pollution from land-based activities. It also helps to reduce the contamination and degradation of rivers and oceans, like contamination of ammonium nitrate in fertilisers, and hazardous chemical pollutants from pesticides into rivers and oceans.

Read more: Sustainable Agriculture demands Optimum Water Management
What are the challenges in adopting natural farming?

First, some agriculture experts feel that it is premature to recommend widespread adoption of natural farming as it may lead to massive damage to the hard-earned knowledge and benefits of agricultural research and development over the last 70 years.

Second, India’s crop protection industry is valued at ₹18,000 crores. Promoting natural methods will threaten the very existence of their entire business ecosystem.

Third, natural farming can improve soil health and reduce the incidence of pest infestation, but that does not mean farmers can manage without chemicals during outbreaks.

Fourth, limited support from the Central Government: India’s National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture receives only 0.8% of the agricultural budget.

Read more: NITI Aayog organises knowledge sharing workshop on Natural Farming
What should be done to promote natural farming?

First, a balanced approach should be adopted while promoting Natural farming. The experience of Sri Lanka must be kept in mind where the Government at once prohibited the use and import of chemical fertilizers leading to massive drop in production and shortage of food.

Second, the experience in Andhra Pradesh shows that a transition can be successful if farmers are convinced and gradually ease into natural farming, a process that can take between three-five years. Hence, the government should provide adequate time, promote awareness campaigns with practical examples. Civil Society Organizations can be engaged to promote farmer-to-farmer capacity building for sustainable agriculture.

Third, the practice of natural farming needs to be validated by scientific research. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research is designing a curriculum on natural farming for both undergraduate and post-graduate courses, which is a good first move.

Read more: Natural farming: ICAR to research on, demonstrate and promote natural farming

Fourth, the application of pesticides in India is many times lower than in countries like US and Japan. Farmers need to use chemicals judiciously to further lower the application of pesticides.

National policy focus should be shifted from food to nutrition security, looking beyond yields. Government can support the transition and bear short-term losses. Instead of input-based subsidies for fertilizer and power, the focus should be to incentivize outcomes like nutrition output, water conserved or desertification reversed.

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