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Published on: Nov. 13, 2022, 2:55 p.m.
Sustainable farming: Striking a balance
  • Drip and Sprinkler Irrigation promotes the efficient use of water at the farm level

By Ritwik Sinha. Consulting Editor, Business India

Prima facie, the dedicated portal (http://naturalfarming.dac.gov.in/) on natural farming unveiled by Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar on 6 November seems to be quite comprehensive. Launched on the occasion of the steering committee meeting of the National Natural Farming Mission, the portal underlines organic and natural farming as the flag bearing systems which the country has adopted for encouraging sustainable agriculture in the country. The portal also has plenty of information on government backed agencies as well as a dedicated section for farmers to send their enquiries or even enrol for natural farming practices.

Later, a ministry release emphasised the momentum which is building up in the natural farming domain. “More than 4.78 lakh hectares of additional area have been brought under natural farming in 17 states from December 2021. 7.33 lakh farmers have taken the initiative in natural farming. About 23,000 programs have been organised for the sanitisation and training of farmers. Natural farming is being implemented in 1.48 lakh hectares on the banks of the river Ganga in four states,” it said.

And senior government functionaries admit that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is keen to give a big-ticket push to natural farming. “This is one area where India has led the world for centuries. Therefore, now is the time when we move forward on the path of natural farming and take full advantage of the emerging global opportunities,” he had said at a function earlier this year.

But even as the government release emphasised some positive indicators, analysts and stakeholders are pointing at a clutch of issues which need to be addressed on an urgent basis to promote sustainable agriculture. Considered to be a panacea to offset the devastating impact of climate change, a large sized country like India may not have the luxury of time to replace existing practices at a slow pace. And then, sustainable agriculture does not simply mean adopting organic farming or natural farming.

There are a host of other systems and practices too. A much larger issue, however, is to align food security concerns (a rising population would necessitate a consistent growth in production) with a possible alteration in food production patterns to mitigate the effects of climate change. Striking a balance between the two would be easier said than done everywhere, India being no exception.

Sustainable agriculture initiation

Considering the rising trends in global population, there is tremendous pressure to enhance agriculture production in order to maintain food security. ‘Food demand, to support the global population, will be 50 per cent more in 2050 compared with 2012,’ a United Nations report had earlier stated. ‘Production will need 165 to 600 million more hectares of land for crop and livestock production, much of which is currently covered by forests and other critical ecosystems.’

Pursuing this humongous task is inevitable even as the sceptre of climate change is creating doubts. ‘Unaddressed climate change, which is associated, inter alia, with unsustainable agricultural practices, is likely to lead to more land and water use, disproportionately affecting poor people and exacerbating inequalities within and between countries. This carries negative implications for both food availability and food access,’ a report by FAO released in 2018 had underlined.

  • Hydroponics could be the answer to India’s shrinking agricultural land holding

Interestingly, as Devinder Sharma, noted agriculture expert and Managing Trustee of Hyderabad based Centre for Sustainable Agriculture points out, agriculture sits in the middle of the climate change phenomenon and covers both cause-and-effect spectrums. “Agriculture practices contribute to one-third of the total global gas emissions. It plays a significant part in the climate change conundrum – it is adding to the problem and is getting affected by the problem,” he says.

“The connection between food production processes and gas emission is not easily understood. But it is a major contributor. Cattle farming, for instance, is adding to climate change significantly,” emphasises Pawan Agarwal, Former CEO, FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India) and Founder, Food Future Foundation. 

The global realisation that the evolution of new agriculture metrics is a must has been playing out for quite some time and India too has made some moves. ‘The government had set afoot a dedicated programme called National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA) in 2014-15 with the prime target of ‘making agriculture more productive, sustainable, remunerative and climate resilient by promoting location specific integrated/composite farming systems; soil and moisture conservation measures; comprehensive soil health management; efficient water management practices and mainstreaming rainfed technologies,’ says a Ministry of Agriculture release.

The extension of this flagship programme in later years saw the addition of components like the ‘Per Drop More Crop (PDMC)’ project under Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY). Initiated during 2015-16, the project promotes the efficient use of water at the farm level through precision/Micro Irrigation (Drip and Sprinkler Irrigation). Besides, it also supports micro-level water storage or water conservation/management activities to supplement source creation.

