The natural farming model of Andhra Pradesh: A solution for sustainable agriculture in India

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Authors:

  • Shweta Gupta, Senior Research Analyst, IFPRI.
  • Sudharsan Malaiappan, IWMI-ITC Project Research Officer.
  • Smitha Krishnan, Scientist at the Alliance of Bioversity International & CIAT.
  • Alok Sikka, Country Representative – India, IWMI. 

Andhra Pradesh, also known as the `rice bowl of India’, is one of the largest states in the country, where more than 60% of the population depends on agriculture for their livelihood. The state is divided into six agro-climatic zones making it conducive to growing a wide range of crops throughout the year such as rice, cotton, groundnuts, pulses, oilseeds, and coarse grains. It has been one of the front-runners in reaping the benefits of the green revolution (1960s) and the first state in India to create the necessary infrastructure to facilitate direct benefit transfer of subsidies in agriculture including fertilizers, power supply, credit, irrigation, and farm machinery, among others. However, several technological, environmental and policy- related challenges exist such as huge dependence on monsoons, overutilization of chemical inputs affecting soil health, liberal power and irrigation subsidies (See below note #1) causing overexploitation of groundwater and limited public sector investment limiting agriculture growth in the state. Taking note of the need for sustainable agriculture, the state government of AP launched Zero Budget Natural Farming in 2016 as an alternative to chemical-based and capital-intensive agriculture, through its implementing agency Rythu Sadhikara Samstha (RySS). This scheme was later renamed as Andhra Pradesh Community Managed Natural Farming (APCNF).

The CGIAR Initiative on Agroecology conducted a context assessment of the state of agroecology in the chosen project sites in Andhra Pradesh, also called Agroecological Living Landscapes (ALLs). In India, the initiative has chosen to establish two ALLs in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh – a state with a well-established natural farming system. Within the district, the mandals (sub-district units) of Tadipatri and Bathalpalli were chosen for establishing ALLs.

Context assessment was conducted in partnership with Watershed Support Services and Activities Network (WASSAN) and with support from RySS.  The aim of the context assessment exercise for the ALLs is to understand the environmental, social, economic, and political fabric of the region, and the status of agroecology (FAO) (See below note #2) especially given a system of natural farming already in place.

This assessment is majorly conducted using secondary sources such as national and state policy documents, census datasets to study district profiles, APCNF project updates and supplemented using primary data collection during our interaction with key stakeholders including farmers during field visits and focus group discussions.

Climate vagaries of the dryland

Anantapur is a dryland region affected by frequent droughts with a normal rainfall of 552 mm per annum, significantly lower than the national average (1160 mm) making it one of the driest districts in India. Both the ALLs are semi-arid and the vulnerability of the region due to the exposure to climate change is ‘very high’, demonstrating unpredictable extreme climatic events.

While 54% of the total geographical area in Bathalapalle and 43% in Tadipatri is classified as the net sown area, the regions also have high fallow lands of 26% and 33% respectively. The fallow lands are increasing owing to land desertification, as indicated by the low moisture index of -75.5% for the district, and discontinuity of agriculture by farmers due to erratic rainfall patterns and dwindling groundwater resources. The district has witnessed a steep rise in tubewell/ borewell irrigation since 2000 leading to poor groundwater management and inequitable access. Undoubtedly, Bathalapalle is categorised as ‘critical’ while Tadipatri is categorised as ‘over exploited’ with respect to the state of ground-water development.

APCNF: Reviving diverse cropping systems and traditional farming methods

With the advent of the green revolution in 1980s, there was a shift in the district from a diversified cropping system to monocropping of groundnut, increasing its area from 18% in 1960 to 74% in 2005. This decreased dependency on millets and pulses for household consumption. Currently, groundnut is the main kharif crop in the district (60% of area) followed by cotton and pulses, while gram is the major rabi crop (56% of the area) followed by groundnut, rice, and maize with similar crop profiles in the two mandals with most farmers practicing rainfed agriculture. However, there is a slight increase in crop diversification in some areas (AFEC, Annual report, 2016-17) due to repeated droughts and groundnut crop failures, and through growing recognition of millets as a climate-friendly crop by the government.

The APCNF program promoted by Rythu Sadhikara Samstha (A farmers empowerment organization under Government of Andhra Pradesh) is spearheading this shift towards crop diversification by promoting ‘natural farming’, a word used synonymously for agroecological farming methods. It falls under climate resilient agroecology, more specifically under regenerative agriculture (Fukuoka, 1992) (See below note #3).

Women sharing their vision on what their village/community should look like in the future during a visioning workshop in Andhra Pradesh.

Based on an extension model centred on community organizations with practicing farmers serving as extension agents, and a wide network of women self-help groups (SHGs), APCNF is spearheading a major agroecological movement with about 6,30,000 farmers (See below note #4) and farm workers in 2020-21 practicing natural farming practices, through community natural farming (CNF) in Andhra Pradesh. Within the ALLs, 78% of farmers in Tadipatri and 45% of farmers in Bathapalli are practicing natural farming. These farmers are at various stages of transformation – some have fully adopted natural farming practices, while others are in different stages of transition.

Nine principles of APCNF.

