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The Indian farmers ditching chemicals for an ancient potion

February 29, 2024
topic:Sustainable Agriculture
tags:#India, #Sustainable Agriculture, #indigenous knowledge
by:Rejimon Kuttappan
"The chance to protect the soil for a greener tomorrow and the joy of offering a chemical-free, alternative farming - that's a satisfaction money can't buy."

In 2022, mechanical engineer Ravi Singh Choudhary left his lucrative career to embrace farming in Bokaro, Jharkhand, India. Swapping the corporate grind for the bucolic path of traditional Vriksh Ayurveda-based agriculture, his days now start at sunrise; not with deadlines, but with the dawn's promise on his 2.5-acre farm.

Vriksha Ayurveda is an ancient Indian plant-life science that dates back to 1000 AD. The earliest known text on Vriksha Ayurveda was composed by Surapala, who lived around 1000 AD. There are several writings related to Vriksha Ayurveda, and documents reveal that the most recent one is Shivathatanaratanakara - written in the Kannada language in the 17th century.

These texts cover a wide range of topics, including seed selection, soil preparation, tree planting and pest and disease management.

A growing network 

A practice with centuries of history in India, Vriksh Ayurveda is experiencing a resurgence now as interest in sustainable and organic farming methods grows.

"Sure, it was a decision not everyone would make," Choudhary said with a quiet smile; the kind that betrays of contentment emanating not from riches, but from a sense of purpose. 

"But the increase in yield, the chance to protect the soil for a greener tomorrow and the joy of offering a chemical-free alternative through Vriksha Ayurveda farming - that's a satisfaction money can't buy," he added.

Choudhary is not alone. He has gathered over 80 farmers and groups who now embrace and popularise Vriksha Ayurveda farming throughout India.

He added that they exchange knowledge and updates on progress through a WhatsApp group comprising around 80 members from various parts of India, who cultivate a diverse range of produce, from fruits to mustard, across hundreds of acres. 

Replacing chemical fertilisers, Choudhary applies bio-fertilisers and manure for farming available locally, as prescribed in Vriksha Ayurveda.

"One of the manures I use for farming is Kunapajala, as mentioned in the ancient text," Choudhary said. 

Kunapajala is made from a variety of natural ingredients, including cow dung, urine, milk and sugar, which are fermented together to create a nutrient-rich liquid. Recent research has shown that Kunapajala is also an abundant source of plant growth promoting bacteria (PGPB), which offers a variety of benefits to their host plants.

Expounding on Kunapajala, Choudhary said that the manure does not only offer a sustainable way to recycle animal waste, but also acts as a potent plant nutrient recovery system, paving the way for sustainable intensification within the agro-ecosystem.

A field study result published by the Indian Council for Agriculture Research on the effects of Kunapajala on Indian mustard during the rabi season (2020-2021) has found that it can enhance crop yields when applied higher rates.

A 2024 February study titled 'Technology from traditional knowledge - Vriksh Ayurveda-based expert system for diagnosis and management of plant diseases,' released in Science Direct, also indicated that Vriksh Ayurveda emphasises prevention over cure.  

Embracing the past to sustain the present

Choudhary shared that farming according to Vriksha Ayurveda principles is inherently close to nature and reliant upon natural processes.

"When preparing nutrients for the soil, we need sugar," Choudhary said. "But we don't have a rigid requirement. If sugar is not available, we use jaggery. If jaggery is not available, we use bananas. This flexibility allows us to work with what nature provides."

Interestingly, the old text's instructions are inspiring not only farmers like Choudhary, but also agricultural scientists, Ayurveda medicine doctors and even the Indian government. 

Santhosh Agnihotra, a young farmer who left the bustling IT hub of Bangalore for his village roots, shared his experience with Vriksha Ayurveda. He finds this ancient practice greatly beneficial for preserving soil health and cutting costs.

"Following the principles of Vriksha Ayurveda allows us to tap into natural solutions readily available around us," Agnihotra explained, cultivating his four-acre farm. "This eliminates the need for expensive chemicals, saving money and protecting the environment."

Speaking to FairPlanet, Dr Sunita T. Pandey, a professor in the Department of Agronomy at the College of Agriculture in G.B. Pant University of Agriculture & Technology, Pantnagar, stressed that Ayurveda, a holistic medicine science, addresses the well-being of living beings, including humans, animals, aquatic life and plants, environment, rivers and the soil. 

Dr Pandey noted that ongoing conflicts and wars throughout the second millennium AD led to the degeneration of Indian agriculture.

"All we need to do is connect our present-day agriculture to the rich past prior to the second millennium," Dr Pandey said. "Many old techniques can be reintroduced and modified with the help of modern knowledge. This is high time to do so because of the whole world’s concerns about using ‘[environmentally] unfriendly’ chemicals and also because of the strong interest in organic [and] natural agriculture."

Ashwini Kumar Choubey, India’s minister for climate change, said in December 2023 that "the mapping (2018-2019) of degraded lands in India by the Space Applications Centre (ISRO) reveals that an area of 97.85 million hectares (29.77 per cent) of the total geographic area is under degradation."

A 2015 study attributes such soil degradation to factors like unbalanced application of inorganic fertilisers and pesticide, among others. 

Dr. Pandey emphasised that Ayurveda had already established numerous treatments using locally sourced materials. Decoctions (both fresh and fermented), fumigations and natural ingredients constituted the foundation of these formulations.

"I strongly advocate for bringing the entire spectrum of Vriksh Ayurveda into the research domain. Each element, formulation, procedure, and technique that shows promise in initial testing should be rigorously evaluated.

"Additionally, we should explore substituting ingredients, both herbal and non-herbal, with more readily available or sustainable alternatives," she said, adding that, fortunately, we now possess a vast base of scientific knowledge that can propel advancements in Vriksha Ayurveda. 

She further stated that recent efforts by plant pathologists to validate Vriksha Ayurveda methods through research are highly encouraging and pave the way for further exploration and integration of this traditional knowledge system. 

Dr Pandey emphasised the necessity of climate-resilient agriculture in the face of climate change, citing rising greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, declining water tables and soil degradation. To confront these challenges, conserve resources and reduce farming costs, she advocated for the widespread adoption of natural farming one a national level and organic farming internationally. 

She views this as a vital agenda for the future and believes that Vriksha Ayurveda holds significant promise, warranting vigorous pursuit.

Image by Rejimon Kuttapan

Article written by:
Rejimon Kuttappan
Santhosh Agnihotra, a young farmer using Vriksha Ayurveda, finds this traditional practice immensely helpful in both conserving soil health and reducing costs.
© Rejimon Kuttapan
Santhosh Agnihotra, a young farmer using Vriksha Ayurveda, finds this traditional practice immensely helpful in both conserving soil health and reducing costs.
Ravi Singh Choudhary ditched his lucrative career to become a farmer in Bokaro, Jharkhand, India.
© Rejimon Kuttapan
Ravi Singh Choudhary ditched his lucrative career to become a farmer in Bokaro, Jharkhand, India.