The Rainfed Area Development Programme, introduced in the same year, lays emphasis on the adoption of Integrated Farming System vis-à-vis practices like horticulture, livestock, fishery, vermi-organic compost, green manuring, apiculture, etc to enable farmers to maximise farm returns for sustained livelihood and mitigate the impact of drought, flood or other extreme weather events with the income opportunity from allied activities. 

Another critical element of the mission is Soil Health Management (SHM). It aims at promoting Integrated Nutrient Management (INM) through the judicious use of chemical fertilisers including secondary and micro nutrients in conjunction with organic manures and bio fertilisers for improving soil health and its productivity, strengthening of soil and fertiliser testing facilities to improve soil-test-based recommendations to farmers for improving soil fertility. The subsequent introduction of soil health cards has given a decisive edge to the project. 

And it’s not only the government which is carrying the baton for sustainable farming. There is enough evidence to suggest that leading private sector firms dealing with agriculture are also contributing their bit by way of dedicated programmes which entail a bit of handholding. “We have started Better Life Farming Alliance in India in collaboration with multiple stakeholders and this is now being replicated in low to middle-income countries across the world.

The Better Life Farming (BLF) alliance works with partners across the agri-value chain to support smallholder farmers in developing economies to increase crop yields and farm incomes. The BLF alliance has global partners that include Bayer with its expertise in seeds, crop protection, and agronomy; IFC, the development finance institution for impact assessment and Netafim for drip irrigation technologies,” says D. Narain, President, South Asia & Global Head of Smallholder Farming for Bayer.

  • The connection between food production processes and gas emission is not easily understood. But it is a major contributor

According to Randhir Chauhan, Managing Director, Netafim India, the country’s population is projected to reach 1.7 billion by 2050, and the demand for food will go up by 70 per cent. In contrast, India’s shrinking agricultural land holdings are a cause for concern. Precision farming, therefore, becomes an effective solution for optimal utilisation of resources to increase production.

“Agriculture alone consumes more than 85 per cent of freshwater withdrawal. Besides, reducing groundwater resources and water quality remains a critical challenge. Precision Irrigation reduces water consumption by 30-40 per cent and empowers efficient usage of fertilisers. India has been consistent, with an average of 0.12 per cent of the loss of arable land yearly,” says he.

India, interestingly has also seen the emergence of a clutch of agro-centric start-ups also popularly called agtechs which are trying to make a difference by promoting the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices in the broader sense. “When you say sustainable agriculture, it does not simply mean preservation of the environment. It also entails economic sustainability. If a change in practice is not leading to a rise in income for farmers, it will not be sustainable,” emphasises Aneesh Jain, Founder & CEO, Gram Unnati.

The road ahead

Despite the visible action in recent years, analysts say that a lot more has still to be done – both statistically and in terms of impact. Recent estimates suggest that the area covered under organic or natural farming (the most talked about sustainable agriculture system) is less than 4 million hectares in the country which is just close to 2 per cent of the total cultivable land. A report released by the noted policy think tank CEEW (The Council on Energy, Environment and Water) last year titled ‘Sustainable Agriculture in India’ highlights various dimensions of the unfolding scenario in the sustainable agriculture domain.

And the key statement that it seems to underline is: it is going to be a long-haul journey. The report interestingly recognises more than 14 systems which comprise the universe of sustainable agriculture. These are: Permaculture, Organic farming, Natural farming, System of rice intensification, Biodynamic agriculture, Conservation agriculture, Integrated farming system (IFS), Agroforestry, Integrated pest management (IPM), Precision farming, Silvipastoral systems, Vertical farming, Hydroponics/Aeroponics and Crop-livestock-fisheries farming system.

‘We find that sustainable agriculture is far from mainstream in India. Barring a couple of exceptions, most SAPSs have less than five million (or 4 per cent) farmers practising them. For many, the practising farmers are less than one per cent of the total Indian farmers,’ the report had said. Based on its countrywide survey and research, the CEEW report pointed at crop rotation, agroforestry, rainwater harvesting, precision farming, integrated pest management, etc as systems and practices where some action is visible. However, on organic and natural farming, its observations were mixed.

