Agriculture or farming remains a major contributor to the Indian economy despite the growth of various industrial and modern industries over the decades.
In the financial year 2019-20, agriculture sector including fishing and forestry accounted for 16 percent of India’s total Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This makes farming and allied activities the single largest economic activity in the country ahead of manufacturing, general trade, financial services and public administration.
In the financial year 1950-51, agriculture and accounted for half of India’s GDP and its share has fallen over the decades as industry and services sector has grown in the country.
In FY20, total farm sector output in the country was pegged at around Rs 32.57 lakh crore (around US$ 460 billion) against manufacturing sector total output of Rs 27.8 lakh crore (around $ 491 billion) according to data from Reserve Bank of India.
In comparison, India’s total economic output or GDP was pegged at Rs 203 lakh crore (around $ 2864 billion) in the financial year 2019-20.
An agriculture dependent economy
Many of the non-farm activities in India also depend on agriculture for their key raw materials. In manufacturing for example, India is strong is cotton textile, food processing, paper and sugar. All these industries get their basic raw materials from farm sector.
Agriculture is an even bigger employer in the country. According to various estimates more than half of the country’s work force (around 54 percent) are employed in agriculture and allied activities. The large gap between farm sector contribution to GDP and employment is due to low labour productivity in the sector compared to industry and the service sector.
As per the Food and Agriculture Organisation, India leads the world in production of milk, pulses and jute and is the second largest producer of wheat, rice, sugarcane groundnut, cotton, fruits and vegetables.
At the national level, India is now self-sufficient in food production and one of the world’s top exporters of agriculture goods such as sugar, rice, meat, tea, animal feed and sea food.
At the time of independence, the productivity of agriculture was very low. The country began to face food shortages in 1960s as food production failed to keep pace with population growth and rise in demand due to industrialisation and urbanisation. There was now need to improve productivity and yield per hectare to meet the growing demand.
As a response, India initiated a national programme called Green Revolution to increase food production through use of modern farming technologies and farm mechanisation. The green revolution saw the introduction of modern high yielding varieties of seeds, pesticides and chemical fertilisers. This was augmented by an expansion in the coverage of canal irrigation especially in North and North West Asia. It was accompanied by a rapid adoption of farm mechanisation technologies such as tractors, threshers and harvesters
To lower the cost input, the government gave subsidy on chemical fertilisers, power, diesel and farm credit.
To make to easier for farmers to sell their output post-harvest and provide them remunerative price, Food Corporation of India (FCI) was set-up at the national level and Agriculture Produce Market Committees (APMC) run-mandis or whole sale markets at the state level. FCI was set-up in 1964 through an act of Parliament.
On the output side the central government introduced the minimum support price (MSP) for main food crops such as paddy and wheat. MSP acted as a floor price for farmers in case of a sharp decline in the food grain prices in the open market. FCI is mandated to procure food grains from APMC mandis at minimum support price (MSP).
FCI procures food grains at MSP and maintain a buffer stocks of food grains and then distribute them through the public distribution system. With annual turnover of Rs 1.66 lakh crore during financial year 2018-19, FCI is now one of the world’s largest whole sale trader of food traders in the world.
These institutional arrangements bore fruit and by early 1980s, India became self-sufficient in food grain production and eventually emerged as a net exporter of food and agriculture products.
Post Green Revolution
The Green revolution was successful was raising food grain production but now several constraints continued to shackle agriculture. The new challenge is to raise farmers’ income without forcing them to produce more by using more artificial inputs.
Small land holdings, overuse of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, lack of farm equipment, inadequate coverage of irrigation facilities, difficulty in accessing credit, inadequate storage facilities and hindrances in marketing the produce led to falling productivity, rising input costs and increasing debts for farmers.
This has created an agrarian crisis and the disturbing trend of farmer suicides. Farmers say agriculture is no longer a profitable activity. There is a need for reforms at various levels and increased investment in agriculture and allied activities such as irrigation, marketing, rural infrastructure, transport and storage and research.
One of the outcomes of the conventional farming techniques has been that land is increasingly becoming less productive and infertile. Excessive use of fertilisers has rendered the land toxic and indiscriminate use of ground water has led to a steep decline.
Today, there is increasing awareness about the harmful effects of food grown using large quantities of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Consumers are more conscious about food quality and safety and, consequently, there is a growing market for organic food which is nutritious and safe.
Among farmers too there is a realisation that overuse of fertilisers and water has left the land fallow and decreased productivity. The rising input costs and falling productivity have made agriculture unviable.
