Home Economy Agriculture Can zero budget natural farming (ZBNF) scale across India?

Can zero budget natural farming (ZBNF) scale across India?

Subhash Palekar’s argument in favour of the ZBNF was that cancelling such an economic burden, farming can be made into a “zero budget” exercise, smashing the debt cycle for many small farmers.

May 20, 2021: The zero-budget natural farming scheme or ZBNF was brought into the limelight by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in the first Budget speech of the 17th Lok Sabha in the year 2019, calling for a “back to the basics” approach.

She said, “We need to replicate this innovative model through which in a few States, farmers are already being trained in this practice. Steps such as this can help in doubling our farmers’ income in time for our 75th year of Independence.”

Several states, including Andhra Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh, have been aggressively driving a shift towards this model.

Image: Shikara Academy

zero budget natural farming meaning and origin

Zero budget natural farming (ZBNF) is defined as a means of chemical-free agriculture drawing from traditional Indian practices.

Originally adapted and promoted by Maharashtrian agriculturist and Padma Shri recipient Subhash Palekar, who augmented it in the mid-1990s as an alternative to the Green Revolution’s methods driven by chemical fertilisers and pesticides and intensive irrigation.

Palekar’s argument in favour of the ZBNF was that the rising cost of these external inputs was a leading cause of indebtedness and suicide among farmers, going hand-in-hand with the impact of chemicals on the environment and on long-term fertility which was devastating. Shrugging aside the need to spend money on these financially exhaustive inputs — or take loans to buy them — the cost of production could be reduced and farming made into a “zero budget” exercise, smashing the debt cycle for many small farmers.

In place of commercially produced chemical inputs, the ZBNF promotes the application of jeevamrutha — an amalgamation of fresh desi cow dung and aged desi cow urine, jaggery, pulse flour, water and soil — on farmland.

This fermented microbial culture acts as a catalyst that promotes the activity of microorganisms and earthworms in the soil, by adding the essential nutrients to the soil.

The required ratio is around 200 litres of jeevamrutha that should be sprayed twice a month per acre of land; after three years, the system is supposed to become self-sustaining.

Only one cow is needed for 30 acres of land, according to Palekar, with the caveat that it must be a local Indian breed — not an imported Jersey or Holstein.

Another local initiative, called bijamrita, is used to treat seeds, while concoctions using neem leaves and pulp, tobacco and green chillies are prepared for insect and pest management.

The ZBNF method is also tested to promote soil aeration, minimal watering, intercropping, bunds and topsoil mulching and discourages intensive irrigation and deep ploughing.

With his stance 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, Palekar claimed that these worms absorb toxic metals and poison groundwater and soil.

Image: Business Line

How is ZBNF different and appealing?

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

States like Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, have witnessed levels of indebtedness reaching around 90%, where each household bears an average debt of Rs 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 reduces farmers’ dependence on loans to purchase inputs they cannot afford.

Meanwhile, inter-cropping allows for increased returns.

The effectivity of zero budget natural farming

The practical test of limited scale and magnitude in 2017, in Andhra Pradesh claimed a sharp decline in input costs and improvement in yields.

However, reports also suggest that many farmers, including in 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.

Also read: PM Kisan Samman Nidhi: Did Odisha farmers benefit from this scheme?

ZBNF critics, including some experts within the Central policy and planning think tank NITI Aayog, argue that India needed the Green Revolution in order to become self-sufficient and ensure food security. However, they reproach against a monumental move away from that model without sufficient proof that yields will not be affected.

Sikkim, which has seen some decline in yields following a conversion to organic farming, is substantiated as a failed experiment, to ward off the pitfalls of abandoning chemical fertilisers.

States resonating big plans

As per the statistics in the Economic Survey, more than 1.6 lakh farmers are practising the ZBNF in almost 1,000 villages using some form of state support, although the method’s advocates claim more than 30 lakh practitioners overall. Karnataka being the original promoter, where the ZBNF was adopted as a movement by a State farmers’ association, the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha.

