The article provides insight on the adoption of Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) by the farmers in a few states of India in the wake of climate change and depleting environmental sustainability. The method claims to be environment-friendly and cost-effective against the modern farming techniques that involve the use of technology, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides, since the Green Revolution. The article critically analyses these claims and the practice of ZBNF in India.
MODERN FARMING: BOON OR CURSE?
India is an agrarian country having 52% of its population involved in agriculture and allied activities. According to the statistical data by the World Bank, India’s agricultural land is about 60.43% in the year 2018.1
Various cultivation methods have been practiced in farming, from primitive techniques to modern-day technologies. The old farming methods employed more manual labor, right from cultivation to harvesting. The gradual advancement in technology has led to the use of machines in farming. Fertilizers, pesticides, weedicides are frequently used in modern technical farming methods. The advent of the Green Revolution in India in the 1960s and the introduction of High Yielding Varieties (HYVs), chemical pesticides and fertilizers, tractors, pumps, combine harvester for harvesting and threshing, and other such technologies were responsible for the increased growth rate of food-grain output from 2.4% per annum before 1965 to 3.5% after 1965. Since then, importing food grains has declined considerably.2
However, technology is a double-edged sword. While on the one side, the incorporation of modern technology into farming has reduced human labor and has increased the production rate of many crops, it has also resulted in environmental degradation and, consequently, climate change. According to the International Panel of Climate Change (IPCC, 2013), agriculture, forestry, and land-use change account for 25% of human-induced Greenhouse Gas emissions3 Fertilizers rich in nitrogen can pollute water and threaten aquatic ecosystems. Pesticides, herbicides, and monocultures can lead to a loss in biodiversity. An alternative approach to deal with climate change and prevent further environmental depletion might be ‘Zero Budget Natural Farming’ (ZBNF).
ZBNF – SWITCHING TO PRIMITIVE FARMING
Natural farming is an ecological approach in agriculture, also known as the Fukuoka method named after the Japanese farmer and philosopher who established it, Masanobu Fukuoka. It is also known as ‘the natural way of farming’ or ‘do-nothing farming. It is a chemical-free method that promotes the use of naturally occurring resources in agriculture.
It was introduced in India as ‘Zero Budget Natural Farming’ by agriculturist Subhash Palekar in the 1990s. This method was developed as an alternative to the Green Revolution that was based on the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and intensive irrigation techniques, etc. This eco-friendly farming method employs natural inputs such as cow dung, urine, jaggery, pulses without utilizing a credit or making any monetary investment on the cultivation and harvesting of the crops and hence named ‘zero budget natural farming’. It is practiced in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Himachal Pradesh, and Haryana.
Palekar’s model is based on the fact that most of the essential microorganisms and supplements required for the growth of plants are already present in the soil and the natural surroundings like air, water, and sunlight. Other nutrients are obtained from renewable natural resources such as cow dung, pulse, jaggery, cow urine. Based on this, there are four integral methods are used in this farming:
These practices have exhibited positive effects on the soil; its water holding capacity and soil fertility have also improved. A brief prepared by Council on Energy, Environment and Water (2018), groundnut farmers in Andhra Pradesh had harvested 23 percent higher yield than their non-ZBNF counterparts, while ZBNF paddy farmers had an average of 6 percent higher yield4. Another research study in February 2020 conducted by the Centre for Study of Science, Technology, and Policy in Andhra Pradesh’s districts during Kharif season finds maximum benefits of ZBNF in paddy farming. This method saved 1,400 to 3,500 cubic meters of water per acre per paddy cropping period (one acre equals 0.4 hectare) due to multiple soil aeration or waaphasa. In just one crop season, the electricity consumption of farms relying on groundwater reduced by 1,500-3,900 units per acre and saved Rs 6,000-16,000. Moreover, multiple aerations hindered microbial activity and cut methane emissions by 88%, compared to the conventional flooding practice. This led to an additional saving of fossil fuels used for electricity generation and emissions reduction5.The researchers also noted that Paddy farms under ZBNF were irrigated with only 2.54-5.7 centimeters deep water, while those under non-ZBNF were watered up to 12.7 cm.6
During the budget session in 2019, the finance minister strongly pitched for implementing ZBNF as it is cost-effective and will increase farmers’ income. However, the response to this proposal is mixed, with some experts praising it while others question its efficacy in ameliorating farmers’ income.
The suicide rates of farmers account for 11.2% of the total suicides in India. There are various reasons behind these suicides, the surge in the input costs, cost of chemicals and seeds, high prices of agricultural equipment, climate change, and many more.
According to the National Sample Survey Office, almost 70% of agricultural households spend more on purchasing chemical fertilizers and weeds than they earn and more than half of all farmers are in debt.7
The exposure of farmers to the ZBNF renders following advantages:
However, the ZBNF has drawn a certain amount of criticism from several experts. These experts outrightly point out that ZNBF as a means to improve or double farmer’s income is rather improbable. Although the name suggests ‘zero-budget and implies no credit expense from the farmer’s end, the farmer has to spend money on the fodder to feed the cattle. Because of reduced grazing lands and vanishing small water bodies, fodder cost in recent years has skyrocketed, posing a problem for the poor farmers. Along with this, a farmer has to bear the cost of labor for the fieldwork, cattle rearing, collection of cow dung, urine, and the preparation of jeevamrutham and beejamrutham. The ZNBF advocates for the use of only indigenous cows, whose numbers are falling rapidly. A study based on focused group discussion was conducted by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in 10 districts of Andhra Pradesh in 2019. It noted that the majority of those who opted for the system (around 87%) have not been able to get a better price for their produce than those who didn’t opt for it, while their requirement for manual labor and the time consumed has risen.8 Some other reports from 2017 suggest that many farmers, including 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.9 ZBNF has also not displayed its effects on all kinds of soil types.
There is no iota of doubt that the ZBNF has hit the right chord when it comes to environmental sustainability, yet, so far, not much evidence has come across that can convince that farmers’ income has doubled due to the adoption of this system. We can say that a farming method that caters both to the monetary needs of the farmers as well as to the sustainable environment is yet to be devised. Meanwhile, there are a lot of systemic issues that need to be resolved to alleviate farmers’ conditions in the nation. The following probable solutions are:
An appropriate blend of technology, organic and natural farming should be incorporated in agriculture. Smart irrigation techniques, the use of bio-pesticides, and proper training to farmers with respect to crop production might help to deal with the loss of farmers as well as the environment.