Recognizing that climate change poses an imminent and severe threat to human health, this year’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) will hold its first Health Day on December 3rd. The showcase will emphasise how the climate crisis is, unequivocally, a health crisis, affecting nearly half of the world’s population. Among the research on the health and climate intersection is the Co-Benefits of Largescale Organic Farming on Human Health (BLOOM) study, which looks at the benefits of replacing toxic chemical pesticides with natural farming methods in Andhra Pradesh, India.  

The photo shows Jaacks and Bharath with BLOOM team members in an APCNF farm in Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh. 

Jaacks and Bharath with BLOOM team members in an APCNF farm in Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh © Govinda Raju 

Dangers of pesticides 

Among the threats that impact the environment and health is pesticide use. The environmental scale of pesticide use is vast. Pesticides can contaminate soil, water, turf, and other vegetation in addition to being toxic to birds, fish, beneficial insects, and non-target plants. As monoculture becomes more frequent, so does the use of chemical pesticides. Raising a single crop increases the risk for disease and pest outbreaks.  

Meanwhile, pesticide use in agriculture has spillover effects into human health. Human exposure to pesticides is linked to a host of chronic illnesses including cancer and neurological diseases. Long term pesticide exposure has been associated with the development of Parkinson’s disease, asthma, depression, anxiety, and ADHD. Exposure to pesticides could increase the risk of having a miscarriage as well as birth defects and other neonatal problems.  

Acute effects from pesticides range from death from respiratory failure after high dose exposure to multi-organ failure after ingesting, according to Michael Eddleston, a Personal Chair of Clinical Toxicology at the University of Edinburgh and a Co-Investigator of the study. Suicide by the ingestion of pesticides has been a concern. Since 1995, over 250,000 farmers in India have died by suicide, many by ingestion of pesticides. 

About BLOOM 

Researchers involved in the BLOOM study have been investigating how natural farming without chemical pesticides could improve human health for farmers in India. The agriculture sector is the single-largest employer in India with approximately 40% of adults employed in agricultural work. In the 1960s, in order to reduce reliance on food aid, the Government of India promoted large-scale monocropping with hybrid seeds and the use of agrochemicals. This has led to a crisis as farmers have been forced into debt from increasing input costs and decreasing returns. 

Considering these circumstances, Andhra Pradesh, a state in the southern coastal region of India, passed a government order in 2016 that is now known as ‘Andhra Pradesh Community managed Natural Farming (APCNF).’ APCNF aims to reduce the cost of cultivation to ultimately improve farmers’ livelihoods; enhance soil fertility; enhance yields; and build resilience within agriculture to climate change. The APCNF programme focuses on reducing chemical inputs and improving soil health, whilst also promoting crop diversity and the use of indigenous plant varieties. It aims to reach the roughly 6 million farmers in Andhra Pradesh and achieve 100% chemical-free agriculture across the state by 2030. Instead of chemical pesticides, the project uses cow dung and urine concoctions as inputs in the soil to improve soil health. This will have cost savings for farmers because they will not be spending money on synthetic chemicals like pesticides and fertilisers.  

Lindsay Jaacks, PhD, Personal Chair of Global Health and Nutrition at the University of Edinburgh and principal investigator of the BLOOM Study, and her co-researchers are leading a randomized controlled trial of APCNF in 82 clusters in four districts to assess APCNF’s health impacts. The study is supported by a grant from UK Research and Innovation, and is a collaboration between the University of Edinburgh, Ashoka University (Sonipat), Ross Lifescience (Pune), Rythu Sadhikara Samstha (RySS; corporation for farmers’ empowerment, the government agency implementing APCNF), Emory University, and Stanford University with Co-Investigators from the University of Glasgow and ICAR-National Academy of Agricultural Research Management (Hyderabad).  

The photo shows Bharath presenting information to BLOOM team members at the PHFI Office, Visakhapatnam. 

Bharath presenting information to BLOOM team members at the PHFI Office, Visakhapatnam © Naveen

Benefits of natural farming 

Reduced pesticide exposure can offer significant physical health benefits as well as mental health benefits. “This is the first large scale randomized controlled trial on the health effects of reducing pesticide exposure,” said Jaacks. “It’s really the debt that is a major contributor [to suicide], and in general, just the risks associated with being a farmer in a changing climate. There are a lot of compounding factors but debt has been identified as a major one and the hope is with natural farming, incomes will go up and that will contribute to improvements in mental health.” 

The researchers started with baseline data collected during Kharif 2022; they will follow the farmers for at least two years. The primary outcomes include urinary pesticides and dietary diversity. Secondary outcomes include crop yields, household income, adult anthropometry, anaemia, glycaemia, kidney function, musculoskeletal pain, clinical symptoms, depressive symptoms, women’s empowerment, and child growth and development. Adults and children in the households are being monitored.  

Key motivators for switching to natural farming include household health, plant health, and soil health, noted Bharath Yandrapu, the project manager for the BLOOM study at Ashoka University. However, many farmers are hesitant to make the switch as natural farming is more labour intensive and has costs attached to its implementation.  

For farmers that do make the switch, the long-term cost savings can be particularly impactful. Anecdotal evidence has indicated that farming families who experience cost-savings from natural farming invest the savings into areas such as the education of their children or diversifying their families’ food baskets.  

Looking forward 

If successful, this research can contribute to establishing natural farming as a proof of concept for its implementation across all of Andhra Pradesh and eventually the national and international levels, according to Yandrapu.  

Moreover, work is being done on investing in seed bank concepts to replace monoculture seeds. Monoculture seed procurement has persisted as traditional indigenous seeds have “lost its way,” said Yandrapu. Natural farming fellows are looking at different indigenous varieties that can be developed so that they are resilient to the changing climatic conditions.  

Next year, the researchers are planning on applying for a three-year extension, which would mean up to five years of follow up after the baseline evaluation. 

“Our hope is to follow up for much longer, especially if the results are promising,” said Jaacks. While it is still too early to assess health findings, preliminary environmental observations are optimistic so far. 

“One thing that farmers are reporting in India recently is that there are some very heavy and sporadic monsoon rains this year. And if the soil is healthy and enriched with organic carbon, it is able to absorb that water when there are heavy rains much better than degraded soil which just gets washed off with heavy erosion,” said Jaacks. “The farmers who had been practicing natural farming for many years reported being much more resilient to those heavy downpours from the monsoon this year.” 

Read the study protocol here