What is zero budget natural farming?
Will this form of chemical-free agriculture increase farmers’ incomes? Where are the pitfalls?
The story so far: Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman thrust zero budget farming into the spotlight in the first Budget speech of the 17th Lok Sabha earlier this month, 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.
What is it and how did it come about?
Zero budget natural farming (ZBNF) is a method of chemical-free agriculture drawing from traditional Indian practices.
It was originally promoted by Maharashtrian 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 and pesticides and intensive irrigation. 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. 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.
Instead of commercially produced chemical inputs, the ZBNF promotes the application of jeevamrutha — a mixture of fresh desi cow dung and aged desi cow urine, jaggery, pulse flour, water and soil — on farmland. This 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. About 200 litres of jeevamrutha 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 Mr. Palekar, with the caveat that it must be a local Indian breed — not an imported Jersey or Holstein.
A similar mixture, called bijamrita, is used to treat seeds, while concoctions using neem leaves and pulp, tobacco and green chillis are prepared for insect and pest management.
The ZBNF method also promotes soil aeration, minimal watering, intercropping, bunds and topsoil mulching and discourages intensive irrigation and deep ploughing. Mr. Palekar is against vermicomposting, which is the mainstay of typical organic farming, as it introduces the 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.
Is it effective?
Which are the States with big plans?
Is the budgetary support enough?
What lies ahead?
If found to be successful, an enabling institutional mechanism could be set up to promote the technology, NITI Aayog vice-chairman Rajiv Kumar has said. The Andhra Pradesh experience is also being monitored closely to judge the need for further public funding support.