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Time to tap natural farming solutions to combat climate threat to food security

AP has sought Rs 3,711 crore towards compensation to recover from the cyclone Maichaung damages

Time to tap natural farming solutions to combat climate threat to food security

Time to tap natural farming solutions to combat climate threat to food security

Climate change is casting its destructive spell. As a result, over the years, farming is becoming increasingly unpredictable. Extreme weather events, including cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons, are becoming more frequent and intense thereby resulting in huge crop losses. Still worse, as the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, warns: “the era of global warming has ended and the era of global boiling has arrived.”

The global weather patterns have already gone topsy-turvy. With global boiling setting in, the extreme climate swings will become largely unpredictable. Already the world is in the grip of human-induced climatic emergency. This implies sudden and freak droughts and incessant floods, cold and heat waves, forest fires. However, the frequency and fury of the extreme climate strike in future, as per analysis, will defy any known pattern.

“When it needs to rain, is doesn’t but when we don’t need rains, it comes down heavily,” said a farmer in Andhra Pradesh. This came out when I sat with a group of farmers to know how destructive the Michaung cyclone was that had hit the coastline on December 5 and the extent of loss they had suffered. Besides flooding Chennai, the cyclone flattened thousands of acres of standing crops like paddy, cotton, banana, chillies and various horticultural crops in Andhra Pradesh. “After the cyclone, it was neck-deep water in my fields. But my crop was still standing,” said a paddy farmer, who had recently shifted to natural farming.

While the cyclone resulted in widespread crop damages, with cotton and paddy being the worst hit, news reports say that the AP government sought Rs. 3,711 crore compensation package towards rehabilitation post the damage caused by cyclone Maichaung.

When the crop damages are measured on the basis of land revenue records, the general impression is that all crops equal to the area mentioned or value worked out have been destroyed or partially destroyed as per the data that is collected. However, in reality there is a significant variation in the data collected that is not only startling but may provide the answer to the mitigation efforts being suggested globally to minimise the crop damages from the harmful impacts of climate change. I think it is here that the Michaung cyclone has left behind lessons that will shape the future of farming and help reduce the negative impact on food security from crop failure and growing hunger. A couple of days after the cyclone, the Andhra Pradesh Community-Managed Natural Farming (APCNF) programme, which is being operated by the Rythu Sadhikara Samstha (RySS), a non-profit company that has been floated by the State Government, did a quick assessment of the crop damages inflicted on the conventional chemical farms and comparing it with the climate resilience demonstrated by the crops cultivated under natural farming.

This comparison became more important considering that over 850,000 farmers are engaged in natural farming in about 3.78 lakh hectares in 3,730 villages across the State.

After all, it is important to know how crops being cultivated under natural farming systems, which claim to be in harmony with nature, performed when pounded by strong winds and heavy rainfall. It also becomes important to examine whether the transformative pathway towards sustainable food systems also buckled under the extreme weather event like the chemically grown crops in the industrial agriculture scenario. In my understanding, the results are astounding and should contribute to redefining what kind of farming systems would be appropriate to ensure food security as well as sustain farm livelihoods in future.

A couple of days after the cyclone had receded; the RySS compiled data on various crops under both the farming systems – conventional intensive agriculture and natural farming -- from the severely hit districts. Using climate resilience indicators, the results obtained are eye-openers; and should help policy makers to re-visit policies and approaches towards transforming the food systems. Based on the data now available, policy makers can come up with home grown solutions to address the climate threat to food security rather than the suggestions coming from cut and paste that the agri-business industry pushes for.

The study: “Impact of Cyclone Michaung on APCNF versus Chemical farms in AP” has data comparing the performance of crops under the two farming systems from three districts – Bapatla, Guntur and West Godavari. The crops selected are paddy, cotton, banana and chilli. The crop data pertains to the parameters that would depict the strength and sturdiness of the farming system that can withstand the destruction from a cyclone. After all, the cyclone had a wind velocity exceeding 70 km per hour (in many districts it was as high as 90-100 kms/hour), with an actual rainfall of 220.4 mm.

At a number of places, conventional farm and natural farms existed side by side. This showed the contrast clearly. While the paddy crop had lodged 100 per cent in these districts, only five per cent damage was observed under natural farming. The reason for this low lodging percentage is characterised by resistance coming from higher root length and comparatively short shoot length, number of effective tillers and effective water management.

In Guntur district, lodging in natural farming is nil while the entire paddy crop under conventional faming had lodged. Moreover, while the fields had remained submerged for just two days in natural farming conditions compared to seven days in chemically farmed fields. The yield estimates were significantly higher at 3,900 kg per acre in natural farming vis-à-vis 1,900 expected from conventional farms.

In West Godavari district too, the lodging percentage for paddy was 100 per cent for the conventional farms compared to less than five 5 per cent under natural farming. The numbers of damaged tillers per square meter were 158 in conventional grown crop compared to 21 in natural farming. The yield estimate for conventional paddy therefore falls to 1,400 kg/acre compared to 1,900 kg/acre under APCNF.

While it may not be possible to present the entire statistics pertaining to other crops in this column, the strength, stubbornness and buoyancy of the natural farming system in times of a destructive cyclone spell shows its enormous ability to lessen the harmful impact. Instead of relying on sophisticated technological inputs (including genetically-modified crops) and that too in name of climate smart agriculture, that the agri-business companies are trying to push, the pathway to transient to natural farming offers a sustainable and viable alternative. The inbuilt climate resilience demonstrated under natural farming is the way ahead.

(The author is a noted food policy analyst and an expert on issues related to the agriculture sector. He writes on food, agriculture and hunger)

Devinder Sharma
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