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Insights into Editorial: The push for Zero Budget Natural Farming

Context:

Zero budget natural farming (ZBNF) is back on top of the Government’s agricultural agenda, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi set to highlight it at a national conclave in Gujarat.

The Centre has sanctioned support for converting four lakh additional hectares of crop land in eight States to using ZBNF techniques this year.

This is meant to provide a showcase for their benefits although scientific studies on the method have not yet been completed.

 

Brief about Zero budget natural farming:

Zero budget natural farming is a method of chemical-free agriculture drawing from traditional Indian practices.

It is a unique model that relies on Agro-ecology. It aims to bring down the cost of production to nearly zero and return to a pre-green revolution style of farming.

It claims that there is no need for expensive inputs such as fertilisers, pesticides and intensive irrigation.

 

ZBNF is based on 4 pillars:

  1. Jeevamrutha: It is a mixture of fresh cow dung and aged cow urine (both from India’s indigenous cow breed), jaggery, pulse flour, water and soil; to be applied on farmland.
  2. Bijamrita: It is a concoction of neem leaves & pulp, tobacco and green chilies prepared for insect and pest management, that can be used to treat seeds.
  3. Acchadana (Mulching): It protects topsoil during cultivation and does not destroy it by tilling.
  4. Whapasa: It is the condition where there are both air molecules and water molecules present in the soil. Thereby helping in reducing irrigation requirement.

 

How did it come about?

  1. It was originally promoted by agriculturist and Padma Shri recipient Subhash Palekar, who developed it in the mid-1990s as an alternative to the Green Revolution’s methods driven by chemical fertilizers, pesticides and intensive irrigation.
  2. He argued that the rising cost of these external inputs was a leading cause of indebtedness and suicide among farmers, while the impact of chemicals on the environment and on long-term fertility was devastating.
  3. Without the need to spend money on these inputs or take loans to buy them the cost of production could be reduced and farming made into a “zero budget” exercise, breaking the debt cycle for many small farmers.
  4. ZBNF method is a fermented microbial culture that adds nutrients to the soil and acts as a catalytic agent to promote the activity of microorganisms and earthworms in the soil.
  5. About 200 litres of jivamrita should be sprayed twice a month per acre of land; after three years, the system is supposed to become self-sustaining.
  6. Only one cow is needed for 30 acres of land, according to Mr. Palekar, with the caveat that it must be a local Indian breed not an imported Jersey or Holstein.
  7. The ZBNF method also promotes soil aeration, minimal watering, intercropping, bunds and topsoil mulching and discourages intensive irrigation and deep ploughing.
  8. Palekar is against vermicomposting, which is the mainstay of typical organic farming, as it introduces the most common composting worm, the European red wiggler (Eisenia fetida) to Indian soils. He claims these worms absorb toxic metals and poison groundwater and soil.

 

Why does it matter?

According to National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data, almost 70% of agricultural households spend more than they earn and more than half of all farmers are in debt.

In States such as Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, levels of indebtedness are around 90%, where each household bears an average debt of ₹1 lakh.

In order to achieve the Central government’s promise to double farmers income by 2022, one aspect being considered is natural farming methods such as the ZBNF which reduce farmers’ dependence on loans to purchase inputs they cannot afford.

Meanwhile, inter-cropping allows for increased returns. The Economic Survey has also highlighted the ecological advantages.

 

Case study: Is it effective?

  1. A limited 2017 study in Andhra Pradesh claimed a sharp decline in input costs and improvement in yields.
  2. However, reports also suggest that many farmers, including from Mr. Palekar’s native Maharashtra, have reverted to conventional farming after seeing their ZBNF returns drop after a few years, in turn raising doubts about the method’s efficacy in increasing farmers’ incomes.
  3. ZBNF critics, including some experts within the central policy and planning think tank NITI Aayog, note that India needed the Green Revolution in order to become self-sufficient and ensure food security.
  4. They warn against a wholesale move away from that model without sufficient proof that yields will not be affected.
  5. Sikkim, which has seen some decline in yields following a conversion to organic farming, is used as a cautionary tale regarding the pitfalls of abandoning chemical fertilizers.
  6. In 2019, soon after Prime Minister praised ZBNF while addressing a United Nations conference on desertification, the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences wrote to Mr. Modi warning against promoting the method without sufficient research to assess its long-term impact.
  7. We are worried about the impact on farmers’ income, as well as food security.
  8. As agricultural scientists, we do feel the need to move away from 100% chemical-based farming, but there needs to be proper scientific validation first.
  9. You cannot just drop [existing technologies] for an unproven method which makes unscientific claims about one black cow’s dung being enough for 30 acres. Some trials have been started, but a one-year experiment is too short to judge the long-term impact.

 

Which are the States with big plans?

  1. The Centre has sanctioned the proposals of eight States for support under the Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana scheme this year.
  2. Andhra Pradesh has the biggest ambition to bring one lakh additional hectares of land under ZBNF under the scheme, followed by Chhattisgarh, with 85,000 additional hectares and Gujarat, with 71,000 additional hectares.
  3. The Agriculture Secretary said the proposals being implemented under the scheme would be used to showcase the benefits of the method.
  4. Because it is unproven does not mean it is not good. Scientific studies have not been completed, but in the field, it is being proven. It is the farmers’ own practices which are showcasing this.
  5. Many farmers sell their natural produce as if were chemically grown, to private traders or to government as wholesale, with no price differential.
  6. Other farmers rely on their own local marketing networks, such as to some organic shops and individual customers, but policy support in this area is crucial.
  7. The agriculture ministry plans to offer cash incentives to farmers who take up ‘yogik’ farming, ‘gou mata kheti’ and ‘rishi krishi’ is right step in promoting Zero budget natural farming in India.

ZBNF can also help in prevent over-extraction of groundwater, enable aquifer recharge, and eventually contribute to increasing water table levels.

Zero budget natural farming requires only 10% water and 10% electricity than what is required under chemical and organic farming.

It might help to reduce the leaching of nitrogen and phosphorous from the soil into groundwater or surface water, and eventually into rivers and oceans.

 

Conclusion:

The Prime Minister is set to promote ZBNF’s benefits and provide more details on the strategies to implement it with a focus on natural farming.

The Indian Council of Agricultural Research is studying the ZBNF methods practised by basmati and wheat farmers in Modipuram (Uttar Pradesh), Ludhiana (Punjab), Pantnagar (Uttarakhand) and Kurukshetra (Haryana), evaluating the impact on productivity, economics and soil health including soil organic carbon and soil fertility.

If found to be successful, an enabling institutional mechanism could be set up to promote the technology, NITI Aayog vice-chairman also supported it.

The Andhra Pradesh experience is also being monitored closely to judge the need for further public funding support.