A lot misconceptions and myths float around natural but scientific way of farming. Lack of correct information prevents many farming entities taking it up natural way of farming and protecting long term interest of their fields and ecology. Here are key Organic Farming FAQs for the clarity on the subject:
In today’s terminology organic farming is a method of farming system which primarily aims at cultivating the land and raising crops in such a way, as to keep the soil alive and in good health by use of organic wastes (crop, animal and farm wastes, aquatic wastes) and other biological materials along with beneficial microbes (biofertilizers and biopesticides) to grow and protect the crops for increased sustainable production in an eco-friendly pollution free environment.
In philosophical terms organic farming means “farming in spirits of organic relationship. In this system everything is connected with everything else. Since organic farming means placing farming on integral relationship, we should be well aware about the relationship between the soil, water and plants, between soil-soil microbes and waste products, between the vegetable kingdom and the animal kingdom of which the apex animal is the human being, between agriculture and forestry, between soil, water and atmosphere etc. It is the totality of these relationships that is the bed rock of organic farming.
As per the definition of the USDA study team on organic farming “organic farming is a system which avoids or largely excludes the use of synthetic inputs (such as fertilizers, pesticides, hormones, feed additives etc) and to the maximum extent feasible rely upon crop rotations, crop residues, animal manures, off-farm organic waste, mineral grade rock additives and biological system of nutrient mobilization and plant protection”.
In another definition FAO suggested that “Organic agriculture is a unique production management system which promotes and enhances agroecosystem health, including biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity, and this is accomplished by using on-farm agronomic, biological and mechanical methods in exclusion of all synthetic off-farm inputs”.
Agro-practices designed based on scientific principals after research and developments (R & D) in the past about six decades are termed as conventional agriculture. It involves use of agro-chemicals such as fertilizers, synthetic pesticides and herbicides, besides (a) improved seeds – high yielding varieties (HYV), hybrids and more recently genetically modified (GM) seeds; (b) mechanization and other cultivation tools, (c) irrigation, (d) other technological outputs such as growth hormones, antibiotics (say in poultry) etc. The collective use of these has been widely referred as „Green Revolution‟ or GR inputs.
Organic farming (OF) is a farming system based approach involving use of all potential „good agricultural practices or GAP‟ including recycling of locally available natural resources, integration of crops and animals into the local farming system. Thus it not only promotes poly cropping on a given piece of land it also connects plants (annual and perennial), animals (fishes etc. included where relevant). In addition to other requirements of crop production to harvest high yield, a crop needs nutrients to grow and support of plant protection agents against pests. In conventional farming (CF) nutrient need is met by bag fertilizers synthesized using fossil fuels while in OF it is met by the activity of agriculturally beneficial microorganisms, available in plenty in several natural niches or can be multiplied by small bioproducts companies. Focus of research in CA is on killing the pests using synthetic pesticides while OF depends more on natural allies in managing them. Knowledge on biological aspects of insect life and behavior, and on botanicals and microbial agents with ability to suppress pests are important in OF. Over years organic farmers in India have noted local recipes and products to serve as a source of crop nutrients or crop protection and thus do not depend on market supplies for their inputs. OF practitioners in developed countries generally depend on market for biological options.
Natural farming, also known as Do-nothing farming or No-till farming was popularised by Masanobu Fukuoka, starting in the 1940s in Japan. The most essential aspect of natural farming is to let nature play a dominant role to the maximum extent possible. Hence, no-till, farm biodiversity, integration and symbiotic farm components and protection of soil cover all have a place in this method of farming. The seed ball technique for sowing has also been given importance by Fukuoka. The immense importance placed on no-tillage has led to natural farming also being referred to as No-till farming. The term ‘Do Nothing Farming’ originated because the farmer is considered only to be a facilitator – the real work is done by Nature herself. Hence, while there is lots to think about and do in natural farming, actual physical work and labour has actually been seen to reduce by upto 80% compared to other agricultural systems. In Japan, Fukuoka achieved yields similar to those of chemical agriculture. His methods have also been adopted to suit European conditions and put into practice there. In India, Fukuoka is fondly-regarded and his work has found a number of practitioners who have termed their method of farming as ‘Rishi Krishi or rishi kheti’ literally meaning agriculture of the sages.
