Natural Farming FAQ
Find answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about natural farming and the National Coalition
Table of Contents
What do we mean by the term Natural Farming? What is agroecology? How’s it related to Natural Farming?
The term natural farming is used to denote the entire umbrella of agro-ecological approaches, principles and practices being devised across the world to provide farmers with a range of alternatives to the chemical-input-intensive farming propogated ever since the Green Revolution (GR) over the past 50 years.
“At the heart of agro-ecology is the idea that a crop field is an ecosystem in which ecological processes found in other vegetation formations such as nutrient cycling, predator/prey interactions, competition, commensalism, and successional changes also occur. Agro-ecology focuses on ecological relations in the field, and its purpose is to illuminate the form, dynamics, and function of these relations (so that) . . . agro-eco-systems can be manipulated to produce better, with fewer negative environmental or social impacts, more sustainably, and with fewer external inputs.” (Hecht, 1995)
“Over the past five years, the theory and practice of agroecology have crystalized as an alternative paradigm and vision for food systems. Agroecology is an approach to agriculture and food systems that mimics nature, stresses the importance of local knowledge and participatory processes and prioritizes the agency and voice of food producers. As a traditional practice, its history stretches back millennia, whereas a more contemporary agroecology has been developed and articulated in scientific and social movement circles over the last century. Most recently, agroecology—practised by hundreds of millions of farmers around the globe—has become increasingly viewed as viable, necessary and possible as the limitations and destructiveness of ‘business as usual’ in agriculture have been laid bare” (Anderson et al., 2021).
In India, natural farming includes Andhra Pradesh Community based Natural Farming, Non-Pesticide Managed (NPM) Agriculture, Conservation Agriculutre, Bio-dynamic Farming, Low External Input Sustainable Agriculture (LEISA) and organic farming.
The defining features of these approaches include
- progressive elimination of chemical pesticides and fertilisers, as also Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs);
- promoting crop diversification and a decisive movement away from the monocultures of the GR;
- focus on productivity of the whole farm system, moving away from the commodity-centric approach of the GR;
- regenerating natural cycles to boost yields and pest management;
- focus on soil health as a key determinant of the health of a farm system; and
- reducing the demand for water for irrigation which has sky-rocketed after the GR, leading to major crisis of water in India
While it is undeniable that the GR paradigm represents a powerful break from the past that provided India with comfortable buffer stocks of food over the past many decades, it is also true that the GR has sowed the seeds of its own destruction, leading to a grave farming crisis in India today. More than 300,000 farmers have committed suicide in the last 30 years, a phenomenon completely unprecedented in Indian history. This data comes from the National Crime Records Bureau, as committing suicide still remains a crime under Indian law. There is also growing evidence of steady decline in water tables and water quality. At least 60 per cent of India’s districts are either facing a problem of over-exploitation or severe contamination of groundwater (Vijayshankar, Kulkarni and Krishnan, 2011). There is evidence of fluoride, arsenic, mercury and even uranium and manganese in groundwater in some areas. The increasing levels of nitrates and pesticide pollutants in groundwater have serious health implications.
The major health issues due to intake of nitrates are methemoglobinemia and cancer (WHO, 2011). The major health hazards of pesticide intake through food and water include cancers, tumours, skin diseases, cellular and DNA damage, suppression of immune system and other intergenerational effects (Margni et al, 2002). Even at low concentration, pesticides exert several adverse effects that may manifest at biochemical, molecular or behavioural levels. The actual transport, presence and impact are, of course, influenced by drainage, rainfall, microbial activity, soil temperature, treatment surface, application rate, as well as the solubility, mobility and half-life of individual pesticides. Repetto and Baliga (1996) provide experimental and epidemiological evidence that many pesticides widely used around the world are immune-suppressive. Nicolopoulou-Stamati et al (2016) provide evidence of pesticide-induced temporary or permanent alterations in the immune systems and Corsini et al (2008) show how such immune alteration could lead to several diseases. A recent study of 659 pesticides, which examined their acute and chronic risks to human health and environmental risks, concludes that
“evidence demonstrates the negative health and environmental effects of pesticides, and there is widespread understanding that intensive pesticide application can increase the vulnerability of agricultural systems to pest outbreaks and lock in continued reliance on their use” (Jepson et al, 2020)
It is also clear that the yield response to application of increasingly more expensive chemical inputs is falling. Indoria et al (2018) show that the average crop response to fertilizer use has fallen from around 25 kg grain/kg of Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium (NPK) fertilizer during the 1960s, to a mere 6 kg grain/kg NPK by 2010 . This has meant higher costs of cultivation, without a corresponding rise in output, even as this intensified application of inputs compels farmers to draw more and more water from below the ground.
