The study showed that natural farming and agroecological transitions can comfortably feed communities with better yields and crop diversity than conventional farming methods,

Can community managed natural farming be a solution to multiple development challenges?

Despite higher public investment costs compared to other forms of farming, community-managed natural farming results in a better holistic return on investment by leading to higher yields and incomes, lower costs, improved social networks and health, finds a new report

The climate crisis and erratic weather patterns are hampering access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food. In 2015, the UN set 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030, zero-hunger being one of them. According to the UN report ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022’, projections are that nearly 670 million people will still be facing hunger in 2030—8% of the world population, which is the same as in 2015 when the 2030 Agenda was launched. Therefore, there is an urgent need to develop agriculture and food systems that can provide enough nutritious food for all without damaging the environment and human health.

In a quest to learn more about and develop such systems, a recent study assessed the impact of Andhra Pradesh Community-Managed Natural Farming (APCNF), a state-wide agroecological transformation of the farming practices of its six million farmers. The said community based natural farming includes managing soil fertility and moisture with bio-remediation through the addition of farmyard residues, constant mulching, cyclically growing diverse local varieties of crops and livestock, and natural pest controls to manage diseases and pests. 

The study assessed the true costs and benefits of natural farming against other counterfactual farming methods by measuring all major economic, social, and health impacts. This was done by comparing the impacts of APCNF with three other farming systems in the state: chemical farming in the Godavari delta region, rainfed farming in the semi-arid region, and lowinput tribal farming in the mountain region.

The results showed that APCNF offered a better alternative to the existing farming systems. Adopting APCNF led to greater crop diversity, similar or higher yields, higher incomes for farmers, lower input costs, improved local economies, improved social networks, improved health, and reduced health costs. Overall, APCNF gave highly positive returns on public investment, suggesting APCNF to be the food production system with better economic, environmental, and social outcomes. 

Economic benefits

The study found that under the APCNF farms, crop diversity was higher on; an average four crops compared to 2.1 on counterfactual farms. Yields of prime crops like paddy rice, maize, millet, finger millet, and red gram also increased by an average 11% in APCNF villages. Farmers engaged in APCNF saw an average 49% net increase in income, which was largely the result of a 44% (average) reduction in input costs, primarily fertilisers and pesticides. However, labour intensity on APCNF farms was 21% higher than other farms.

Social and health impacts 

The study found that APCNF led to increased social capital in villages. Social capital includes information sharing, mutuality, collective action, trust and support, community cohesion, and risk reduction. As a result, the increased social capital created a “virtuous cycle” of increased economic gains, which in turn led to greater trust, cohesion, and reciprocity. 

The assessment noted that women significantly influenced social capital, particularly knowledge sharing, community cohesion, and trust and support. The results also showed that smaller farms had higher social capital scores than larger farms, suggesting that smallholder farmers are important to developing social capital within communities. 

Moving on to health impacts, the research found strong correlation between lower on-farm health risks and transitions to APCNF farming. For example, farmers on APCNF farms lost one-third fewer working days to illness, compared with farms using counterfactual farming methods. The use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers correlated with higher incidence of short-term exposure and symptoms. This in turn correlated with higher health costs and productivity losses for farmers. 

The health-cost analysis, based on health expenses incurred and wages lost due to illness, showed that villages with chemically intensive farming had the highest health costs, that is 26% higher than those for APCNF farmers in this region. Additionally, households’ dietary diversity was greater in APCNF households than in other conventional farming households, indicating access to a greater variety of crops. 

A potential solution?

The scale of APCNF demonstrates that agroecological practices can be scaled to meet the demand for food while addressing multiple environmental and social goals. While public investment costs for APCNF were higher than on counterfactual farms, the higher costs for farmers, communities, and the environment associated with counterfactual farming (loss of work hours, poorer health, and poorer soils) meant that APCNF actually resulted in a better holistic return on investment. 

The study showed that natural farming and agroecological transitions can comfortably feed communities with better yields and crop diversity than conventional farming methods, with important insights for policy makers in India and globally. 

Given ongoing climate impacts, there is an urgent need to scale inclusive climate-resilient models of agriculture. The research offered an assessment of environmentally friendly agricultural development that also supports social and economic goals. In the face of multiple development challenges such as ensuring rural livelihoods, access to nutritious food, biodiversity loss, climate change, water scarcity, and pollution, the study found that APCNF could be a dynamic and integrated solution. 

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