The acceptable level of soil organic carbon is 1-1.5 percent but in many parts of India, the level has fallen to 0.3-0.4 percent. Soil organic carbon is the carbon component of organic compounds, which improves oxygen in the soil besides improving water drainage and retention, reducing the risk of nutrient leaching.
Rise of organic farming
Thus, organic farming is gaining increasing popularity in India as a viable alternative to conventional farming.
What is organic farming?
Organic farming is cultivation done without use of chemical fertilisers, sprays and synthetic pesticides. It preserves the regenerative capacity of the soil by providing good plant nutrition and soil management.
Organic farming uses ecological pest control methods and biological fertilisers made using animal and plant wastes besides nitrogen-fixing crops. It relies on techniques like crop rotation, farm manure, organic wastes and crop residues for protection of plants.
How can you start organic farming?
To start organic farming, farmers must make their farmland fully organic. Over a period of time, the farmer must convert the entire farm including livestock to organic. On average, the conversion period is three years for perennials and two years for annual crops. But with the rise in use of newer types of organic fertilisers, manure and using traditional methods, this time has come down to even 6 months in many cases.
Earlier, in the 1980s and mid-1990s, the transition period (from chemical to natural farming) was about two to three years as organic inputs were not easily available. “Now this gap is reduced to about three to six months – just about two cropping seasons,” says Ramaswamy Selvam, an organic farmer from Tamil Nadu’s Erode district.
Many farmers move to organic farming by opting for multiple cropping — sowing 20-25 varieties of plants at the same time. Post-harvest, these plants are ploughed back to the soil to improve the micronutrient level.
Soil health is the key to organic farming
Health of soil is vital in organic farming and has to be maintained by following practices such as crop rotation and intercropping. These practices ensure that the nutrient value of the soil is not lost. Inter-cropping helps in disease and insect pest management.
The fertility of the soil can be maintained by use of leguminous crops, green manure crops and biodegradable materials. Crop and animal residues must be recycled back into the soil directly or indirectly.
For pest and weed management, only natural methods are allowed. Weeds are pulled out and recycled as mulch in the field. Plant based repellents, neem seed, kernel extracts can be used for pest management.
Organic farming costs are lower
Chemical farming requires expensive inputs like special varieties of seeds, chemical fertilisers and pesticides. In the case of organic farming, costs are brought down by making the needed inputs using resources available on the farm. Once the soil health is improved, the need for manual labour, another important cost component, reduces automatically.
Farmers themselves can strengthen the soil quality by making own vermicompost and panchgavya – liquid manure made using a mixture of cow dung, cow urine, milk, curd, banana, tender coconut and ghee etc. Vermicompost, made using biodegradable farm waste and worms, is a nutrient-rich fertiliser and soil conditioner.
Both these can be easily made on the farm using available materials if the farm also has come cattle like cow and goat. This brings down the cost considerably because their milk is an additional source of income.
Organic Farming Policy
India introduced an organic farming policy in 2005. As per the union ministry of agriculture, in March 2020 around 2.78 million hectares of farmland is under organic cultivation. This constitutes only two percent of the total 140 million hectares’ net sown area in the country.
Sikkim is the only state in India which practices fully organic agriculture. Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra account for about half the farmland area under organic cultivation.
A farmer can acquire organic certification by applying to any agency accredited by the regulatory body – Agricultural and Processed food products Export Development Authority (APEDA).
As per APEDA, India ranks 8th in terms of land under organic cultivation and first in terms of number of producers.
APEDA implements the National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP) under which accreditation is given to certification bodies, standards for organic production are regulated and promotion and marketing of organic farming is undertaken.
The NPOP standards for production and accreditation system have been recognized by European Commission and Switzerland for unprocessed plant products as equivalent to their country standards. Similarly, USDA has recognized NPOP conformity assessment procedures of accreditation as equivalent to that of NOP of the US.
With these recognitions, Indian organic products that are certified by accredited certification bodies can be exported.
India Organic trademark is given to organic products that are grown without use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and hormones.
The certification is given by testing centres accredited by APEDA. They testing centres verify that the product has been organically grown in compliance with the National Programme for Organic Production.
There are many success stories of organic farming on 30 Stades.
Harbant Singh, a farmer from Thulewal village in Barnala district in Punjab, began organic farming of high-value horticulture crops such as dragon fruit, lemon, avocado and sandalwood on his farmland. Today, his annual income from organic farming of dragon fruit and lemon is about Rs2.5 lakh. This is more than three times his earning from traditional cultivation of wheat and paddy which bring about Rs 70,000 per year.