Many people believe that OF is non-scientific. It is incorrect. Yes, it is essentially un-explored, un-researched by the mainstream system in its totality. But it does not mean that it is non-scientific. Scientists need to research and understand the underlying principles of OF. Several aspects of OF are plausible and scientifically explicable. For most scientists the claims of high yields with OF are unproven at their research farms and unpublished in the research journal. But recent researches and long term experiment trials have proved that comparable yields are possible under organic management. Large number of practicing organic farmers, their high yields and their scientific system of farming is a proof of it and can be validated and researched by the scientists.
It is widely believed that when crops are grown without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides crop yields reduce. But this is not true. Various long term experiments conducted in various countries, including India (at ICRISAT and ICAR) have proved beyond doubt that once the soil health is restored, comparable yields can be harvested with most of the crops. During conversion period when soils are not fit for organic yields may decline, but with appropriate planning and crop selection it can be contained. One can meet and verify several OF practicing farmers claiming their yield at par or better than their neighbour conventional farmers. Reduced yield in the initial years when a field is converted from conventional system to organic, is a widely observed phenomenon and OF cannot be quoted as low-yielder on this basis. The initial one to three year period is needed to build the agriculturally beneficial microorganisms in soil that have been adversely affected by use of agro-chemicals in CA. With scientific understanding of this soil-life building process it should be possible to reduce this period to less than one year.
Yes, crop yields were low before the use of agro-chemicals started in India in the 1960‟s. The plausible reasons can be traced to the interventions (rules and regulations) by the ruling Governments before independence. Historical evidences suggest that crop yields were comparable to what are harvested today. For example the average yield of rice [from over 1000 localities in each of the two independent records/studies one from writing on palm-leaf in Tamilnadu (still available) and survey report of Thomas Bernard of East India Company] was around 3 t ha-1 , and mean paddy yield of well performing localities was over 6 t ha-1 in one and over 9 t ha-1 in the other study. These evidences suggest that an opportunity is available to think and explore why high yields could be harvested without agro-chemicals and develop those technologies for wider use to meet the to-day‟s requirements in at least less endowed rain-fed areas.
Use of external inputs and knowledge generated boosted yield of almost every crop and animal production and helped many countries such as India to come out of starvation situation of the 1940‟s to 60‟s to a situation of selfsufficiency and even export. But there was a price paid for this and which is still being paid and will have to be paid continuously even in the future (unless changed). These are widely referred as „fall-outs of the GR‟ and involve (a) pesticide residues in the food chain and in bodies of practicing farmers, (b) spoilage of large chunks of land due to inappropriate use of fertilizers and water, (c) declining water table, (d) pollution of aquifers and above surface water bodies, (e) disregard of locally available natural resources of crop nutrients and crop protection, (f) increased cost of production each year without a corresponding increase in production, (g) agro-technologies that make farmers dependant on market for inputs. The fall-outs became more apparent after about 30-years of their use and scientists are addressing it by involving stronger use of natural resources. Use of farm-yard manure (FYM), Vermicompost and biopesticides (botanicals and microbial agents) are now widely recommended by research institutes (both national and international). More recently, balanced use of both fertilizers and compost etc widely termed as „integrated nutrient management or INM‟ is being promoted on large scale. Practices of balanced use of biopesticides and synthetic chemicals are relatively a recent suggestion and are widely referred to as „integrated pest management or IPM‟.
A crop does not differentiate whether a nutrient molecule is offered from chemical fertilizer or from compost prepared by the farmer. Most of us believe that one would need large quantity of farm-yard manure (FYM) or compost for growing crops, if we are not using chemical fertilizers. This belief is due to the fact that we measure value of the FYM or compost as a source of nutrients (NPK) a crop needs. This is mis-leading because this perspective ignores the fact that there are different types of agriculturally beneficial microorganisms in nature (available in plenty in compost) with ability to facilitate crop nutrition and even protection. To harness this gift of nature, one needs to understand and provide food for these microorganisms while they function on the root rhizosphere of a given crop. Plant biomass, raw or processed (i.e. FYM) is a good food for microorganisms. Thus an OF practitioner does not need many cattle for every ha area for making compost. Plant biomass can be strategically produced in large quantities on the same field growing crops that can serve as food for microorganisms, and small quantities of cow-dung or its ferments can serve as source of beneficial microorganisms. Thus there is no need of large quantities of compost for organic farming. Recycling of all locally available natural resources (plant biomass in particular) is extremely important.
