Use of sustainable farming practices has rejuvenated soil fertility, increased water retention and has led to growing of healthy foods
‘Sresta Natural Bioproducts’ is a sustainable livelihood venture that has enabled 45,000 farmers turn to practicing organic farming across the country. The company has converted two lakh acres of land across 15 states including Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Naidu, Odisha, Jammu, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra to organic farms. Over 200 products are sold in 10,000 stores and also exported to 50 countries under the brand name 24 Mantra.
The strategy adopted by the company to win the farmers’ trust include formation of ‘clusters’ of at least ten farmers and field demonstration on an acre of land. All products go through Five-point checks. There are station heads located at every 15-20 kms of the clusters. A third-party inspection of farms from station heads outside the state is also done. Quality checks include conduct of scientific tests to identify traces of heavy metals or microbial contamination. A mobile app, in addition, geo-tags the farms to trace the product. Agronomists are deployed to ensure the quality of composts, bio-pesticides, bio-fertilizers and their usage in the requisite proportions.
Farmers who are a part of the above venture claim that it has enabled them to earn 30% more income than the market price. More importantly, use of sustainable farming practices has rejuvenated soil fertility, increased water retention and as a result led to growing of healthy foods.
The above best practice is extremely relevant in context of the critical challenges of soil fatigue and climate change in India. In conjunction they impact the livelihoods of small and marginal farmers in a major way. According to the Doubling Farmers Income Committee (DFI) Report 2017, sustainable agriculture entails management of resources for agriculture that aim to produce food that is both nutritious and without contents that might harm human health. In practice, the report adds, such an approach avoids the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and instead relies on crop residues, animal, and green manures.
In India there has been steady increase over the years in the extent of organically farmed land and hence, research devoted to such farming and its market size. Currently, 3.8 million hectares of cultivable area is organically farmed by 3 million farmers with an export and domestic demand of Rs. 7,000 crore and Rs. 4,400 crore respectively. We export organic oilseeds, oilcakes, cereals, sugar, fruit pulp and spices to destinations such as USA, European Union (EU) and Canada. Among the states in India, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Odisha, Karnataka, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh have substantial area under organic cultivation. Major crops grown include cotton, paddy, wheat, pulses, millets, vegetables, fruits, cereals, oilseeds and sugarcane.
India has a sizable extent of cropped area in different states that are prone to weather uncertainties. These are areas located in rainfed, dryland and hilly tracts. Experts content that in these areas the use of fertilizers and pesticides is much below the national average. Hence, they suggest that these are the areas that need to be intensively further targeted for organic production by devising appropriate strategies to identify niche crops. The recently launched “One District One Focused Product” (ODOFP) initiative by Government of India, listing agro-climatically suitable crops for which niche demand can be further invigorated, is a step in the right direction. It can be dovetailed by states to strengthen their organic production plans with requisite package of practices to increase agricultural productivity as well as conserve precious soil resources.
Another critical issue flagged by experts is the drop in yield (also reported by farmers) during the conversion stage from conventional to organic agriculture. In this context, the example of Sikkim, India’s fully organic state is very relevant. The DFI Report observes that productivity of rice in Sikkim continued to increase in 2013-14 as compared to 2002-03 when fertilizer consumption was very high in the absence of an organic mission mode. This only goes to indicate that with consistent and improved farm management practices yield levels can be increased in organic production. These include good quality compost generation, green manures, use of bio-fertilizers, mixed cropping (e.g., legumes in rotation with cereals/vegetable crops) and pest/weed control. This also reduces climate change issues such as greenhouse gas emissions from farmlands significantly.
In fact, through schemes such as Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (PKVY) and Mission Organic Value Chain Development North East (MOVCDNER), Government of India promotes nutrient management through low input cost organic farming. It supports farmers by giving impetus to a cluster approach through formation of Farmer Producer Organizations (FPOs), develop value chains and enabling market linkages. A javikkheti web portal infact connects farmers to consumers for better prices. In addition, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) also runs a national programme to develop location specific package of practices for organic cropping systems. PKVY has peer appraised self-certification while MOVCDNER uses third party certification.
Experts also observe that India’s agriculture and food security policies are now going beyond the calorie sufficiency approach towards ensuring access to a nutritionally balanced diet. One of the key drivers of this change is the diverse consumption basket and consequently the expansion of the modern food retail industry valued at $ 380 billion during the last decade. In this context, many organic food companies are adopting the use of online technologies to expand their consumer base beyond metro and mini metro cities to rural areas. Companies such as Farm2Kitchen, Naturally Yours and Organic India are a few examples. The Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, in fact, provides for a robust push to such electronic trading and transaction platforms. These can be run by self-help groups, farmers cooperatives or FPOs for facilitating country wide inter and intra-State trade.
In addition to entrepreneurial ventures like ‘Sresta Natural Bioproducts’, PRADHAN works in the poorest and tribal dominated district of Balaghat in Madhya Pradesh. It has enabled 3,000 women farmers to transition from chemical intensive cropping practices to organic farming of rice and vegetables. The handholding approach is to blend scientific practices with indigenous community knowledge and make seed bank services available at the farmers doorsteps. We, therefore, have to strengthen organic farming policies and institutional interventions that are market oriented yet inclusive.
(The writer is an Additional Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare, Government of India. Views expressed are personal)