The malady lies in acidified and depleted soil, climate change and growing crop pests, among other factors, all of which contribute to low productivity. Regenerative farming practices could be the answer to addressing these issues.

How Natural Farming Can Revive India’s Farmlands and Ensure Sustainable Agriculture 1

As the population grows, an increasing number of people are moving away from farm jobs. According to the 2019 National Sample Survey, more than 50% of India’s farmers are debt-ridden and often seek alternatives outside of agriculture, or tragically, end their own lives.

The malady lies in acidified and depleted soil, extreme and changing climate patterns, growing crop pests, deteriorating agriculture-supporting ecosystem services, and poor groundwater conditions, all of which contribute to low productivity.

To address these issues, the Indian government is promoting natural, or regenerative farming practices that are environment-friendly and rely on traditional methods without chemical additives.


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Regenerative agriculture

Our research shows that natural farming boosts soil microbial health by fostering a more heterogeneous population of bacteria.

The use of organic and natural amendments in this farming practice nurtures healthy growth of all biodiversity, including bacteria. The thriving community of bacteria breaks down complex organic matter into simple forms that can be easily absorbed by plant roots.

Some of these bacteria also sequester atmospheric nitrogen and carbon in the soil through mechanisms such as nitrogen fixation and photosynthesis, and chemolithoautotrophy.

Thus, the presence of a diverse group of bacteria creates a robust environment that can overcome multiple environmental and pathogen-based challenges.

The enriched bacterial pool enhances the soil’s nutritional composition for better plant growth, and competitively represses plant pathogens and soil-degrading microbes, and provides plants innate immunity against pests.

Another interesting facet of regenerative agriculture is the use of mixed, inter and multi-cropping practices. These practices help improve soil health as each crop type introduces a varied population of microbiome to the soil. Additionally, mixed cropping helps evade pests and pathogens.

Soil health

Haryana stands out as the only state that has introduced incentives for promoting crop diversification. In March this year, the state provided Rs 41.42 crore to 34,239 farmers for adopting crop diversification.

Building on our research findings, this policy highlights the need to promote and enable natural farming in India.

This endeavour requires conducting training camps for all stakeholders, educating farmers about the practices that can improve soil health, providing high-quality seeds, establishing farmer cooperatives to offer necessary advice, support and material, incentivising natural agriculture through various schemes, and establishing market linkages for sustainable outcomes.

While the natural farming approach is sometimes misunderstood as ‘zero-budget’, meeting the demands of high-yield farming needs substantial organic supplementation or even cow dung, a crucial component of traditional mixtures.

Zero-budget natural farming is the process of raising crops without using chemical fertilisers and pesticides or any other external materials.


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Unfortunately, India’s soil organic carbon (SOC) levels currently stand below the ideal levels (< 0.5%) due to unsustainable agricultural practices. However, it’s important to note that four times more organic supplementation is needed in the initial years to meet plant nutrient requirements compared to chemical fertilisation.

Unlike chemical fertilisers that are directly absorbed by the plant roots, organic amendments must be broken down into easily available forms. This breakdown process helps build a thriving microbial system in the soil, which has a lasting impact on soil health. Therefore, reviving India’s farmlands require heavy input of amendments during the initial years.

In our own study, we found that the farm with the best microbial and nutrient profile had been applying heavy organic amendments for ten years, mainly using cow dung for soil health and jeevamrutha (a fermented mixture containing chickpea flour, jaggery, cow dung, cow urine and soil) for pest management.

This farm displayed the highest SOC levels at 0.51%, a significant improvement compared to the Indian average of 0.3%, as reported by the National Rainfed Area Authority (NRAA).

Additionally, this farm reported a significant increase in crop productivity over the years.

Our study found adopting natural farming for more than five years has a positive cumulative effect on both soil microbial health and crop productivity.

During the initial years of transitioning, when soil communities are evolving and soil health is being rejuvenated, the bacterial diversity and crop productivity would be less. In such cases, supplementing the land with moderate amounts of chemical fertilisation can be beneficial in supporting crop yields.

Chemical fertilisation can be tapered down with time. After a period of eight to ten years, natural farming will alone be capable of sustaining high crop productivity without the use of any chemical fertilisers. Chemical pesticides should be strictly avoided throughout the process, and instead, biopesticides, jeevamrutha, and light traps for insect pests can be used.

Mulching with green manure like Dhaincha (Sesbania aculeata) is another method to rejuvenate and enhance carbon/biomass and mineral content in the soil.

Data shows that organic fertilisation not only fortifies the soil with nutrients but also improves its porosity, texture, water and nutrient retention abilities, and microbial community structure, creating a sustainable impact on soil health.

A healthy and diverse soil microbial population provides plants with a steady supply of nutrients, maintains soil organic carbon levels to support plant growth and productivity, regulates soil moisture levels during periods of poor water availability, and protects plants against pests.

The key question that needs to be addressed is the procurement of organic amendments.

Integrating livestock and crops, a common practice in the past, is a viable option that all farmers should adopt.

This approach offers multidimensional benefits, including income security, continued availability of animal manure, and reduced dependency on crops for livelihoods. Government incentives, awareness campaigns, and training programmes can help farmers revive this approach.

Local governments should promote initiatives to facilitate the collection, processing, and distribution of cow dung and compost, connecting them with local Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs). Partnerships with dairy farms and waste management agencies can establish a sustainable supply chain.


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Maximising resource utilisation

In cities like Bengaluru, environmentally conscious citizens are already conducting apartment-level decentralised green waste composting. Peri-urban farmers bring their trucks loaded with produce and return with the ‘black gold’. This exchange of food for compost could become the norm for all apartments in Indian cities.

Smaller apartments and individual houses should share compost units, which should be included in colony planning. Local authorities should support and incentivise such initiatives, providing the necessary infrastructure and guidance for widespread adoption.

Establishing efficient channels for transporting compost generated from decentralised green waste management units to farmers is vital.

Collaborations between waste management agencies, transport companies, state government agricultural agencies, and FPOs can ensure a smooth and cost-effective distribution system.

By facilitating the seamless flow of compost from urban areas to agricultural lands, this approach maximises resource utilisation and strengthens the symbiotic relationship between urban and rural communities.

Even the problem of stubble burning and associated poor air quality in the Delhi-NCR region can be managed by training farmers on the benefits of mulching crop residues directly into the soil.

In 2020, the Haryana government incentivised sustainable in-situ/ex-situ management of crop residue to prevent stubble burning by offering farmers Rs 1,000 per acre. The government claims that the scheme has reduced farm fires by 45% in 2022.

Training farmers to use crop residue as a resource rather than waste can help them start their own vermicompost system and use the crop residue to support the next crop.

Government bodies should prioritise subsidising compost production and distribution, particularly for smallholder and resource-constrained farmers. Long-term contracts and partnerships between waste management agencies and farmers can stabilise compost prices, ensuring continued availability while incentivising sustainable waste management practices.

Moreover, affordable pricing of compost and training programmes for farmers will foster inclusivity and knowledge-sharing. Embracing these management requirements will not only mitigate the environmental impacts of conventional agriculture but also lead us toward a more resilient, equitable, and regenerative food system.


NOTE – This article was originally published in thewire and can be viewed here


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