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On January 21st, 2021 an article signed by Sophie Landrin in the major French newspaper Le Monde reported on the ‘zero budget natural farming’ (ZBNF) project underway in Andhra Pradesh, the largest in the world, intended to involve 6 million farmers, 8 million hectares (20 million acres), and aiming to make the state self-sufficient in food by 2027.
The project was launched in 2015 at the initiative of former IAS officer Vijay Kumar. He defined the goal as ‘(making) our region … completely free of chemicals’ while reducing dramatically the investments required for seeds, irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides, machinery and power, improving the farmers’ health and incomes and eliminating the contamination of soils and water tables. As of April 2020, the ZBNF involved almost 700,000 farmers on 200,000 hectares (half a million acres) in more than three thousand villages, and is an economic success with ever-growing conversions to ZBNF.
In the mid-1960s, India launched its green revolution, based on the model of industrial agriculture developed at the same time in Western countries, with few large-scale monocultures (wheat, maize, sugar-crops, soybean…), new (patented) hybrid seeds, heavy use of chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides), irrigation and machinery, as also and perhaps above all, a concentration of land into ever bigger farms with ever fewer hands. Nowadays, in OECD countries, agriculture employs 3% of less of the active population, mostly in large but rather wealthy farms (55 ha on average in France), whereas the rural percentage of the population is about 45% in India, with ever-decreasing farm size (1.08 ha average in 2015) due to demographic growth and ‘jobless growth’ in the non-agricultural sectors. Marginal small kisans are thus pushed further into poverty due to over-indebtedness caused by ‘modern inputs’ (HYV, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fossil energy), while their natural capital (soils, water, biodiversity) is seriously threatened by the overuse of these industrial techniques and their declining marginal productivity.
The State of Punjab, a showpiece the Green Revolution, now in the news due to the farmers’ protests is a case in point as the reliance on 100% irrigation is dramatically depleting water tables heavily polluted by fertilizers and other chemicals , and requires the equivalent of about two billion US dollars a year worth of Government subsidies for fertilizer and electricity mainly to grow rice and wheat (now in surplus quantities at the national level), not including public funds spent to purchase these staples for the Public Distribution System (PDS) and for rice exports. One of the effects of this subsidy regime focused on rice and wheat production is an unbalanced diet for most Indians and a rise in rates of cancer and other diseases such as diabetes. In 2020, India ranks 94 out of 107 in the World Hunger Index, behind all other South Asian countries. India also became the first world importer of pulses and vegetable oils, while fruit and vegetable have become too expensive for the poorer Indians.
On the national scale the grim statistics about farmers’ suicides (about 11000 in 2019) say a lot about what is wrong with current practices and conditions in that vital sector of the economy.
Instead, natural farming in Andhra Pradesh, renamed APCNF in 2020 (Community-managed Natural Farming, especially with women Self-Help Groups), consists in creating ‘a mosaic of local agroecosystems stimulating in diversified ways biological synergies between several vegetal and animal species above and below the soil, from microorganisms to livestock’. It furthers the farmers’ autonomy, self-reliance and economic empowerment by encouraging them to grow diversified and healthy food while protecting the soil and other natural resources and services.
Typically, in the semi-tropical climate of Andhra Pradesh with large rainfed areas, a field may be planted in alternative rows of turmeric and papaya, dotted by groves of coconut, banana and mango trees and patches of bitter gourd, baby corn, red pepper, tomatoes and marigold which fight pests. Famers, who do not need to plow their land and who apply minimal irrigation if any, use cowdung and urine with some other natural home-made additives as yield boosters, and get their seeds from local seed banks. The transition to agroecology (which in some regions can be rather labeled agro-forestry) takes a few years during which the farmers need state support until they are fully productive.
In 2016 NITI Aayog invited one of the champions of this natural way of farming, Subhash Palekar, to explain it. After this meeting, Palekar reported to the press that ZBNF might be the only way to achieve Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s objective of doubling farmers’ the incomes by 2022.
However, in September 2019, the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences advised the Prime Minister not to support ZBNF, claiming without evidence that it is not suitable for India as it is an ‘unproven technology’, which is tantamount to arguing that nature-friendly, farmer-centric solutions cannot produce enough food for the country. The heavy hand of the powerful industrial lobbies involved in fertilizer and pesticide production and credit, agro-genetic R&D and seed patenting, is all too visible behind the campaign to discredit the new agricultural revolution underway with natural farming.
In a book chapter to appear this year in French (published by the French national academy of agriculture), entitled Theory, Practice and Challenges of Agroecology in India, economist Bruno Dorin analyses the flaws of the current global sociotechnical regime of industrial agriculture which has essentially emptied the countryside in industrially advanced nations while increasing the income level of a dwindling minority of large farmers through the relentless pursuit of mechanization and computerization for raising economies of scale.
In India and other poorer states of Asia, Africa and Latin America however, this model is failing as it systematically reduces the economic viability of small holdings (the vast majority of farms in the world). Absent the possibility of emigrating to sparsely populated lands abroad (as Europeans did in the millions in the last two centuries) and the shrinking opportunities to find a decent existence in overpopulated cities, a rising proportion of the rural population is condemned through poverty and indebtedness to despair or rebellion.
India should therefore undertake at the national level a policy to support agroecology and natural farming since it can become a pioneer and a mentor to many other developing and developed nations which also face major economic, ecological and socio-political problems in their agricultural sectors and food supply systems.