Back to the Roots

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Farmers around the world are switching to technologies that ensure long-term sustainability over short-term yields, writes Kritika Agrawal

Climate change is forcing people everywhere to look at their choices in a new light. Every consumption decision can be measured in terms of the volume of carbon it emits, encouraging us to think of ways to reduce the energy intensity of what we eat and wear and how we travel. Nowhere is the need to rationalize our resource use more urgent than in agriculture.

Agriculture represents a colossal waste of resources. Industrial farming has laid waste to (and continues to devastate) the world’s forests, uses over 80% of the world’s scarcest commodity, fresh water, contributes to the chemical poisoning of land and water bodies through fertilizer and pesticide runoff, and is the single biggest source of methane, a major greenhouse gas, in the Earth’s atmosphere.

The United Nations estimates that by 2050, global population will increase to 9.6 billion. How will we meet the food requirement of this huge population without stretching our resource base to breaking point? The answer lies in nature.

“I’m unlearning all that I’ve learnt about ‘high-input’ agriculture” says Vinayak Rao, block technology officer in the government’s agriculture department in Sagar in central Karnataka, whose views on best practice carries weight with local farmers. “There should be minimum human intervention in the fields and the rest must be left to nature.”

A post graduate of the prestigious University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, Rao practices ‘zero budget natural farming’ or ZBNY. He farms 2 acres of land in his village, where he grows organic pepper, coffee and coconut. By using Jeevaamruta, a mixture of cow dung, cow urine and kitchen waste, Rao has increased soil fertility and controlled pests.

Rao encourages farmers to mulch the soil by using areca leaves, husk, coconut fronds and dry leaves to maintain soil moisture and control the spread of weeds. His idea of paper mulching is innovative as newspaper decomposes and becomes food for earthworms. In winter, the mulch keeps the soil temperature relatively warm.

A 60-strong farmers group called Charantana Raitha Kuta in the Keladi region of Sagar meets once a month to discuss innovative farming methods. Most of the farmers in this group have been inspired by Rao’s experiment and have opted natural-farming methods.

ZBNY has already achieved great success in parts of south India. Subhash Palekar, a Padma Shree awardee and a farmer from Vidarbha in Maharashtra, pioneered ZBNF. AP chief minister Chandrababu Naidu has appointed him as his advisor and has provided Rs. 100 crore to promote his farming philosophy.

Palekar believes that ZBNF is the solution to the agriculture crises in India today. His method involves zero input cost by using the natural methods to nurture the soil and to generate substantial produce without using pesticides or chemical fertilizers. In this, the seeds are locally produced and intercropping plays an important role.

The main nutritive components of ZBNF include Jeevaamruta, Beejamrutha (same as Jeevamruta but used to treat seeds), Acchadana (mulching) and Whapasa (moisture). ZBNF says what the plant’s roots need is water vapor not water, thereby curtailing the need for deep irrigation.

India faces an unprecedented water crisis. As much as 80% of India’s water is used in agriculture and much of it in a wasteful manner. Crops like red chilies in Rajasthan, sugarcane and grapes in Maharashtra and rice in many rain-dependent areas across the country are wasteful as they are inappropriate for water-stressed regions. Their export is tantamount to the export of water by a drought-stricken country.

Several parts of India face recurring droughts. Anantpur district in Andhra Pradesh is the country’s second driest district and people there are finding their answers in their traditional, natural farming methods. As with Anantpur, natural farming has improved yields in the AP’s driest districts of Prakasam, Kadapa, Kurnool and Chittoor. Already, 140,000 farmers in AP with 60,000 hectares of land under cultivation have shifted to ZBNF. By 2024, the state authorities believe that 6 million farmers across 13 districts in the state will also switch.

In an interview with online journal The Wire, Palekar points out that through the high-input Green Revolution model, the highest yields achieved were 61 quintals of paddy, 56 quintal of wheat and 26 quintal of basmati rice per hectare. “In Amritsar, there is a 50-acre farm run by the Pingalwara Charitable Society,” he said. “They practice Zero Budget Natural Farming. From one acre they got 24 quintals of basmati rice. That is 61 quintals per hectare, which is more than double the production from hybrid basmati seeds.”

A team of experts from Shimla visited Guntur district of AP to study the ZBNF model at the insistence of Acharya Devvrat, governor of Himachal Pradesh, who practices ZBNF in his 200 acres farm. Around 30,000 farmers follow his example in Himachal Pradesh. State chief minister Jairam has allotted Rs. 25 crore to promote ZBNF.

Once farmers adopt the monoculture practices of conventional farming for the better returns they yield, they find it difficult to return to traditional ways. However, farmers in Chizami village in the Phek district of eastern Nagaland continue to practice their traditional jhum or shifting cultivation, a slash and burn type of agriculture which involves rotation of fields rather than crops.

A group of women in the village is spearheading the task of preserving sustainable-farming practices. These women maintain traditional seed banks and have a clear understanding of the differences between indigenous, hybrid and ordinary varieties of seeds. They pass on this knowledge to other farmers in the village and, as a result, villagers in Chizami are finding answers in their age old traditions to ensure food security amidst changing climatic conditions.

In jhum cultivation, Alder trees are planted to ensure soil fertility. Along with maize, farmers grow leguminous vegetables which play a significant role in nitrogen fixing to rejuvenate soil health. In Nagaland, March is the month of sowing seeds, May and June are the months of harvesting vegetables, July for harvesting millets and August for maize. In August they also sow seeds of rice beans. At last in October they harvest oil seeds like sesame.

Millet is an important crop in the Naga culture. It is highly nutritious, healthy and requires much less water to grow. The revival of Ethsunye, a five day millet festival in the Chizami village, led to the restoration of millets in the jhum fields.

Another technique, permaculture, is also gaining popularity with Indian farmers. Permaculture encourages farmers to design their farms to allow different plants to complement each other and help sustain each other. It seeks to create an ecosystem like a forest and nurtures the soil. This method of farming has now spread to 140 countries and around three million people are using this. It also restricts the use of chemicals and requires much less water.

Down to Earth magazine profiled a farmer, Narsanna Koppula of Telangana, who has 10 acres of land and has been practicing permaculture for 30 years. He says, “All tall trees in his farm are confined to the western and southern boundaries and the eastern side has been left open. This ensures that the other plants and crops remain protected from the harsh afternoon heat and strong winds while benefitting from the morning sun.”

Recently, Millets Network of India (MNI) received the Nari Shakti Award from president Ram Nath Kovind for their success in growing millets like jowar, sorghum and bajra and using permaculture and other traditional practices.

Further afield, in Cambodia, floating rice cultivation serves as an alternative for the people in the Lower Mekong Region, to practice sustainable rice farming. Rice plants are grown in deep water which helps naturally resists pests. The sediments in the floodwater provide natural fertilizer. The floating rice is harvested only once a year, but it’s the major source of income for the farmers around Tonle Sap Lake. Here the focus, like with ZBNF, is not on increased yields but rather generating sustainable yields but keeping costs under control.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) promotes ‘rice-fish farming’. The fish that are raised in the flooded paddy fields are highly nutritious and help in weed and pest control. As the FAO observes, “The yields of rice, income from fishes and savings from pesticides in rice-fish farming produces income up to 400% higher than that in the rice-monoculture farming.”

All these green practices are together laying a new foundation for agriculture in the 21st Century. The Green Revolution of the 1960s & 70s was essential to solve the hunger crises of the time, but now the priority is to rejuvenate the earth and build a more sustainable model of farming in a far more uncertain world. Farmers who are going back to their roots have sparked a new revolution.




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