[Commentary] How grassroots-led natural farming at the landscape scale can support communities and heal the planet

Photo by Rucha Chitnis/AEF.

  • In recent times, there has been a growing conviction and momentum to reimagine agriculture through an agroecological transformation, embracing natural farming at the landscape scale.
  • India’s consumption of chemical fertilisers has risen by 400 times in the past five decades from 1951-52 to 2009-10, boosted by a substantial increase in government spending on fertiliser subsidies.
  • Referred to as natural farming in India, the emphasis of agroecology is on soil health improvement, biodiversity and the well-being of farmers through sustainable farming practices.
  • The views in the commentary are that of the author.

India’s agricultural sector stands at a crucial crossroads today, grappling with numerous challenges that threaten the livelihoods of millions of farmers and the sustainability of the planet. In recent times, there has been a growing conviction and momentum to reimagine agriculture through an agroecological transformation, embracing natural farming at the landscape scale. Experts estimate that for this vision to become mainstream, around 30% (~40 million) farmer households, covering approximately 40 million hectares, will need to transition to natural farming. Encouragingly, Ramesh Chand, a professor and member of NITI Aayog, the government’s public policy think tank, has also suggested this figure.

Scaling agroecology at this level could establish a tipping point, powering equitable local economies and accelerating the positive impact on India’s agricultural landscape. Such a transformation is possible if we think of transition at a local landscape level, coupled with long-term transitioning support for farmers.

The transformation at the landscape level is unattainable without the profound local knowledge and social capital vested in grassroots networks and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) within these communities. Consider, for example, the Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management (SOPPECOM), which trains women to become champion farmers, inspire and lead others within their communities to follow suit.

State of agriculture today

The Indian agricultural sector is a cornerstone of the nation’s economy, employing more than half of the country’s workforce. Nevertheless, it faces an array of daunting challenges. The escalating input costs, water stress, soil degradation, land fragmentation and erratic weather patterns due to climate change all threaten the very livelihoods of the farmers.

The Green Revolution in India helped in achieving food grain self-sufficiency. But, its legacy today has also led to an over-reliance on chemical fertilisers and monoculture practices, causing degraded soil health, polluted water bodies and contaminated food with chemical residues. India’s alarming consumption of chemical fertilisers has risen from 65.6 thousand metric tons in 1951-52 by 400 times to 26.49 million metric tons in 2009-10, boosted by a substantial increase in government spending on fertiliser subsidies.

For the transformation of agriculture at the landscape level, the profound local knowledge and social capital vested in grassroots networks and civil society organisations within these communities is essential. Photo by Rucha Chitnis/AEF.

Exacerbating this crisis is excessive water usage in agriculture. Agriculture consumes 80% of India’s freshwater resources. Government subsidies for electricity usage drive this unsustainable groundwater extraction, putting India’s survival at risk.

Furthermore, climate change looms large, threatening food security and natural resources like land and water. Agriculture fans climate change, contributing 19.6% of India’s total greenhouse gas emissions, mainly due to agricultural inputs derived from fossil fuels.

A deep challenge also lies in social inequities in agriculture. Approximately 80% of India’s farmers own less than two hectares of land, accounting for only 47% of the cultivated area. These small-scale farmers primarily engage in subsistence farming and struggle with limited income and resources. Given that most of India’s food production depends on these small farmers, their plight poses risks to national food and nutritional security.

Agroecology, a solution to addressing challenges

Grounded in scientific principles, practical on-farm trials and local culture, agroecology draws from the combined knowledge and experience of farmers intimately familiar with their land and crops collaborating with researchers.

Also referred to as natural farming in India, the crux of agroecology lies in its emphasis on soil health improvement, biodiversity and the well-being of farmers through sustainable farming practices. Thus, it promotes the use of natural inputs like compost, manure, bio-inoculants, and practices like cover crops, reducing the reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilisers. This results in healthier soils, increased biodiversity and higher crop yields.

Moreover, agroecological farming offers substantial benefits by reducing water usage significantly, with potential savings ranging from 25% to 40% and reduces water pollution.

Another vital aspect of agroecology lies in its capacity to address climate change and biodiversity loss. Its practices bolster resilience mechanisms and carbon sequestration and foster ecosystem restoration.

Alongside its ecological benefits, agroecology also preserves local cultures and food traditions. It promotes financial resilience for farmers. Lower production costs and reduced reliance on external inputs translate into increased net incomes and decreased dependence on debt. Agroecology opens new income streams, such as beekeeping, seed saving, and potential ecosystem services, including carbon credits.

As such, scaling natural farming practices could safeguard the livelihoods of millions of farmers.

The transition has begun

India’s journey towards natural farming has already begun, fuelled by various farmer movements and civil society organisations (CSOs). Successful pilot programs across the country have showcased the potential benefits of natural farming, including improved soil health and enhanced crop yields.

One noteworthy movement is Subhash Palekar’s Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF), founded in the late 1990s, which focuses on escaping from a debt trap, enhancing soil health, conserving water, and regenerating biodiversity. Simultaneously, the Andhra Pradesh Community Managed Natural Farming (APCNF,) led by Rythu Sadhikara Samstha (RySS), has supported over 1.5 million farmers by deepening their knowledge of natural farming techniques. Key to the fast spread of natural farming is the women’s self-help groups that anchor the programme. A recent study led by GIST Impact reveals a significant increase in farmer income, largely attributable to savings from input costs. It highlights positive social and health impacts on farmers who adopt natural farming practices.

Read more: Community-based natural farming outshines other farming practices in Andhra Pradesh

Another significant milestone is the establishment of the National Coalition for Natural Farming (NCNF), which has assembled an array of CSOs, research institutes, and individuals. The coalition embodies the collective determination to facilitate a comprehensive shift towards natural farming practices.

