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Can biodynamic farming solve India's agricultural woes?

India is probably the only place where the principles of biodynamic farming, which began in Germany over 90 years ago, and has its share of adherents and skeptics worldwide, are culturally accepted without questioning.

When 29-year-old Nasari Chavhan took to the stage at the Organic World Congress (OWC) - an international conference dedicated to organic farming - held on the outskirts of Delhi in the second week of November, it was little expected that the diffident young woman and an Adivasi (tribal) from the interiors of the western Indian state of Maharashtra, would end up as one of the prized speakers at the event.

Chavhan is a farmer from Akola, a district known for two things: cotton production and farmer suicides. The suicides are caused by an endless cycle of debt, drought and low yields. And as with all other agricultural families from the area, Chavhan's father was deep in debt when she took over his farm.

About seven years ago, she attended a workshop on biodynamic farming organized by SARG Vikas Samiti, a non-profit organization that promotes biodynamic agricultural systems in India.

Indien Landwirtschaft Nasari Chavhan (SARG Vikas Samiti)

Nasari Chavhan (r) now leads a collective of 150 farmers from her area that practice biodynamic agriculture

She decided to ditch the pesticides and fertilizers that had damaged the soil on her father's land. Slowly, the soil was treated and the yield improved. She now leads a collective of 150 farmers from her area that practice biodynamic agriculture. She saved her family from the brink, and she also earns a profit every year.

"Biodynamic saves us costs as we don't have to buy anything from outside, and we get to eat healthier food," she said, after delivering her speech on the second day of the Congress, where biodynamic and organic farmers and researchers from around the world had assembled.

'A great solution'

Biodynamic farming, which propagates the farm as an ecosystem that relies only on its own resources, has freed her from the dependence of buying products from the market. "It presents a great solution for distressed farmers in India who are trapped in debt," says Binita Shah, the founder of SARG Vikas Samiti.

Shah is one of the earliest practitioners of biodynamic agriculture, which was introduced in India in the early 1990s by Peter Proctor, a biodynamic farmer from New Zealand. More than 50,000 farmers from across India are affiliated with her organization, Shah claims. Most farmers she works with have small landholdings of two to three acres (0.8 to 1.2 hectares), which reflect the larger trend of agriculture in India.

Chavhan's story is just one example of what makes India one of the biggest markets for biodynamic farming in the world.

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While most of the farming is uncertified, Demeter International, the non-profit certifier for biodynamic agriculture, sees potential in India. Alexander Gerber, CEO of Demeter International, who attended the Congress in Delhi, told DW: "Germany has close to 1,700 certified Demeter farmers and India has nearly 100,000 working biodynamically, though of course, the size of landholdings is different, as Indian farms are smaller. Still, it is a huge movement and Demeter wants to be a stronger brand in India."  

Read more: 

Feeding the world with organics: A realistic prospect?

India's agricultural economy in deep crisis

Unconventional

"Biodynamic stresses on spirituality and on following a calendar based on the positions of stars and the moon before planting and harvesting crops. This is something that Indians, for whom astrology is integrated into daily lives, instinctively connect with," says Sarvdaman Patel, an agronomist and a leader of the biodynamic movement in India.

He pointed out how Indian farmers have traditionally followed the ancient "panchanga" - the Hindu calendar that records lunar and solar cycles. "The biodynamic calendar is not very different, but it is a little more precise than the Indian calendar," he added.

Patel conducts courses on biodynamic farming on his farm in the western state of Gujarat. Currently, he has a batch of four students from Germany who are spending the year learning biodynamic farming. Sophie Knobelsdorf, one of the students, who is from Lüneberg, says she was inspired by her grandmother who followed biodynamic principles. She wants to learn the methods and become a wine farmer. 

Indien Rewild Life Biodiversity Farm (DW/S. Kumar)

Students from Germany, Cosima Gröne, Linus Bohlsen, Fabio Kascherus and Sophie Knobelsdorf, at the Rewild Life biodiversity farm, located outside Delhi

More than anything else, it is the great emphasis on the cow, its manure and urine that makes biodynamic farming a surefire success in India. The South Asian nation has the world's largest bovine population, and the cow, which is revered in the country, is the most important agricultural resource.

Some methods are unconventional. Like the one for rejuvenating the soil which involves filling cow manure into cow horn and burying it under the ground in the winter months. As Inga Günther, a biodynamic chicken farmer from Überlingen, who attended the OWC said, "I find it fascinating that in Germany we are called ‘strange' for following these methods. And here, it is absolutely normal to be inspired by stars and to work with cows."  

An alternative?

At the conference, many of the biodynamic farmers from India had stories of how it had turned their fortunes. Father Clement Joseph, a priest and researcher who runs a trust that focuses on biodynamic agriculture in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, shared his experience.

Indien Rewild Life Biodiversity Farm (DW/S. Kumar)

It is unlikely that biodynamic farming can solve all of Indian agriculture's woes, but it does represent an alternative to the overuse of pesticides

The area he works in is prone to drought, and farmers have for long been abandoning agriculture and migrating to the cities. After the soil was treated with biodynamic preparations, he says, the land started yielding fruits, vegetables, pulses and medicinal plants. His project works with marginalized farmers and is supported by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

It is unlikely that biodynamic farming can solve all of Indian agriculture's woes, but it does represent an alternative to the overuse of pesticides.   

It's not just rural farmers. The global growth in the biodynamic movement is attributed to conscious consumers. Similarly, urban Indians are increasingly taking to the idea of organic and biodynamic farming. Rewild Life, a biodiversity farm located in the industrial city of Noida, outside Delhi, is a venture that caters to this growing consciousness and was started earlier this year by two entrepreneurs from Delhi. "We were tired of the contaminated food we were consuming and decided to do something about it. At the same time, we want to get more people involved in this," said Aamir Ahmed, one of the partners in the project.

Rewild, a sprawling biodynamic farm, is based on the concept of shared farming, where conscious city consumers can rent small plots to grow their own food using biodynamic methods. The idea has found many enthusiastic proponents from diverse professional backgrounds. In India, biodynamic farming may have found its spiritual home.

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