- Arnab Chakraborty and Deborah Dutta
Time for a revolution? Leveraging Natural Farming thrust to support sustainable transition
Updated: Feb 14
A welcome change in the air
It is not often that government led events such as the Pre-vibrant Gujarat Summit on Agribusiness and Food- processing offer centre stage to proponents of natural farming. The event saw prominent politicians like Shri Acharya Devvrat (the Governor of Gujarat) and scientists like Dr Neelam Patel (NITI Aayog) endorse an unequivocal support for organic farming movement in the state and the country.
The prime minister, and the home minister also spoke at the summit urging those from large cooperatives like Amul to support organic agriculture enterprises. The Chief Minister of Gujarat, leaders from civil society and high-ranking government officials also attended the event.
The various panels and talks by civil society representatives and policy makers marked what Kapil Shah, a panelist and the founder of Jatan Trust (a network to promote sustainable farming in Gujarat) commented as being
“a much-needed platform for convergence and depiction of political will”.
Having worked to create awareness regarding sustainable agriculture for more than three decades, Kapil Shah was clear that the ground is shifting.
The push by the government might be partially motivated by the record burden of subsidies on chemical fertilizers and steep rise in fertilizer import prices, however, it does not take away the gesture’s significance. Listening to him helped us understand the context of state initiatives in a more nuanced manner.
From an unwanted alarm to the need of the hour
Kapil Shah, is a product of the Nai Talim education system, advocated by Gandhi, and was taught agriculture from his school days. But later when he was studying agricultural science at the Anand Agriculture University (AAU) in the early 1980s, he realized, the model of agriculture that was being promoted by the establishment was at odds with the Gandhian notion of agriculture he had grown up learning. As he walked us to his former agri-engineering lab in AAU, he pointed out how the institution including its architecture and syllabuses, was inspired by the American agricultural education institutions, which were the birthplace of chemical farming. In that respect, hosting a summit proclaiming natural farming at AAU was symbolic.
His first major contribution was his book Sajiv Kheti, in 1985 which laid out some of the principles of organic farming. His reminiscences indicate that far from being a new intervention, proponents of sustainable farming have lived in Gujarat for a long while, working based on their own experiences from the field silently, which had limited reception from the public in those days.
“When I first co-authored a book on organic farming and was trying to get the attention of the government, it was still the heyday of Green Revolution … our voice were more like unwanted alarms in the middle of the night. When people like Palekar have started talking about natural farming, Green Revolution has run its course and farmers are already looking for alternatives. The government is looking for solutions… this time is like the dawn when people want to get up.”
Visionaries among progressive farmers
For instance Kapil Shah mentioned about the phenomenal initiatives of Bhaskar Save, often known as the ‘Gandhi of Natural Farming’. Bhaskar Save started farming in the early 50s in South Gujarat. Like many of his peers, he too became interested in the emerging methods of chemical farming. In fact, his experiments with chemical-based farming were studied and admired by the scientific establishment at the time. However, after observing the negative impacts of chemical inputs on the soil and animals, he decided to develop organic methods for farming.
In 2010, the International Federation for Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) awarded Save with the ‘One World Award for Lifetime Achievement’ in Germany, adding one more accolade to his already remarkable legacy. In 2016 IFAOM also awarded “Best Organic Farmer of Asia Award” to another Gujarati, Sarvadaman Patel. Like Save, he too began his career in farming with chemical-based practices, but within a decade he decided to transition towards a form of organic practice in 2000 and then to Biodynamic Agriculture, a version of agroecology.
These were largely individual efforts. As Kapil Shah puts it, enlightened farmers, who had exposure to diverse schools of agriculture were able to adopt agroecological practices. Small and medium farmers were unable to resist the push of green revolution, except in tribal districts who largely practiced subsistence farming. He attributes this to the concerted effort by state and NGOs to promote chemical farming through extension, subsidies and other input support in Gujarat. His efforts to create networks and organizing workshops for farmers to learn about agroecological practices mainly from successful organic farmers stemmed from trying to create a counternarrative and alternate learning resources for farmers.
A new organic revolution: State sponsored or a social movement?
In the past decade or so, methods advocated by Subhash Palekar, a proponent of what he calls ‘zero-budget natural farming’ gained a lot of traction in different states. Endorsing its impact, Niti Ayog on its website says,
“It was concluded that ZBNF is a social movement, and the government should lead it. It was also decided that scientific validation of this practice and it’s scaling up in all states must be done simultaneously. The attendees called for a chemical-free India.”
The approach has garnered mixed reactions because while there is broad agreement on the need to move away from chemical agriculture, projecting a single way to do so goes against the very spirit of natural or agroecological farming which promotes innovative and diverse practices suitable for local needs. Additionally, rather considering chemical farming as a switch that can simply be turned off, various routes for sustainable transitions must be considered so that farmers don’t suffer from yield penalties and livelihood losses.
Kapil Shah is skeptical about the government taking the lead without putting in place any institutions for communication between farmers and knowledge producers, which could clarify the basic science of organic farming to the farmers. In fact, some are comparing this rigidity of ZBNF with Green Revolution extension models because of its emphasis on specific package of practices, which undermine farmers’ innovations or other science-based models of production. According to him, there is no significant difference between various approaches of agroecology as far as science and principles are concerned.
Shah is of the opinion that given the diversity among farmers in the country, it will be a mistake to shift directly to a specific form of practice. Experience has proved that success in large scale shift towards agroecology can only be achieved if the transition plan is strategized over the years and proper extension, monitoring, problem solving service and market support is institutionalized. He suggests different options for certification for farmers at different stages in their transition process to bring better transparency and avoid malpractices in quality assurance. Participation of farmers, especially women in the in the socio-technical and institutional design process will be crucial for smoother transition.
Mainstreaming alternate movements through involving young professionals
While other civil society actors have previously commented on the unresponsiveness of research institutions to support organic agricultural practices Kapil Shah explained the need to go beyond turf issues. Devising inclusive solutions will require breaking disciplinary boundaries and nurturing dialogues. Rather than being seen as adversaries, he insists more space in the organic farming discussion must be given to scientists, who according to him are being kept out of the discussion. In that respect creating a receptive cadre of scientists, equipped with skills for dealing with socio-ecological diversity of farmers might be a greater challenge. Precisely for this reason creating platforms for co-production of knowledge and dialogue is essential. He mentioned the new generation of academics is much better placed to take up this role.
According to him, there is a need for creating parallel institutions like, - young professionals/ fellows programme, farmers’ field schools etc. In the early 2000s, he had been able to create various spaces which can lead to such institutional innovations. He is certain, with new technology, as well as young professionals joining the movement, it will not be too difficult to scale these up. These can be supplemented by the network of civil society, who should actively get in dialogue with the government. And this present moment is as good as it gets.
Arnab is a Research Associate and Deborah Dutta is a Senior Research Fellow with the Living Farm Incomes project at IRMA.