Zero Budget Natural Farming

Relevance:Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman thrust zero budget natural 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.

Organic farming became an umbrella term that represented a variety of non-chemical and less-chemical oriented methods of farming.  One-straw revolution and Madagascar’s System of Rice Intensification (SRI) were examples of specific alternatives proposed. In India, such alternatives and their variants included, among others,homoeo-farming, Vedic farming, Natu-eco farming, Agnihotra farming and Amrutpani farming.Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF), popularised by Subhash Palekar, is the most recent entry into this group.

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

The basic premise in Zero Budget Natural Faring is that the  soil has all the nutrients plants need. To make these nutrients available to plants, we need the intermediation of microorganisms. For this, he recommends the “four wheels of Zero Budget Natural Farming”: Bijamrit, Jivamrit, Mulching and Waaphasa.

  1. Bijamrit is the microbial coating of seeds with formulations of cow urine and cow dung.
  2. Jivamrit is the enhancement of soil microbes using an inoculum of cow dung, cow urine, and jaggery.
  3. Mulching is the covering of soil with crops or crop residues.
  4. Waaphasa is the building up of soil humus to increase soil aeration.
  5. In addition, ZBNF includes three methods of insect and pest management: Agniastra, Brahmastra and Neemastra (all different preparations using cow urine, cow dung, tobacco, fruits, green chilli, garlic and neem).

Benefits of Zero Budget Natural Farming:

  1. 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.
  2. Instead of commercially produced chemical inputs, the Zero Budget Natural Farming BNF 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.
  3. The ZBNF method also promotes soil aeration, minimal watering, intercropping, bunds and topsoil mulching and discourages intensive irrigation and deep ploughing.
  4. 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.
  5. ZBNF’s biggest success came in Andhra Pradesh when the Rythu Sadhikara Samstha, a state-owned non-profit company, adopted it. Major funding has been earmarked for the programme, which Andhra Pradesh calls climate resilient ZBNF or CRZBNF.

Criticisms of Zero Budget Natural Farming:

The critics of Zero Budget Natural Farming claim that it is hardly zero budget. Many ingredients  have to be purchased. These apart, wages of hired labour, imputed value of family labour, imputed rent over owned land, costs of maintaining cows and paid-out costs on electricity and pump sets are all costs that ZBNF proponents conveniently ignore.

Second, there are no independent studies to validate the claims that ZBNF plots have a higher yield than non-ZBNF plots.While it has definitely helped preserve soil fertility, its role in boosting productivity and farmers’ income isn’t conclusive yet.One field trial is ongoing at the G.B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology, but its full results will be available only after five years. According to reliable sources, preliminary observations of these field trials have recorded a yield shortfall of about 30% in ZBNF plots when compared with non-ZBNF plots.

Third, most of the  claims  are in defiance with agricultural science.Indian soils are poor in organic matter content. About 59% of soils are low in available nitrogen; about 49% are low in available phosphorus; and about 48% are low or medium in available potassium. . In some regions, soils are saline. In other regions, soils are acidic due to nutrient deficiencies or aluminium, manganese and iron toxicities. In certain other regions, soils are toxic due to heavy metal pollution from industrial and municipal wastes or excessive application of fertilizers and pesticides.

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