The farmers were facilitated by large-scale training camps in order to educate farmers in the method.

According to a survey carried out in those early years, ZBNF farmers all owned small plots of land, had some access to irrigation and owned at least one cow of their own.

Image: Green Stories

In June 2018, Andhra Pradesh rolled out an ambitious plan to become India’s first State to practise 100% natural farming by 2024.

 It aims to phase out chemical farming over 80 lakh hectares of land, converting the state’s 60 lakh farmers to ZBNF methods.

Himachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Kerala, Karnataka and Uttarakhand have also invited Palekar to train their farmers.

Adequacy of budget

While talks regarding the ZBNF in the budget speech created the hullabaloo, the Finance Minister did not actually announce any new funding to promote it.

The year 2018 saw the Centre revising the norms for the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana- Remunerative Approaches for Agriculture and Allied sector Rejuvenation (RKVY-RAFTAAR), a flagship Green Revolution scheme with an allocation of Rs 3,745 crore this year, and the Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana, which has an allocation of Rs 325 crore and is meant to promote organic farming and soil health. Under the revised guidelines, both centrally-sponsored schemes now allow states to use their funds to promote the ZBNF, vedic farming, natural farming, cow farming and a host of other traditional methods.

Andhra Pradesh recorded its utilisation of Rs 249 crore from these schemes to promote the ZBNF over a two-and-a-half-year period. The state estimates it will need Rs 17,000 crore to convert all of its 60 lakh farmers to the ZBNF over the next 10 years.

However, this is only a fraction of the spending on Central government subsidies for fertilisers, pesticides and mass irrigation that has driven the Green Revolution model.

The future with zero budget natural farming

NITI Aayog stands in the line frontiers promoting  Palekar and the ZBNF method. But even its experts have alerted that multi-location studies are necessary to scientifically validate the long-term impact and viability of the model before it can be scaled up and promoted country-wide.

The Central government’s efforts to make the farming industry adapt to Zero budget Natural Farming as a means to double the income of the class, can in the long run, lead to a deficit in meeting food requirements for all its population in coming decades, a new study has claimed.

Image: Agademy

According to a paper published in the journal Nature Sustainability, a team of researchers from the University of Aberdeen and the James Hutton Institute at Aberdeen in the UK, who carried out first-ever scientific assessment of ZBNF, propounded by Palekar, the Maharashtra-based farmer, discovered it’s benefit in improving the yield for farmers who use low-inputs, but may have an impact on India’s ability to feed its rising population in the decades to come.

The population of India, which is currently 17.71 per cent of the total world population, is predicted to increase by 33 per cent from 1.2 billion in 2010 to 1.6 billion in 2050. In the ‘business-as-usual’ scenario, by 2050, 60 per cent of India’s population, equivalent to over 10 per cent of the people on Earth, will experience severe deficiencies in calories, digestible protein and fat, the scientists have claimed in the paper.

In order to provide for the increased demands for food on a shrinking area of agricultural land, efficiency of crop production must increase, however, climate change, soil degradation and depopulation present further challenges to increasing the efficiency of Indian agriculture.

“Zero budget natural farming started as a grassroots movement, aiming to provide multiple benefits, both to the environment and to farmers. However, there are conflicting opinions about how it should be developed for widespread use. This report provides scientific evidence on the potential for scale-up,” said Jagadeesh Yeluripati from the James Hutton Institute who is also the co-author of the study.

Jo Smith of the University of Aberdeen, the leading figure in the study, said contrary to the fears of many scientists, this system could support improved food production for low-input farmers. In addition, because inputs of crop residues are high, the soil is unlikely to degrade.

“However, the maximum potential nitrogen supply is likely to be only 52–80 per cent of the average fertiliser application rate. This means that yield penalties are likely in higher input systems; so widespread conversion of farms from all sectors to zero budget natural farming is not recommended,” Smith added.

By Arpita Patro


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