And despite the granaries overflowing with grain, the 2020 Global Hunger Index Report by IFPRI ranked India 94th out of 107 countries. FAO et al (2020) estimate that more than 189 million people remained malnourished in India during 2017-19, which is more than a quarter of the total such people in the world. In 2019, of the world’s stunted children (low height-for-age) under five years of age, India had 28 per cent (40.3 million), and of the world’s wasted children (low weight-for-height), 43 per cent (20.1 million).
Paradoxically, at the same time, diabetics have increased in every Indian state between 1990 and 2016, even among the poor, rising from 26 million in 1990 to 65 million in 2016. This number is projected to double by 2030 (Shah, 2019). A new joint study by the Oxford and Lancaster Universities, BITS Pilani and Bocconi University, Italy shows that “there was no evidence that receipt of PDS rice and sugar was associated with improvements in child nutrition” (Bartell et al, 2020)
Thus, the case for building alternatives to the Green Revolution is very strong and such a change has been long overdue.
Natural farming questions the Green Revolution conception of the agricultural production system in general, and of soils in particular. GR had a “commodity-centric” vision, where the idea was to deploy such seeds as would maximise output per unit area, given the right doses of fertilisers and pesticides. The amount of chemical nutrients applied demanded correspondingly larger inputs of water, which, in turn, made the resultant eco-system extremely favourable to the profusion of pests, which threatened output unless pesticides were utilised to kill them.
This is a perspective that exclusively focuses on productivity (output/area) of a given crop by specifically targeting soil nutrients or pest outbreaks. Such a view is atomistic, and assumes that “parts can be understood apart from the systems in which they are embedded and that systems are simply the sum of their parts” (Norgaard and Sikor, 1995). It is also mechanistic, in that relationships among parts are seen as fixed, changes as reversible and systems are presumed to move smoothly from one equilibrium to another. Such a view ignores the fact that often parts cannot be understood separately from their wholes and that the whole is different (greater or lesser) than the sum of its parts. It also overlooks the possibility that parts could evolve new characteristics or that completely new parts could arise (what is termed as `emergence’ in soil science literature). (Addiscott (2010); Baveye et al (2018); Falconer et al (2012)
As Lent (2017) argues:
“Because of the way a living system continually regenerates itself, the parts that constitute it are in fact perpetually being changed. It is the organism’s dynamic patterns that maintain its coherence. . .This new understanding of nature as a self-organized, self-regenerating system extends, like a fractal, from a single cell to the global system of life on Earth.”
On the other hand, in the Green Revolution vision, the soil was seen essentially as a stockpile of minerals and salts, and crop production was constrained as per Liebig’s Law of the Minimum – by the nutrient least present in the soil. The solution was to enrich the soil with chemical fertilisers, where the soil was just a base with the physical attributes necessary to hold roots: “Crops and soil were brute physical matter, collections of molecules to be optimized by chemical recipes, rather than flowing, energy-charged wholes” (Mann, 2018).
Thus, the essential questions posed by Natural Farming to a continued blind adherence to the Green Revolution approach, in the face of India’s growing farm and water crises, are:
- Is the soil an input-output machine, a passive reservoir of chemical nutrients, to be endlessly flogged to deliver, even as it shows clear signs of fatigue?
- Or is it a complex, interacting, living eco-system to be cherished and maintained so that it can become a vibrant, circulatory network, which nourishes the plants and animals that feed it?
- Will a toxic, enervated eco-system with very poor soil quality and structure, as also gravely fallen water tables, be able to continue to support the agricultural production system?
In the words of Rattan Lal, the Indian-American soil scientist, who is also the winner of the 2020 World Food Prize:
“The weight of living organisms in a healthy soil is about 5 ton per hectare. The activity and species diversity of soil biota are responsible for numerous essential ecosystem services. Soil organic matter content is an indicator of soil health, and should be about 2.5% to 3.0% by weight in the root zone (top 20 cm). But soil in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Delhi, Central India and Southern parts contains maybe 0.5 percent or maybe 0.2 percent.”
Several studies have documented the depletion of soil organic matter and organic carbon in the soils of North West India after the adoption of Green Revolution (Chouhan, et.al., 2012; PK Ghosh et.al., 2017; DK Pal et.al., 2009). According to FAO, generating 3 cm of top soil takes 1 000 years, and, if current rates of degradation continue, all of the world’s top soil could be gone within 60 years.
