Touted as a panacea to the agrarian problems in India, Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF), inexpensive, chemical-free farming rooted in traditional Indian practices, is the new buzzword in agricultural economy. In her maiden budget speech, Nirmala Sitharaman espoused it as ‘going back to basics’ and said that methods like these could help double the farmer’s income.
Andhra Pradesh has already declared itself as India’s first natural farming state and plans to cover six million farmers by 2024. Following the footsteps, states like Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Kerela and Karnataka have also begun pilot projects. This can turn out to be an unprecedented step towards sustainable farming, but can ZBNF produce similar results in varied agro-climatic zones?
Popularised by Mr Subhash Palekar, ZBNF is based on some false premises. Scientists have repeatedly expressed doubts concerning the veracity of the ‘four pillars’. Estimates peg nitrogen and phosphate requirements of one hectare of farmland at 120 kg and 60 kg respectively. Considering this case, it is nothing less than an exaggeration to suppose that one hundred kilograms of cow dung which can supply, at most, 250 gm of nitrogen, would suffice for crop production.
Mulching and whapasa, his other techniques, are nothing but proven scientific techniques renamed and repackaged into traditional knowledge. In a letter to the Prime minister, President of National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS), Mr Panjab Singh expressed his fear that push towards ZBNF may be a retrograde step and seriously affect food production.
Indian soils suffer from high micronutrient deficiencies of zinc, boron and manganese, which are vital for both animal and plant health. In certain regions, soils are toxic due to heavy metal pollution from industries and inflow of municipal wastes. In other regions, soils are saline or acidic due to depletion of aluminium or manganese. To combat the myriad problems of Indian soils, ZBNF opined one-stop solution seems unwarranted, which should be replaced by a scientifically validated method of integrated farming, balancing the use of organic manure with chemical inputs.
Against the popular belief, no independent study has validated the ZBNF’s claim of higher crop yields. Research projects carried out by the Indian Council of Agriculture (ICAR) in Maharashtra reported similar crop yields, however, with inferior quality. Other independent studies carried out in Andhra Pradesh rely majorly on anecdotal evidence and case studies, meagerly supported by data. From Karnataka, there is a report by La Via Campesina but, it is based on first-hand accounts of the farmers and not field trials. Ironically, farmers in Maharashtra have disparaged ZBNF, citing a decline in income and farm productivity as the main reasons.
It is noteworthy that since the soils have got accustomed to fertilizers, it will be difficult to generate crop yield for the first 7 to 10 years. Exacerbating the problem, half of the farmlands are rain-fed. In this backdrop, it is imperative for the government to support the marginal farmers in their transition by ensuring the availability of inputs and crop insurance schemes.
But as of now, the government has done little except announcing to the world its unsubstantiated claim to push ZBNF across the country. Also, natural produce is highly unlikely to woo the market forces, for it will not be rewarded with higher prices due to variation in quality and limited consumer market. Thus, the claim of increasing farmer’s income remains unjustified.
The promises of investments from international agencies and the temptation of FPOs appear hollow when examined closely. While the liability of the loans falls on the state government, the nodal agencies in charge of disbursement of funds, FPOs are marked with a bias towards gender, class and religion, which results in an uneven sharing of profits/benefits. Instead, FDIs should have been opted to maintain fiscal discipline and prevent the FPOs from sidestepping the local government.
For India to accomplish a feat as herculean as eradicating undernourishment from 200 million of the population, consistent efforts to modernize agriculture are the need of the hour. Innovative technologies to check soil erosion, salinization, soil sealing and capping and physical degradation due to waterlogging and flooding are recommended to boost productivity and arrest depletion in vegetative cover. Investments are the key to unlock the dormant potential of Indian agriculture. They should, primarily, be diverted towards agri-tourism, agri-startups, exports and agro-processing industries.
The second wave of investments must focus more on improving research and collaboration to promote sustainable agricultural methods and employing state of the art livestock technology. A holistic approach like this cannot taste success without an embrace of robust research and scientific temper. On the front of Sustainable Development Goals, ZBNF may have scored by high, but apprehensions about its sustainability and scalability remain intact.