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Natural Farming: Threadbare debate needed before large-scale adoption

Most agricultural scientists are still unconvinced about the efficacy of the method in terms of yield though all agree that the soil health needs improvement.

ByRK Nimai

Updated 13 Dec 2022, 6:12 pm

(Photo: IFP)
(Photo: IFP)

 

This writer attended a webinar on Natural Farming (NF) last year, but was not convinced with the method as he had some experience. The resource persons also appeared not convinced about the system. And, some of the issues raised could not be convincingly clarified. However, the Government of India had given tremendous emphasis on this method of cultivation.

For the government, reducing the chemical inputs in the farm sector is critical as almost all are imported and most heavily subsidised, especially the fertilisers. It deputed experts from the state to other states to learn about the method.

Natural Farming or “Fukuoka Method” is an ecological approach established by Masanobu Fukuoka who introduced the term in his 1975 book “One Straw Revolution”. It is a closed system that demands no human provided inputs and mimics nature. For every locality, one needs to study the natural process and the most suitable system devised and there is no single solution for all conditions.

Fukuoka Farming encourages the complexity of living organisms in the natural ecosystem and tries to mimic it and for him it is both as a means of producing food as well as a spiritual approach towards life. Even tilling was avoided and weed suppression was through mulching, etc.

Fukuoka rejected “Organic Farming” and referred to it as another modern technique that disturbs nature. His was basically mimicking nature rather than disturbing it. When this system was tried in Andro during the early eighties under his supervision, it failed.

To be fair he was there only at the start and one of the reasons is the weed which grew luxuriant and even six inches of mulch could not deter them. Sengbang Kaothum (Cyperus rotunda) just could not be suppressed; so are a few other weeds.

The Natural Farming propagated in India differs from the Fukuoka Method in that organic inputs are also allowed as tilling. Desi cow products like dung, urine, milk, buttermilk, etc are used besides jiggery.

The idea is to increase the microbes in the soil which will breakdown the organic matter to produce nutrients required by the plants.

The problem is that due to total disregard of organic matter in cultivation and heavy use of chemical fertilisers for two or three decades the soil is now devoid of organic matter.

The organic carbon content of most cultivated soil is very poor. All agree that due to over dependence on chemical fertilisers, the quality of the soil has deteriorated and the top soil is such that it is not able to sustain life.

About three decades ago, any soil when dug will throw up earthworms but now there is none which indicates total lack of organic matter. However, no organisation involved in agriculture had ever recommended use of chemical fertilisers only.

This writer had from time to time purchased since 1968 guide books brought out by ICAR, IARI, etc (like How to grow.... series) and in all these, there was always recommendation of adding FYM or compost supplemented by the chemical fertilisers depending on the soil test results.

As per the average nutrient content of Indian soil, a general dosage of the various chemical inputs was recommended in these brochures.

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Unfortunately, these instructions were never followed and the easy method of over reliance on chemical fertilisers was adopted resulting in acidification of the soil with its consequent problems. Another is the drastic reduction of desi cows or Meitei san due to farm mechanisation and improving milk yield through cross breeding.

There are still hybrid cows which produce poop suitable for manure but bulls are now mainly utilised for beef purposes.

Now, the ill effect of over reliance on chemical inputs be it fertilisers or pesticides is slowly dawning, even at the level of farmers as they have to remove the top soil from time to time. But the alternatives are either costly or labour intensive.

Many claim that NF is less costly due to avoidance of costly inputs but have they taken into consideration the labour inputs required?

Paddy cultivation does not yield much profit and the so-called profit is mainly the labour cost of the farmer and his family. Once the labour cost is reckoned there is hardly any profit.

With organic manures at Rs 20 per kg and the availability limited and with the volume required to be put in and the consequent labour required to spread it is a time consuming, laborious and costly process.

Many tend to treat Natural Farming as similar to organic farming, though it is not, and there are subtle differences.

In organic farming, organic inputs are added while in natural farming decomposition of organic matter by microbes and earthworm is encouraged right in the soil surface itself; organic farming uses tilling while natural farming means no tillage.

Technically, the so called natural farming propagated in India is not natural farming per se as per the accepted definition, but another method of organic farming. Hence, it is a misnomer.

As per the Field Guide for Natural Farming developed by the National Centre for Organic and Natural Farming the components of NF includes no synthetic inputs, minimal soil disturbance and Whapsa (condition where both water and air molecules are present in the soil), use of indigenous seeds, nutrient management through farm inputs, ensuring live roots all year round, eco-balance, diversity and mulching.

The agronomic practices include application of FYM and other concoctions, green manuring, proper land preparation, seed selection, pre monsoon dry sowing, crop rotation, mulching and multiple cropping.

For nutrient management, it includes applications of formulations like Beejamrita, Ghanjeeamrita, etc, green manuring, crop rotation, mulching and biological management.

As regard to weed management it should be through physical or mechanical removal, cultural methods, crop rotation, biological management, cover crops and mulching.

Pest and Disease management is through selection of traditional local seeds, cow urine based concoctions, field sanitation, use of predators and use of kashayams like Neemastra, Agniastra, Chhach, etc. This is like coming back to the practices prior to the green revolution, though some of the practices are still followed.

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There have been reports of success through NF and the acreage continues to increase perhaps due to the central scheme of Bharatiya Prakritik Krishi Paddhati (BPKP), a sub-scheme under Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (PKVY) which falls under the umbrella of National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA).

The main aim of which is to ensure soil health while also increasing farmer’s income besides improving the overall ecosystem of the farmland.

Climate resilient crops like millets are now being promoted which was literally discarded due to low yield during the green revolution era.

The only problem is that NF, generally as per the data available, does not result in increased yields and in most cases it drops. Merely using "difficult to pronounce" Sanskrit names does not necessarily mean going back to nature or better opportunity to farmers.

Most agricultural scientists are still unconvinced about the efficacy of the method in terms of yield though all agree that the soil health needs improvement.

In Delhi and surrounding areas, stubble burning is a major issue. Even in Manipur, straws are being burnt and now-a-days one can go to any farm and collect straw gratis; the only cost is for bundling and transportation. There are now hardly any cattle to feed the straw.

If the straw and the stubble are cut into small pieces and spread across the field and ploughed, it will provide organic matter for the microbes to feed and this in turn will increase the nutrients content. It is easy to say about the use of traditional seeds but which farmer will rely on it when high yielding hybrid seeds are available. If the traditional paddy land races are used will the farmer be able to produce the same yield as the hybrid seeds?   

There are many limitations such as what will grow along with paddy the main cereal grown in Manipur? Can the biological control of pests be successful in an epidemic, say Waahik (plant hopper) infestation? In less affected fields, use of neem oil, Pseudomonas fluorescens, etc can help but in heavy infestation by the time it has effect, the plant would have withered.

This writer had failed to manage white fly either by biological or even chemicals; and the infestation of white fly continues to increase with the host species ever increasing.

Manipur had also started talking about Natural Farming as expected, but before adopting it would be proper to do proper field demonstrations by government agencies in different places rather than passing the responsibility to the farmers.

The best alternative would be to follow the advice of using organic manures like vermiculite, FYM, compost, etc supplemented by chemical fertilisers after proper soil testing.

Before adoption of Natural Farming as propounded, it will be best for all the stakeholders to discuss and debate threadbare before large scale adoption or else we may go the Sri Lanka way, impacting the food security.

(The views expressed are personal)

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First published:

Tags:

agriculturefood securityorganic farmingpaddy cultivationnatural farming

RK Nimai

RK Nimai

The author is a former bureaucrat, Imphal, Manipur

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