Lal favours compensation for farmers through payments (around INR.1 200 per acre per year) for soil protection, which he regards as a vital eco-system service.
As the FAO has said
“High-input, resource-intensive farming systems, which have caused massive deforestation, water scarcities, soil depletion and high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, cannot deliver sustainable food and agricultural production. Needed are innovative systems that protect and enhance the natural resource base, while increasing productivity. Needed is a transformative process towards ‘holistic’ approaches, such as agro-ecology and conservation agriculture, which also build upon indigenous and traditional knowledge.” (Quadrennial Review of Strategic Framework and Preparation of the Organization’s Medium-Term Plan, 2018–21)
It is important to understand the key relationship between soil quality and water productivity and recognise that every land-use decision is also a water-use decision (Bossio et al., 2008). Rattan Lal (2012) explains how soil organic matter (SOM) affects the physical, chemical, biological and ecological qualities of the soil. In physical terms, higher SOM improves the water infiltration rate and the soil’s available water-holding capacity. Chemically, it has a bearing on soil’s capacity to buffer against pH, as also its ion-exchange and cation-exchange capacities, nutrient storage and availability and nutrient-use efficiency. Biologically, SOM is a habitat and reservoir for the gene pool, for gaseous exchange between the soil and the atmosphere, and for carbon sequestration. Ecologically, SOM is important in terms of elemental cycling, eco-system carbon budget, filtering of pollutants and eco-system productivity.
A recent overview of global food systems rightly points to the “paradox of productivity”:
“as the efficiency of production has increased, the efficiency of the food system as a whole – in terms of delivering nutritious food, sustainably and with little waste – has declined. Yield growth and falling food prices have been accompanied by increasing food waste, a growing malnutrition burden and unsustainable environmental degradation.” (Benton and Bailey, 2019)
Thus, we need to move from the traditional preoccupation with Total Factor Productivity (TFP) towards Total System Productivity (TSP):
“A food system with high TSP would be sufficiently productive (to meet human nutritional needs) whilst imposing few costs on the environment and society (so being sustainable), and highly efficient at all stages of the food chain so as to minimize waste. It would optimize total resource inputs (direct inputs and indirect inputs from natural capital and healthcare) relative to the outputs (food utilization). Maximizing TSP would maximize the number of people fed healthily and sustainably per unit input (direct and indirect). In other words, it would increase overall systemic efficiency.” (ibid.)
It is now widely recognised that the GR was simply a wheat-rice revolution. Even globally, the current diet of most people comprises 3 crops: wheat, rice, and corn, which provide more than 50% of the calories consumed (UNCSN, 2020).
Over the past 50 years, the share of “nutri-cereals” in cropped area has gone down dramatically in all parts of India. Even in absolute terms the acreage under these cereals has decreased from 42 million hectares in 1962-65 to 23 million hectares in 2012-14. (DAC. 2018. Agricultural Statistics at a Glance)
Nutri-cereals include Sorghum (Jowar), Pearl Millet (Bajra), Finger Millet (Ragi/Mandua), Minor Millets — Foxtail Millet (Kangani/Kakun), Proso Millet (Cheena), Kodo Millet (Kodo), Barnyard Millet (Sawa/Sanwa/ Jhangora), Little Millet (Kutki) and two Pseudo Millets (Black-wheat (Kuttu) and Ameranthus (Chaulai).
The share of pulses has also drastically come down in the states of Assam, Bihar, Haryana, HP, erstwhile J&K, Jharkhand, Odisha, UP, Uttarakhand and West Bengal. The share of oilseeds appears to have risen but that is mainly on account of the rise in soya acreage. The share of soyabean in oilseeds acreage rose from less than 1% in the early 1970s to over 40% today. The share of the other 8 oilseeds has stagnated over the past 50 years. Other than soyabean, the only other crops showing a rise in acreage during the period of the GR are wheat, rice and sugarcane (Shah et al, 2021a).
The rise in acreage of wheat and rice is a direct consequence of the procurement and price support offered by the state and for sugarcane and soyabean, it owes to the purchase by sugar mills and soya factories. But the main story of the GR is the story of rice and wheat, which remain the overwhelming majority of crops procured by the government even today, even after a few states have taken tentative steps towards diversification of their procurement basket to include nutri-cereals and pulses.