Organic farming is a knowledge intensive system and has been developed by practitioners themselves over the years. There is essentially very little external input and therefore it is a low-cost system. But in the absence of research support, farmers are not able to access the desired information needed for crating appropriate management protocol. Fear of losing productivity during conversion period is a major deterrent in its wide scale adoption.
It may sound logical that fields not receiving fertilizers (urea, diammonium phosphate or DAP and single super phosphate or SSP) should have low fertility than those receiving alternative inputs (FYM, biomass etc.) and practicing OF. But it is scientifically untrue and large number of long term studies have concluded that , on the contrary organic management systems improve soil fertility and long term sustainability
Any given part of a plant is composed of about 30 different elements. It means all these elements or nutrients are needed and are taken-up by the plants during its growth process. A plant can access majority of them from water and air(C, H, O, N) or soil and assimilate them through biochemical processes going on in its body during the growth process. Only rest of the <10% of its body weight is accessed exclusively from soil. It is hypothesized that in organic farming plants are accessing much of the major elements (including nitrogen) from air. Not only that polycrops are key requirement in OF, there is integration of annual-perennial plants trees and animals on a given piece of land. Trees are the only agency in nature that accesses potential crop nutrients from meters down (while crop plants such as wheat and pulses draw nutrients from top 30 cm to 60 cm soil profile) in the soil and offer us on the soil surface in the form of fallen leaves and lopped branches. In conventional agro practices importance of this plant biomass (fallen leaves or lopped branches of trees) that can be harnessed by recycling, is not honored/recognized. Plant biomass is an important asset in OF and practitioners use it for crop production in various ways e.g. composting or surface mulch.
Only environment friendly options of crop protection are used in OF. These include cultural practices, poly crops, trap crops, plants and microorganism with bio-factors to kill or suppress insect pests. Tropical countries are rich in tens or perhaps hundreds of plants (botanicals) with ability to help manage crop pests (both diseases and insect-pests). Also, Microorganisms with ability to kill/suppress crop pests occur in nature and some are available commercially. In addition, each insect-pest has its own natural enemies generally referred as „beneficial insects‟. For example, as per a published report, the most obnoxious insect-pest Helicoverpa armigera (also called legume pod-bored or cotton bollworm) has over 200 natural enemies.
Yes, if calculated on the basis of quantity of pesticide use per unit area India is one of the low users. But if calculated on the basis of quantity of pesticide used in a given crop such as vegetables, it may even be more than the high use countries. It means the rate of use for a given crop and niche, it is not low. Higher chemical residues in many food items is an indication.
Indeed it is difficult to believe for most of us that high yields are possible without synthetic agro-chemicals. But recent research studies have indicated that high or comparable yields are possible in organic farming. Large numbers of practicing organic farmers are live examples of this possibility.
As per the dictates of certification system, it is true that once a field has been fully converted and certified as organic, it should use the seeds of the different crops that are produced on a certified field only. But during conversion period chemically untreated seeds can be used. Under non-certified system seeds not treated with chemicals are ideal option.
Organic products are invariably free from chemical residues and are rich in some nutrients. There are enough indications that organically grown products are rich in vitamin-C and some minerals. Although, there may be dispute that how much superior and whether this quantity will have some significant impact on overall health scenario or not, but trends indicate their superiority over conventional products. Recently under Network Project on Organic Farming, initial studies indicate improvement in some of the quality parameters of ginger (oleoresin and oil content), turmeric (oil, oleoresin, starch and curcumin content), black pepper (oleoresin content), chillies (ascorbic acid content), cotton (ginning percentage), and vegetables (iron, manganese, zinc and copper content in tomato, French bean, cabbage, cauliflower, pea and garlic).
In the absence of mechanization, several protocols of organic farming can be labour intensive. But this fact should go in favour of countries and situations where labour is cheap and plenty e.g. India.
Feel free to contact us with your queries, we would provide you with answers. There are many government and non profit resources, who can equip you with correct information and guidance as well.