We need to fix agriculture in India – our current system is exploitative for both our farmers and the environment. Today, nearly all public spending in agriculture goes to support input-intensive practices that have only deepened the crisis. As we are in the process of rewriting agricultural policies, sustainability needs to be key in our thinking about a safety net for farmers.
Farmer distress, suicides, and mass protests are driven by high production costs, unremunerative prices, depleting natural resources and increasingly unpredictable weather. Yet, unsustainable practices have become the norm: over half the aquifers in India have depleting water levels while 90% of groundwater is used for irrigation, 30% of land area is degraded and topsoil that takes centuries to build is being lost in a matter of years. At the same time, India is ranked as the most vulnerable country in the world to extreme weather events induced by climate change.
Evidence shows that moving towards sustainable practices will conserve natural resources, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, potentially reduce cost of production and climate-related risks for farmers. In line with these ideas, the prime minister himself has urged farmers to reduce the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and also remarked on the use of ‘zero budget natural farming’ for soil conservation during an address to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification conference in 2019.
In that year’s budget speech, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman spoke about the need for ‘zero budget farming’ to double farmers’ income but failed to provide any meaningful budgetary allocation to its promotion. In 2019-20, the central government spent a meagre Rs 283 crore through the Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana – its primary programme for the promotion of sustainable agriculture. The allocation for year 2021-22, at Rs 450 crore, is not much improved. However, the NITI Aayog has recently held a consultation on the promotion of zero budget natural farming, indicating some ongoing conversation on the matter.
Natural farming is a type of organic farming. Its basic principles are based on the elimination of chemical inputs and use of locally available resources to reduce farmers’ dependence of market-bought inputs that can put them in a cycle of debt. The impact of natural farming practices is yet to be fully understood, but preliminary evidence shows increasing yield in certain crops and income gains through lower cost of production.
While many central and state government programmes aim to promote sustainable practices, they are limited in their scope. None are as ambitious as the Andhra Pradesh Community managed Natural Farming (APCNF), previously known as AP Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) programme. APCNF aims to convert the entire state to chemical-free, low-input “natural farming” by 2030. Andhra Pradesh has over 60 lakh acres of cultivated land – compare that to Sikkim, India’s first and only fully organic state, with less than one lakh acres of cultivated land. We recently attempted to trace the programme’s history as it sets a precedent in India for scaling up sustainable agriculture.
Till now, agricultural policy has been influenced by agricultural universities based on the input-driven green revolution model. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the greatest resistance to organic farming programmes in general, and APCNF in particular, which promote an alternative paradigm, has come from publicly funded agricultural universities and the state departments of agriculture.
Sustainable agriculture programmes that employ top-down training can be problematic: they do not build farmers’ skills in managing soils, pests and the surrounding ecosystem. Instead, they follow a prescriptive model that simply tells farmers what to do.
In this context, APCNF might offer an alternative.
A farmer-centric approach
Globally, sustainable agriculture programmes focus on environmental impacts. APCNF has put farmer livelihoods at the centre of its approach. True to its original name, it trains farmers in practices that rely on locally available resources to reduce input costs and make agriculture remunerative. The programme is also experimenting with allied livelihood activities to create additional sources of income for farm households.
It experiments with an extension system based on peer-to-peer learning. Some enrolled farmers become ‘master farmers’, and may go on to become ‘community resource persons’, who are field staff and a point of contact and training for other farmers. Farmers are encouraged to adopt natural farming on part of their land – to learn what may work for their local farm and local conditions by experimentation. Agriculture graduates, as staff, live in programme villages and co-generate knowledge relevant to specific, regional agro-climatic conditions and cropping patterns.
APCNF was not adopted in a vacuum out of thin air. Andhra Pradesh has a 20-year history of government programmes promoting agroecology; civil society bodies have also played a valuable role. Two decades of investment has created much-needed human resources, which the programme has built on.
In the early 2000s, Andhra’s rural development department worked to create an extensive network of women’s self-help groups in the state. Since 2004, the same department has spearheaded the community managed sustainable agriculture programme, which promoted chemical-free pest management with reduced input costs.
Today, women’s self-help groups are also part of the APCNF’s implementation, and a point of entry into new villages. They have also taken up the responsibility of oversight of village programme records. This essential network has made the APCNF possible.
Evidence from around the world shows that a shift towards agroecological practices requires large investments in training of farmers to manage agri-ecosystems. India has millions of small-holder farmers, and government resources need to play a critical role in this process. There is an urgent need to challenge the status quo on how knowledge around agriculture is created and disseminated in the country: with research that partners with producers and is considerate of regional diversity and constraints. In doing so lies a key to protecting farmers and fighting climate change.
APCNF offers India an opportunity to learn how sustainable agriculture can be scaled up. The farmer-centric approach of the programme is an example worth emulating. Success of APCNF can mean a new era for agriculture in India, one that is judicious for our farmers and our environment. If the programme does not meet its ambitious goal, it is still a model for future sustainable agriculture policies to build on.
Divya Veluguri is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh.