India consumes approximately 50 million tonnes (mt) of fertiliser annually, with urea being the most utilised variant, faces severe environmental repercussions- soil hardening, decreased fertility, pollution of air and water and release of greenhouse gases. To address these challenges and align with Sustainable Development Goals, promoting the widespread farmer adoption of bio-fertilisers becomes crucial. These eco-friendly microbial soil enhancers offer a potential solution, contributing to the restoration of soil health, boosting yields and efficiently conserving water resources.

However, transitioning most of India’s heavily smallholder-dependent, financially strained farming system toward adopting biofertiliser inputs poses difficulties. Just 10 per cent have access today. Effectively paving an adoption pathway forward, requires first comprehending points of struggle farmers routinely face when attempting to implement alternative biofertilisers.

This analysis intends to define bio-fertilisers, make the market case for their promise, understand barriers deterring Indian farmer adoption and propose a few policy solutions to alleviate farmer struggles through that transition process. As environmental and financial systems strain, India’s agricultural future hangs in the balance. Whether the national vision for biofertilisers materialises, relies on building pathways of least resistance for farmers to commit to sustainability.

Benefits of biofertilisers

Biofertilisers contain living soil micro-organisms that enhance crop productivity and soil fertility in an eco-friendly manner. Certain bacteria and fungi have symbiotic relationships with plants, capturing atmospheric nitrogen, accelerating cell nutrient absorption, aiding water retention and resistance against pests and disease.

When applied to seeds, plants or soil, fertilisers multiply and release nutrients in plant-available forms. Research trials consistently demonstrate significant growth and yield boosts through supplementing chemical inputs with bio-fertiliser inoculation:

· Up to 20-30 per cent crop yield increases across cereals, fruits and vegetables.

· 11-20 per cent higher grain quality and 12-38 per cent increases in crop quality parameters.

· For context, India utilises over 63.94 mt of chemical fertiliser yearly - the second largest globally behind China. The negative environmental impacts of excessive use without balancing practices like bio-fertilisers are severe.

· Government-backed bodies like the National Centre for Organic Farming have validated yield potential through extensive field testing:

· 39 per cent median yield increases testing seed inoculation alone.

Global multi-billion-dollar market growth trajectories verify the rising viability of bio-fertiliser technologies meeting demand.

Global, local market growth trajectories signal viability

Beyond agronomic trials, more extensive market indicators highlight rapid investment in fertiliser research and adoption globally. The global biofertiliser market was valued at $3.1 billion in 2023 and is projected to reach $5.2 billion by 2028 - nearly doubling at a compound 10.9 per cent growth rate in under a decade.

Regional markets are rising even faster from a smaller base. India’s current $127 million biofertiliser market will grow exponentially to surpass $357 million by 2032. A 12.1 per cent annual growth pace could increase local adoption by nearly 3x within a decade.

Adoption will likely only accelerate as chemical input prices face mounting volatility, climate changes due to the use of chemical fertilisers and farmers experience more seasonal variability - risk factors biofertilisation practices help mitigate through improved soil health parameters.

Yet Indian farmers face multiple problems limiting the use of biofertilisers.

Cost-benefit analysis of using bio-fertilisers vs chemical fertilisers

Rice is the most-grown crop in India. In rice, the primary limitation is nitrogen in the soil. Farmers often use chemical fertilisers to fix nitrogen depletion to satisfy the demand for nitrogen in the soil. As per the Government of Punjab, around 50 kg of nitrogen fixation is required for rice farming.

Around 2.2 kg of urea can fix 1 kg of nitrogen; hence, about 110 kg of urea is required to select 50 kg of Nitrogen. Biofertilisers such as Azotobacter can select around 20-25 Kg of nitrogen per Kg of Azotobacter. Hence, only 2 Kg of Azotobacter is required to replenish the nitrogen.

Looking at the prices, urea costs ₹268 for a 50 kg bag and Azotobacter costs around ₹200 for 1 litre solution. Hence, considering the nitrogen replenishment capacity, we get a savings of around 32 per cent by using Azotobacter instead of Urea.

However, using Azotobacter for Nitrogen fixation comes with its problems. First, is the proper storage of the biofertilisers. If the biofertilisers are not appropriately stored at the appropriate temperature, it can result in dead bacteria and loss of effectiveness of the biofertilisers.

Common problems hindering adoption by farmers

Yet today, less than 5 per cent of India’s 140 million farmers account for 95 per cent of fertiliser use, mainly concentrated in certain progressive States. Understanding obstacles causing slowed adoption is crucial before viable policy remedies can take root.

Information vacuum

Only 11 per cent of Indian farmers are familiar with bio-fertilisers - indicative of steep knowledge gaps prevailing across rural areas. Without exposure to the empirical yield improvements possible or seeing local demonstrations proving concept viability, skepticism remains high and conviction low to shift away from trusted chemical inputs financed through existing mechanisms. Any policies must emphasise massive expansions of agricultural extension programs at village levels.

Delayed results, requirement of financing education

Unlike immediately available chemical fertilisers, bio fertiliser inoculations require 2-3 month establishment periods before visually identifiable results. Farm economics operate on short time horizons and seasonal cash constraints. Financing flexibility, allowing longer runways before return realisations, is pivotal for transition encouragement. Policies subsidising bank lending, enabling direct government crop insurance and funding sarpanch advisor positions can aid through temporary volatility.

Specialised storage, handling requirements

The live micro-organisms in biofertilisers require precise temperature and humidity controls for viability, especially given India’s primarily tropical climate across farming regions. However, villages often lack consistent electricity access or affordable storage mechanisms scaled for small farms. The handling techniques also differ from chemical fertilisers. This poses infrastructural and operational challenges many farmers cannot accommodate without state assistance in developing regional climate-controlled storage hubs.

Despite such near-term difficulties and ingrained habitual adherences, the long-term case for expanding fertiliser usage across India remains overwhelmingly positive for farm, regional and national prosperity.

Government’s promotion of organic farming

The Indian Government is actively promoting fertiliser use in India through various initiatives and programmes, which include subsidies, policy support and research and development.

National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA), undertaken by the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, offers up to 50 per cent fertiliser subsidies to promote usage. The Government of India has started the Soil Health Card scheme to promote lean and sustainable farming. It provides farmers with testing reports and recommendations for fertiliser use tailored to their specific soil needs.

Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) is spearheading the development of new biofertiliser strains and improving the effectiveness of biofertilisers. They are also establishing biofertiliser production units across the country.

Despite these efforts, fertiliser use in India still faces challenges such as limited availability, lack of awareness among farmers and infrastructure constraints for production and distribution.

Lessons from other countries

Using biofertilisers in countries has yielded different results ranging from positive to disastrous.

In Sri Lanka, the government banned using chemical fertilisers in 2021, to provide toxin-free diets to citizens by promoting organic agriculture. However, rather than giving a toxin-free diet, it resulted in acute food shortages and high inflation, up to 56 per cent. This move was supposed to save around $400 million, but the loss of productivity in the rice industry caused a loss of $450 million.

Experts argue that an outright ban on chemical fertilisers resulted in the loss of crop yield and didn’t give enough time for farmers to shift to other fertilisers. Moreover, using bio-fertilisers requires overuse to replenish the soil quality, compared to chemical fertilisers that instantly increase the nutrient content. Sri Lanka showed that however dangerous chemical fertilisers may be, if agrochemicals are banned outrightly, they can result in crop yield loss, hunger and even political crisis.

However, there are success stories as well, such as Cuba. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba could not access chemical fertilisers from the global market and was forced to reinvent itself. Cuba had to produce twice as much food, with less than half the chemical inputs.

Today, around 20 per cent of total farmland is protected by applying biological controls. This was possible due to the Cuban Ministry’s investment in R&D and the supportive population that adopted organic farming and practices. These practices have resulted in enormous savings. For vegetables, fertiliser costs have decreased from $40 per tonne under conventional agriculture to around $0.55 per tonne.

Hence, the lessons from other countries show that if implemented and staggered with enough planning, biofertilisers are viable.


Biofertilisers represent an integral piece of the sustainable agricultural vision for India’s future by policy bodies like Niti Aayog. However, overly ambitious targets without pragmatic appraisal of farmer-level obstacles risk the continuation of sub-optimal adoption rates that fail to meet potential. Ground realities must set the terms enabling transitions if national goals should become reality. By coupling integrated policy solutions designed from a farmer-first perspective with accessible education, finance and infrastructure provisions, genuine achievement of a more balanced Indian agriculture input mix, including biofertilisers, can take root and rise.

Prof Shankar is Executive in Residence and Ashish Gupta, Student, PGDM, S. P. Jain Institute of Management and Research