A more diversfied cropping pattern that includes traditional nutri-cereals, pulses and oilseeds would be a great contribution to improved nutrition, especially for our children, and a powerful weapon in the battle against the twinned curse of malnutrition and diabetes. For it is clear by now that a major contributor to this “syndemic” is the displacement of whole foods in our diets by energy-dense and nutrient-poor, ultra-processed food products. Recent medical research has found that some millets contain significant anti-diabetic properties. According to the Indian Council of Medical Research, foxtail millet has 81% more protein than rice. Millets have higher fibre and iron content, and a low Glycemic Index. Millets also are climate-resilient crops suited for the drylands of India. If our children were to eat these “nutri-cereals”, with much higher protein, iron and fibre and a significantly lower glycemic index, we would be better placed to solve the problems of malnutrition and obesity.
Farming faces twin uncertainties, stemming from the market and the weather. For such a risky enterprise to adopt monoculture is patently suicidal. But that is what the Green Revolution has moved Indian farming towards: more and more land under one crop at a time and year-on-year production of the same crop on the same land. This reduces the resilience of farm systems to weather and market risk, with even more grave consequences in this era of rapid climate change and unpredictable patterns of rainfall. Climate models project an increase in the frequency, intensity and area under drought conditions in India by the end of the twenty-first century (Krishnan et al., 2019).
The persistence of monoculture makes India even more vulnerable to disruptions from climate change and extreme weather events, for it has by now been conclusively established that
“crops grown under ‘modern monoculture systems’ are particularly vulnerable to climate change as well as biotic stresses . . . what is needed is an agro-ecological transformation of monocultures by favoring field diversity and landscape heterogeneity, to increase the productivity, sustainability, and resilience of agricultural production. . .Observations of agricultural performance after extreme climatic events in the last two decades have revealed that resiliency to climate disasters is closely linked to farms with increased levels of biodiversity” (Altieri et al., 2015).
“The vast monocultures that dominate 80% of the 1.5 billion hectares of arable land are one of the largest causes of global environmental changes, leading to soil degradation, deforestation, depletion of freshwater resources and chemical contamination.” (Altieri and Nicholls, 2020)
It has also been shown that plants grown in genetically homogenous monocultures lack the necessary ecological defence mechanisms to withstand the impact of pest outbreaks. Francis (1986) summarises the vast body of literature documenting lower insect pest incidence and the slowing down of the rate of disease development in diverse cropping systems compared to the corresponding monocultures. In his classic work on inter-cropping, Vandermeer (1989) provides innumerable instances of how inter-cropping enables farmers to minimise risk by raising various crops simultaneously. Natarajan and Willey (1996) show how polycultures (intercrops of sorghum and peanut, millet and peanut, and sorghum and millet) had greater yield stability and showed lower declines in productivity during a drought than monocultures.
Most recently, the largest ever attempt in this direction (Tamburini et al., 2020) has included a review of 98 meta-analyses and a second-order meta-analysis based on 5160 original studies comprising 41,946 comparisons between diversified and simplified practices. They conclude:
“Enhancing biodiversity in cropping systems is suggested to promote ecosystem services, thereby reducing dependency on agronomic inputs while maintaining high crop yields. Overall, diversification enhances biodiversity, pollination, pest control, nutrient cycling, soil fertility, and water regulation without compromising crop yields” (Tamburini et al., 2020).
A recent report of the FAO’s Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture also brings out the key role of bio-diversity in sustaining crop production:
“The world is becoming less biodiverse and there is good evidence that biodiversity losses at genetic, species and ecosystem levels reduce ecosystem functions that directly or indirectly affect food production, through effects such as the lower cycling of biologically essential resources, reductions in compensatory dynamics and lower niche occupation” (Dawson et al, 2019)
Moreover, as a recent study of agro-biodiversity in India argues, “when we lose agricultural biodiversity, we also lose the option to make our diets healthier and our food systems more resilient and sustainable” (Thomson Jacob et al., 2020).
This understanding is also reflected in the National Biodiversity Mission launched by the Prime Minister’s Science, Technology, and Innovation Advisory Council in March 2019, which includes a Biodiversity and Agriculture Program that “will aim to reconcile the traditional tension that exists between increasing food production on one hand and preserving biodiversity on the other. By launching a first-ever quantitative inventory of the contribution of biodiversity in forests, rivers, estuaries, and agro-ecosystems to India’s food and nutritional security, citizens will be empowered with credible information on the judicious use of bioresources.” (Bawa et al, 2020)
It is thus clear how a move away from monoculture towards more diverse cropping patterns would increase resilience against climate and market risks, while also reducing water consumption, without compromising productivity. (Shah et al 2021a and 2021b)
What lessons can we draw from the COVID-19 pandemic for the direction farming must take in future in India?