Interlinkages between natural farming and agroecology

Natural farming is synonymous with agroecology, based on the 13 principles of agroecosystems and food systems namely principles 1-7 (recycling, input reduction, soil health, animal health, biodiversity, synergy, economic diversification) and 8-13 (co-creation of knowledge, social values and diets, fairness, connectivity, land and resource governance, participation) respectively.

13 Principles of Agroecology.

The project has successfully accelerated the adoption of traditional farming methods in the region. For instance, there is an integration of livestock and crop production through the recycling of crop residues such as groundnut husk for mulching, using crop residues (sorghum, bajra, rice straw etc) underneath the cattle as bed material, making compost and manure using residues with dung and urine.

CNF has moved the focus from vermicomposting and other external inputs to in situ regeneration of soil health through a package of measures such as using bio-inoculants, Pre-Monsoon Dry Sowing (PMDS) (See below note #5) and covering the soil for longer periods with live crops (called live mulch) to reduce exposure to the sun, and applying ghana jeevamrutam, a dense nutrient value addition to dung locally prepared. This has also reduced the input costs for instance, reduced use of water (by up to 10%) due to improved water holding capacity and lower costs for weeding due to decrease presence of weeds. APCNF also includes soil cover throughout the year (other than about 10-15 days) with crops and residues which decreases soil temperature and prevents desiccation of organic matter to help in soil health improvement.

APNCF program also led to a revival of the traditional cropping system of navadhanya. It includes a combination of millets, pulses, oilseeds, and vegetables sown together allowing for multiple harvesting of crops since each crop matures asynchronously, thereby providing some returns throughout the cropping season and thus attaining economic diversity. Besides providing the farmer with returns throughout the duration, the combination of crops provides dietary diversity, fodder for livestock, fixes soil nitrogen, improves moisture retention, and controls pest incidences (reducing the need for pesticides).

APCNF ‘s natural farming approach is premised on biodiversity and bringing indigenous varieties back into the system as they are believed to be better adapted to natural farming methods. Local cattle, sheep and fish rearing is popular in the region.

Livestock is an important component of CNF since dung and urine are important inputs in CNF. Farmers utilize the access that they have through services provided by Rythu Bhorosa Kendras (RBKs), a one-stop solution to all farmer grievances which also provides veterinary health support. They have a veterinary assistant as one of the technical staff who liaises with the Animal Husbandry Department. Gopal mitras – trained Para workers, assist the veterinary department in vaccination and primary animal health care.

Mixed farming methods with the integration of animals enhance complementarities and synergies.

Building food systems based on culture, identity, tradition, social and gender equity while providing healthy, diversified food that are seasonally and culturally appropriate in terms of diets is one of the core principles of Agroecology. Traditionally, the palate of the region included a diverse diet that reflected what was being cultivated, for example, the navadhanya technique.

There is an active alliance between farmers, self-help groups (SHGs), the Krishi Vigyan Kendra’s (KVK- Farm science center) and government and private extension agents to add value to traditional and indigenous knowledge, and for participatory learning, in other words co-creation of knowledge.

The women based SHG platforms and the APCNF cadre evolved from the relatively economically weaker sections of the society and these also have become solidarity platforms of the vulnerable or non-dominant communities for negotiation of power allowing them to participate in decision-making processes at the household level, community level and beyond.

Along with SHGS, Farmer Producer Organizations (FPOs) are emerging in several locations in the district, incentivizing the corporates to link with FPOs, thus providing the connectivity that the farmers require for value chains.

Such organized groups have the capacity to negotiate for fair prices. Although several players are venturing into tying up with FPOs for regular supply, this is an emerging market as the FPOs are still in a nascent stage of the business.

Farmers are managers and guardians of natural and genetic resources, and one needs to recognize and support ways to provide equitable access to natural resources while additionally facilitating the protection of soil, biodiversity, and ecosystem services in the long run through responsible land and resource governance mechanisms.

The overarching message is that RySS work on agroecology-based natural farming is in sync with the objectives and mandates of the agroecology initiative. Based on the assessment of the context and discussions, it is clear that there is substantial support for the natural farming system. Stakeholders, including the government, have expressed a strong desire to develop and scale agroecological practises, and there is enough scope for innovation with small-scale farmers and other players in the agricultural and food systems through ALLs.

Notes:

  1. About 41% of the irrigated gross cropped area in 2019-20 was irrigated using groundwater, with 0.27 M borewells operating in the district against a carrying capacity of only 70000. https://rdtfvf.org/persisting-the-water-crisis-through-solidarity/
  2. https://www.agroecology-europe.org/our-approach/principles/
  3. Regenerative agriculture is a holistic land management practice that leverages the power of photosynthesis in plants to close the carbon cycle, and build soil health, crop resilience and nutrient density whilst simultaneously increasing yields utilizing in-situ biological resources through diverse cropping systems.
  4. https://naturalfarming.niti.gov.in/andhra-pradesh/
  5. The principle of Pre-monsoon Dry Sowing (PMDS) is that all agriculture lands should always be covered with diverse crops. It is a system of tilling, sowing and tending the land, wherein the farmer grows crops in non-farming season or whenever there is no crop cover on the land. Dry sowing of pelletized seeds is carried out before the advent of monsoon during summers. Intercropping, seed pelletization, year-round green cover and other methodologies incorporated ensures soil moisture retention attained by an increase in soil organic carbon.

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