Blogs, Systems Thinking

Nurturing nature and nourishing communities: Agroecology in Andhra Pradesh, India

The urgent need for systemic change in our food systems has never been more apparent. Our current agricultural practices are the main driver of biodiversity loss, create a third of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, and also drive inequality, disease, food insecurity, and antibiotic resistance. 

It is clear that we’re way off track to meet our climate and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There is a lack of equitable distribution of food, a failure of agriculture to produce enough nutritious food without risks to ecosystems and society, and a failure of governments around the world to properly support the transformation of agrifood systems. The problems are complex, and so are the solutions—but we believe that at least part of the answer can be found in agroecology. 

A new study launched this week highlights the work of Andhra Pradesh Community-Managed Natural Farming (APCNF) and the remarkable untapped potential of agroecological natural farming in Andhra Pradesh, India. 

Spanning over 6 million hectares, and involving 6 million farmers and 50 million consumers, the APCNF represents the largest agroecological transition in the world. Amidst the diverse landscapes of Andhra Pradesh, this state-wide movement is addressing a multitude of development challenges—rural livelihoods, access to nutritious food, biodiversity loss, climate change, water scarcity, and pollution—and their work is redefining the way we approach food systems.

Farmers practicing agroecology have witnessed remarkable yield increases. Conventional wisdom suggests that chemical-intensive farming is necessary to maintain high yields. But this study shows agroecological methods were just as productive, if not more so: natural inputs have achieved equal or higher yields compared to the other farming systems—on average, these farms saw an 11% increase in yields—while maintaining higher crop diversity. This significant finding challenges the notion that harmful chemicals are indispensable for meeting the demands of a growing population.

The advantages of transitioning to natural farming in Andhra Pradesh have gone beyond just yields. Farmers who used agroecological approaches received higher incomes as well, while villages that used natural farming had higher employment rates. Thanks to greater crop diversity in their farming practice, farmers using agroecology had greater dietary diversity in their households than conventional farmers. The number of ‘sick days’ needed by farmers using natural farming was also significantly lower than those working on chemically-intensive farms. Another important finding was the significant increase in social ‘capital’: community cohesion was higher in natural farming villages, and knowledge sharing had greatly increased—significantly aided by women. The implications for these findings are significant: community-managed natural farming can support not just food security goals, but also sustainable economic development and human development.

The study overall sheds light on a promising and optimistic path toward addressing geopolitical and climate impacts, underlining the critical significance of food sovereignty and access to nourishing, wholesome food for communities. Contrary to the misconception that relentlessly increasing food production is the sole solution to cater to a growing population, the truth reveals a different story.

While striving for higher yields remains important, the root cause of hunger worldwide does not lie in scarcity, as farmers already produce more than enough to address it. Instead, food insecurity is primarily driven by factors such as poverty, lack of democracy, poor distribution, a lack of post-harvest handling, waste, and unequal access to resources. 

Agroecological natural farming offers a holistic approach to agriculture that works with nature in a sustainable way; moving away from the extractive practices that harm the environment and people in the long run. By harnessing Indigenous knowledge and customs, and integrating scientific knowledge, agroecology revitalizes farming practices for a closer balance between producing food and environmental stewardship. The advantages of natural farming have been made apparent in Andhra Pradesh through the use of True Cost Accounting (TCA). TCA should be regarded as an indispensable tool by policymakers looking to analyze and align economic, social and environmental goals. By factoring in externalities such as environmental degradation, public health effects, and social welfare, TCA empowers decision-makers to devise policies that foster holistic development and preserve natural resources for future generations.

The success stories of agroecology are not limited to Andhra Pradesh. More farmers, and parts of the world, are starting to adopt agroecological methods of farming. Countries like Cuba have been transforming their food systems for decades, resulting in higher agricultural diversity, productivity, and efficiency. Through strategic alliances between government, farmers, and researchers, over 200,000 farming families have been trained in agroecology, with urban and peri-urban farms now representing 14% of the agricultural land. As a result, the country has strong partnerships between farmers, researchers, and the government. 

The call for an urgent and radical transformation in our food systems has never been clearer. The current agricultural practices we employ are major contributors to global warming, biodiversity depletion, inequality, disease, and food insecurity. Yet, amidst these challenges, the solutions and evidence for a more sustainable and equitable approach already exist. Agroecological natural farming offers hope and showcases its remarkable potential in reshaping our approach to food production: by embracing agroecological practices, we can scale resilient and productive food systems while promoting social and economic well-being for all.

Click here to read the full Natural Farming Through a Wide-Angle Lens: True Cost Accounting Study of Community Managed Natural Farming in Andhra Pradesh, India report.