‘Despite government policy support, organic farming currently covers only 2 per cent of the country’s total net sown area (140 million ha)… Natural farming has witnessed a faster rate of adoption in the last 2-3 years. Close to one million farmers practise natural farming, mostly in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Himachal Pradesh. The associated area is about 0.7 million ha as it has been mainly popular among small and marginal farmers so far,’ the report had observed.

  • With increasing awareness of sustainable agriculture, there will be a greater move towards suitable crop selection

Analysts and stakeholders firmly believe that scale building at a brisk pace is increasingly becoming the need of the hour as there are several layers of challenges to combat in the medium to long run. “With increasing understanding of the impact of climate change on agriculture, as well as higher awareness of the principles of sustainable agriculture, we hope there will be a greater move towards suitable crop selection, rotation of crops, reduction of stubble burning and adoption of resilient seeds and safer pesticides. Technology will play a role in monitoring as well as creating plans and roadmaps for the future,” says Roli Jindal, co-founder, RMSI Cropalytics, a platform that provides information on standing crops.

For Pawan Agarwal, while the growing discussion on sustainable agriculture is a positive trend, carefully expediting the scale-building drive is increasingly becoming imperative. “Action at scale is required to make a significant dent. It would be equally important to examine the systems and practices which are becoming popular. For instance, organic farming is yet to prove its economic viability. Over-emphasis on organic farming is also cited as the reason for the recent economical debacle of Sri Lanka,” he says.

According to Devinder Sharma who firmly believes that agriculture covers both the cause-and-effect dimensions of climate change, making slow moves could cost us dearly. “In neighbouring Pakistan, about 65 per cent of the cultivable area was flooded recently. There is no guarantee this will not happen with us. The rise in temperature has already affected our wheat production this year. We need a broader policy direction and transformative measures. For instance, the EU is now directing 20 per cent of its agricultural subsidy towards agro-ecology. Why can’t we do something concrete of this kind and incorporate this in our budgetary exercise?” he asks.

Incidentally, the report released by CEEW last year had also batted for pumping in more funding in sustainable agriculture systems. ‘Merely 0.8 per cent of the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare (MoAFW) budget is allocated to NMSA. Beyond the Rs142,000 crore ($20 billion) budget of MoAFW, the Central government also spends about Rs71,309 crore ($10 billion) annually on fertiliser subsidies. So, while the Indian government recognises the importance of promoting sustainable agriculture, the focus remains heavily skewed towards green revolution-led farming,’ it had said.

Several stakeholders also believe that while promoting chemical-free production by way of organic or natural farming is understandable, it should not become a binding strategy for all kinds of production. “If you look at the European model, their idea of sustainable agriculture now combines both preventive and curative methods. We are focusing on the preventive model (using only natural resources) and ignoring the curative part which becomes critical if something goes wrong with your crop,” points out a senior official of a leading agri-input firm who did not wish to be named

  • In neighbouring Pakistan, about 65 per cent of the cultivable area was flooded recently. There is no guarantee this will not happen with us

There is another interesting element to the issue: with surplus production in many categories, India is now supposed to focus more on supplying nutritious food to its people. Among other things, this would entail creating the right kind of environment for animal husbandry practices too. According to Varun Deshpande, President, GFI (Good Food Institute) Asia, while it is true that India’s food security has improved over the last few decades, the looming climate crisis brings this security under threat again. And one of the main ways to prioritise this and de-risk the current food system is to transform protein supply.

Smart protein – meat, eggs, and dairy made from plants, cells, or microorganisms that look, cook, sizzle, and taste just like their animal-derived counterparts – may be the best bet at future-proofing protein production. “Large-scale industrial animal agriculture significantly contributes to resource depletion, land and water scarcity, and greenhouse gas emissions. According to the World Resources Institute, producing just one calorie of chicken meat requires nine calories of crop feed. In spite of this, 77 per cent of agricultural produce is used to feed livestock and just 23 per cent is used to grow crops for human consumption, as per the FAO.

Animal agriculture also has an incredibly large water footprint, and it has been found that the water requirement per gram of protein for milk, eggs, and chicken is about 1.5x larger than for pulses. This is particularly alarming for a country like India, where NITI Aayog has rung the alarm, citing the fact that nearly 600 million Indians face high-to-extreme water stress or scarcity,” he underlines. An issue of this kind clearly indicates that quite an arduous journey awaits large scale adoption of sustainable agriculture and allied activities.

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