KOLKATA - India is intensifying a push into natural farming, lured by a burgeoning market for organic produce and compelled by the need to reduce agriculture-related emissions as it strives to attain its net zero goal by 2070.
"We have to take our agriculture out of the lab of chemistry and connect it to the lab of nature," said Prime Minister Narendra Modi while addressing a national conclave on natural farming on Dec 16. He also issued a call to make India "free from chemical fertilisers and pesticides".
His remarks signal an ongoing shift in India's agricultural policy that is attempting to veer away from large-scale use of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers that powered the country's Green Revolution in the 1970s and enabled it to achieve dramatic increases in food grain production.
But this achievement has come at great ecological cost, including land degradation and contamination of the water table from chemical run-off, prompting concerns that the current model of agriculture is no longer sustainable in the long run.
"The Prime Minister announcing such a shift at a special meeting is a clear message to India's agricultural institutions, saying that change is inevitable," said Dr G V Ramanjaneyulu, executive director of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, a non-profit organisation that helps farmers adopt sustainable farming techniques.
The government has endorsed a farming practice known as Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF), which is built around soil mulching and aeration, besides the use of low-cost inputs such as cow dung and urine, jaggery, pulse flour and fruit pulp.
It was popularised by agriculturist Subhash Palekar, a recipient of one of India's top civilian honours, as a way to move away from intensive use of pesticides and fertilisers that have caused not just ecological degradation but also contributed to widespread indebtedness and suicides among Indian farmers.
The government introduced a special scheme last year to support natural farming practices, including ZBNF. It announced at the conclave that Amul, a leading Indian dairy cooperative society, would support the marketing of organic produce. More than 650,000 hectares spread across 11 states in India is currently under various forms of natural farming. It is estimated that this could reach two million hectares by 2025.
Among the key reasons for the government's growing interest in ZBNF and other natural farming schools is the ballooning cost of subsidising fertilisers. According to ratings agency Crisil, the government's fertiliser subsidy bill this financial year is expected to touch 1.3 trillion rupees (S$23.5 billion), nearly 500 billion rupees more than the previous corresponding year.
Besides the reduced dependence on irrigation, which cuts down the use of energy as well as water, natural farming techniques also eliminate fertiliser use, which is necessary to bring down India's emissions.
It is estimated that for every 100kg of nitrogen input through fertilisers, around 1.2kg of nitrogen in the form of nitrous oxide (N2O) is emitted directly from the soil. N2O is almost 300 times more powerful at warming the planet than carbon dioxide, prompting growing calls to reduce the use of nitrogenous fertilisers.
But the transition to natural farming will require the government to shift from assisting an institutional set-up that has sustained yield-driven conventional agriculture over several decades - including through billions of rupees in subsidies, bankrolling extensive research and advisory services, as well as large-scale procurement of crops such as rice and wheat grown using inorganic techniques - to creating support systems for natural farming.
"There is no equity at play," Dr Ramanjaneyulu told The Straits Times. "What the government spends on organic farming is less than 1 per cent of its total budget on agriculture. How it now creates the support system for farmers adopting natural practices, that is going to be key."
A shift to natural farming is also rocky because of entrenched opposition among agricultural scientists to natural farming practices that are often dismissed by them for lacking scientific backing.
The preface to a November 2019 policy paper titled Zero Budget Natural Farming - A Myth Or Reality? from the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences said that claims associated with ZBNF are "questionable and need scientific validation".
Referring to studies indicating "drastically reduced" yields using ZBNF practices, it added: "Therefore, it would be premature to recommend its widespread adoption which may lead to massive damage to the hard-earned knowledge and benefits of agricultural R&D over the last 70 years."
An attempt earlier this year by Sri Lanka to become the world's first completely organic farming nation went awry, prompting food shortages and a rise in the price of essentials. The island abandoned this quest last month and reversed its import ban on pesticides and other inorganic inputs.
A transition, Dr Ramanjaneyulu said, would require making space for different schools of natural farming instead of a "one-size-fits-all" approach. "It is also about creating the necessary mindset, providing investment and also capacity building. It cannot be achieved overnight."