The Bharat Agroecology Fund (BAF) was established in 2022 by the global Agroecology Fund to support this grassroots-led transition in India. It is undergirded by robust decentralised governance principles and procedures, relying deeply on the wisdom of a diverse advisory board embedded in India’s rich diversity of communities. It fosters authentic grassroots consultations and enables donors to engage directly with grassroots organisations and networks. The India Climate Collaborative, IKEA Foundation and the Rainmatter Foundation, among others, have seeded BAF.

The Indian government, recognising the urgency for sustainable agricultural practices, has launched multiple initiatives like National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA), the Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (PKVY), Bhartiya Prakritik Krishi Paddhati (BPKP) at the state and central level offering support to farmers transitioning to natural farming.

In its most recent development, the government of India has introduced the National Mission on Natural Farming (NMNF) this year, with a budget of Rs. 1,584 crores ($200 million).

Natural farming in India has also received substantial support from international organisations such as the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the German development agency, GIZ. This backing, combined with contributions from CSOs and philanthropic organisations, has significantly strengthened the momentum for adopting natural farming practices in the country.

Challenges in scaling up

Despite the progress, scaling up natural farming in India poses significant challenges. The existing agricultural infrastructure predominantly favours the Green Revolution paradigm, making it difficult for farmers to transition to natural farming practices. Current financial incentives, government policies, support systems, research, and educational institutions often create disincentives for farmers to embrace agroecological practices.

Natural farming incorporates practices like multi-cropping, zero tillage, and local manufacture of bio-inputs requiring additional labour. During the transition from chemical-based farming, farmers may experience a temporary drop in yields and income, which typically recover within three to five years as the ecosystem regenerates.

Achieving landscape-level transitions towards sustainable agricultural practices demands significant resources, infrastructure, and the reorganisation of various sub-systems, including inputs, processing facilities, markets, and financial support. Unfortunately, the current state of these elements remains fragmented and inconsistent. As a result, different farmers receive varying degrees of support depending on government schemes, donors’ priorities, and civil society organisations’ capabilities. This disjointed approach leads to a piecemeal and potentially ineffective adoption of natural farming practices.

Image shows a man throwing seeds on a farm
In early 2023, the Indian government introduced the National Mission on Natural Farming with a budget of $200 million. Photo by Pappu Sarkar01/Wikimedia Commons

While the public and private funds are beginning to flow, they fall significantly short of what is needed for a landscape-level transition at scale. Moreover, these funds disbursement decisions are invariably dependent on a public scheme or are donor led, which is frequently not aligned with the needs of the communities.

As of now, only approximately 1.6% of agricultural land in India is under organic cultivation. The fragmented efforts contribute to the misconception that natural farming may not be economically viable and can create resistance towards the transition.

The theory of change for scaling natural farming

To achieve a transformative scaling of natural farming, a landscape-level approach that encompasses the entire agricultural ecosystem is crucial. The theory of change envisions a transition led by well-resourced community organisations that support a system of services and infrastructure for farmers across a landscape to reach a tipping point. The support services include water management systems, bio-input resource centres, custom hiring centres and storage facilities. It also encompasses training and research centres and knowledge exchange systems that promote local innovations for natural farming.

A crucial aspect of this transformation is having a farmer-centric approach in providing resources like awareness, training, and financial support, co-creating an enabling ecosystem for farmers.

In addition to promoting and enabling agroecology, establishing robust market connections is paramount. This step is crucial in improving farmers’ access to viable and lucrative markets, creating a strong demand for their produce. However, to fully realise the potential of this approach, it must be complemented by consumer-side public awareness campaigns. These initiatives are instrumental in elevating consumer understanding, cultivating a greater appreciation for organic produce, and promoting consumption.

Most important of all is a synchronised and convergent effort among all stakeholders. This entails pooling resources from diverse avenues, such as government schemes, corporate funding, philanthropic contributions, and support from bilateral and multilateral organisations. Equally important is the coordination among civil society organisations and other institutions to establish and sustain support services on a large scale. While coordinated efforts have been witnessed on a smaller scale, a successful nationwide agroecological transformation calls for a fresh and innovative approach.

Finally, such a transformative shift necessitates long-term and consistent support. The Green Revolution took root over decades. A similar commitment is needed for agroecology to take root. This decades-long approach allows for continuous learning, adaptation, and improvement, ultimately leading to the successful mainstreaming of natural farming.

Moving the agenda forward

To move the agenda forward, the Bharat Agroecology Fund, in conjunction with its partners, is organising a gathering in August 2023 to bring together donors in dialogue with movements, grassroots networks, and key stakeholders. This meeting aims to coalesce donors around the opportunity to support grassroots-led change to advance the adoption of natural farming practices.

Agroecological transformation through landscape-scale natural farming holds immense promise for revitalising India’s agricultural sector, promoting sustainability, and securing the livelihoods of millions of farmers.

The time for action is now. As governments, civil society organisations, research institutions, and communities, we must unite and collaborate towards a shared vision of sustainable agriculture grounded in grassroots-led agroecology. Together, we can resource a resilient and equitable transition that safeguards India’s family farmers and consumers while regenerating India’s increasingly degraded landscape.

Min (Minhaj Ameen) works at the Agroecology Fund and its sister initiative Bharat Agroecology Fund in India. He engages with diverse stakeholders to transform the Indian agriculture system through agroecology.


Banner image: The crux of agroecology lies in its emphasis on soil health improvement, biodiversity and the well-being of farmers through sustainable farming practices. Photo by Rucha Chitnis/AEF.

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