The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic has, quite like never before, reminded us of how circumscribed the economy necessarily is by the nature of the larger eco-system governing it. And it is not merely a matter of realising the constraints within which we operate but of re-envisioning what we do: moving from a paradigm of linear mechanics to thinking in terms of complex dynamics. As our imprint on the planet grows ever larger in the epoch of the Anthropocene, this shift becomes imperative. Because change now is no longer going to be uni-vocal or uni-directional. The harder we impact the Earth, the more impossible becomes our dream of command-and-control over it. We need, more and more, to learn to deal with the unforeseen and the inherently unpredictable. The pandemic forces us to acknowledge that this is now imperative, not just for greater prosperity but also for the very survival of human life on Earth.
According to Kate Brown, MIT Professor of Science, Technology and Society:
“Within the uniform predictability of modern agriculture, the unpredictable emerges . . Two-thirds of cancers have their origins in environmental toxins, accounting for millions of annual fatalities . . . we inhabit not the Earth but the atmosphere, a sea of life; as swimmers in this sea, we cannot be biologically isolated . . . Biologists have begun questioning the idea that each tree is an “individual”—it might be more accurately understood as a node in a network of underworld exchanges between fungi, roots, bacteria, lichen, insects, and other plants. The network is so intricate that it’s difficult to say where one organism ends and the other begins.”
More specifically, it is clear that
“There is a large list of deadly pathogens that emerged due to the ways in which we practice agriculture, among which are: H5N1-Asian Avian Influenza, H5N2, multiple Swine Flu variants (H1N1, H1N2), Ebola, Campylobacter, Nipah virus, Q fever, hepatitis E, Salmonella enteritidis, foot-and-mouth disease, and a variety of influenzas” (Altieri and Nicholls, 2020).
This necessitates a paradigm shift in our structures of thought, to be able to grasp complex adaptive systems (where the complexity of the behaviour of the whole system cannot be completely grasped by an understanding of its individual parts), of which farming and the water cycle both are important examples. Thus, an appreciation of inter-connectedness becomes essential to understanding the nature of the problem and suggesting meaningful solutions.
What is truly ironic is that those resisting this change claim to be speaking the language of science, while completely ignoring how both best practice and theory are evolving globally. If farming continues to be as water-intensive as it is in India today, there will be no way for us to meet the drinking water and livelihood requirements of our people. If farming methods pay no attention to the soil that sustains them, then food security will be in ever-greater danger. If we continue to focus on rice and wheat in the support provided to farmers, we will be completely unable to tackle the twinned syndemic of malnutrition and diabetes.
We cannot continue to mindlessly extract groundwater without realising how that is destroying the resource itself, as also the rivers that both feed and are being fed by it. We cannot go on building dams without being mindful of what that could mean for the very integrity of India’s monsoon cycle. We cannot continue to destroy our catchment areas and still hope for our rivers to survive and sustain us. If our river basins survive, we also will. Otherwise like many great river valley civilisations of the past, we too will perish! (Shah et al, 2021b)
The term ‘yield’ is seen as grain/ specific product yield in the Green Revolution paradigm. In NF – yield is the total above and below ground biomass. Though there is no systematic study using large sample on the subject, several anecdotal experiences suggest higher biomass yields and higher net incomes to farmers. (need to look at references). Yield in terms of grain yield ‘per acre’ is only a partial measure in NF. The contribution to ecosystem improvement is highly valued in NF, total contribution to the ecosystem i.e. yield ‘per system’ or per landscape or ‘system productivity’ is a right measure of productivity of natural farming. Increase or decrease in Grain yields while switching to NF depends on the base yields. Where base yields are low – for e.g., under low external input use scenarios in drylands or tribal areas – NF is observed to have high yield increments. If the base situation is in high chemical input use – high productivity scenario the grain/ product yields might reduce; while the net income may be even or higher. The quantum of change may differ on the practices adopted, soil fertility levels, choice of crop amongst others.
In principle, one can grow crops year-round with NF, but this depends on the climate , farmer’s conditions and the resources she can command. Recent experiments by Rythu Sadhikara Samstha (RySS) suggest that usage of Pre Monsoon Dry Sowing (PMDS) allows year-round cultivation in rainfed areas as well enabling usage of all forms of moisture for crop growth.
Natural food should strive to be chemical free, have less food miles, and should have less added preservatives. The FSSAI mandates two main types of framework to be called organic- Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare and National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP) implemented by Ministry of Commerce and Industry. Details of regulations can be found in Food Safety and Standards (Organic Food) Regulations, 2017 published by FSSAI. As on date there is no special certification available for ‘natural’ food.