Challenges in zero budget farming

The Centre is pushing ‘zero budget farming’, which has the merit of lowering input costs for farmers. But in the absence of credible data about how the practice impacts yields, there is a case for caution

In her maiden Budget presentation, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman introduced the ‘zero budget farming’ concept. In many ways, it was a ‘zero’ budget for agriculture this time — the sector had nothing to show for itself — but in fact what she was referring to was a farming method where there is no external input of any sort — no hybrid/GM seeds, no fertilisers, no pesticides — and no loans.

Successive governments have over five decades been incentivising farmers to adopt chemical farming, so what accounts for this about-turn?

The Green Revolution saved millions from dying of hunger and made India a food-surplus country. That said, chemical-intensive farming has had a severe impact on ecosystems, climate and health. Further, it has pushed up costs, making agriculture unviable for small farmers. Subhash Palekar, the Padma Shri awardee, who has been advocating ‘zero budget natural farming (ZBNF)’ for decades, holds that bio-fertilisers from cow manure, urine and other natural resources can reverse the negative effects of the Green Revolution, increase farm productivity and save farmers by reducing cultivation costs and enhancing returns. ZBNF is a regenerative agriculture practice that places emphasis on natural processes to re-energise the soil (by increasing organic matter) that help plants get natural nutrients.

It is important to understand why there is a stress on ‘soil’.

The earth has been losing its top soil at a fast rate, primarily due to chemical-heavy farming and deforestation. At the current rate of soil degradation, all the world’s soil will be gone in 60 years, cautions the United Nations. India is among the countries where soil degradation is happening faster than its replenishment. This paints an alarming picture of the future, one in which there will be no farming, no harvest and no food.

There is thus a need to ‘rebuild’ the soil, and natural farming promises to do it. In India, the success of ZBNF depends on how well the government keeps farmers motivated during the transition. Natural farming may not yield results from Day 1, say experts and those who practise the technique. It needs perseverance and investment of time and labour. If marginal and small farmers are to switch to natural farming, the government must support their livelihood till yields stabilise and their incomes grow.

BusinessLine spoke to ZBNF practitioners and experts to understand what it is about.

Principles of ZBNF

So, is ZBNF seriously about ‘zero budgeting’, and to that extent does it require no outlays from farmers?

Palekar, who thinks of it as ‘zero budget spiritual farming’, defines it as a technique where the production cost will be zero since ‘nothing will have to be purchased from outside’.

The ZBNF technique is built on four pillars: jeevamrutham, a fermented microbial culture derived primarily from cow dung and urine, jaggery, pulse flour and uncontaminated soil; beejamrutham, microbial coating of seed, seedlings by using cow dung, urine and lime; acchadana, or mulching, the process of covering the top soil with cover crops and crop residues; and Whaphasa, or soil aeration.

There is also an emphasis on inter-cropping, the practice of growing many crops next to one another.

T Vijay Kumar, Adviser to the Andhra Pradesh Government Agriculture Department, and Vice-chairman of the Rythu Sadhikara Samastha (RySS), a non- profit organisation established by the State government to promote ZBNF, told BusinessLine that the reference to ‘zero budget’ in ZBNF is derived from the emphasis on inter-cropping. “It does not mean that the farmer will not incur any cost under ZBNF; the money he makes from inter-cropping will compensate for the amount spent on the main crop…”

However, if a farmer has to hire labour from outside to prepare the inoculum (fermented microbial culture) or the concoction (mixture of various ingredients, to make beejamrutham) or for sowing, harvesting or transporting the produce to the market, he will incur a cost.

The Andhra model

There are doubts about whether ZBNF is scalable, but Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh claim they have seen success.

After 10-15 years of promoting non-chemical pest management programme and community-managed sustainable agriculture in the State, the Andhra Pradesh government implemented ZBNF in 2015, as it was getting popular with farmers in the State, thanks to Palekar’s training across several districts. After a pilot study of the programme in 704 villages in the Kharif 2016 season, master farmers (referred to as community resource partners – CRPs) were trained in each district.

These farmers were given the responsibility of motivating and training farmers to switch to ZBNF practices. The pilot programme was successful; cultivation costs fell, and yields increased, says Vijay Kumar, who has been spearheading the programme since its inception. Since 2015-16, the Andhra Pradesh government has spent ₹314 core on the project (through the Central government’s Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana and Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana). The unit cost of the programme works out to about ₹25,500 per hectare. For the programme to reach all 60 lakh farmers of the State in eight to10 years, the estimated investment cost would be ₹17,000 crore.

Till date, some 5,80,000 farmers in 3,011 villages — or 8 per cent of farmers in the State — have been covered under the programme. The Andhra Pradesh government has roped in women self-help groups, civil society organisations and farmer institutions to take forward the ZBNF.

However, the ZBNF approach is not without its failings.

Sources in Andhra Pradesh noted that in farmlands on which chemical farming has been practised intensively, the soil quality is poor and does not respond quickly to ZBNF. Also, in crops such as paddy, standing water in the field inhibits soil microbial population, which in turn impacts the yield after farmers switch to ZBNF.

It takes time for the effect of natural farming to be reflected in the yield, say experts.

There will certainly be a drop in the cost of farming, but the effect on crop yield may vary, depending on the soil quality, crop and the methods adopted by the farmer, they add.

Strikingly, the ZBNF method’s effectiveness has not been conclusively established by any independent scientific study so far in India.

Sivan, who heads the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) Regional Centre in Wayanad, says, “Many of our farmers who are engaged in ZBNF claim that even during the initial conversion, the result was evident. But the method as such is not scientifically proven.”

The Indian Council of Agricultural Research is yet to study the technique and its scalability in detail, though the process has begun.

There is, however, some data available in respect of the RySS’ crop cutting experiment (CCE, the process used to obtain yield) on different crops. According to this, after ZBNF was introduced, yields increased by 21 per cent for maize (irrigated), 30 per cent for ragi and 34 per cent for groundnut.

Action plan

To practice all the ZBNF techniques, a farmer will require hand-holding in the initial few years. It would help if the States follow the Andhra Pradesh model and create a SHG network. Besides this, the State/Central government need to ensure that farmers get supply of inputs. Not every farmer owns a cow — and that too, a native cow. Palekar is particular about desi cows dung for jeevamrutham.

The government should also invest in building seed banks in every village to ensure supply of desi seeds; the ZBNF technique stresses on the use of desi seeds, not hybrid/GM seeds. Further, given the chances of crop failure in the first year of transition to ZBNF, the government must support farmers’ livelihood.

In any case, pest management under ZBNF is only preventive; if the soil quality is poor or the farmer does not follow the recommended practices, crops will be susceptible to pest attacks. Thus, the government needs to be ready with a Plan B. Only if income assurance in some form is given in the initial years will marginal farmers be motivated to try the ZBNF technique, said a farmer from Tamil Nadu who asked not to be named.

However, before pushing ZBNF across the States, the Centre should collect scientific data on how the ZBNF technique affects yields, after discounting the impact of drought years, soil quality and other external factors.

The food security of the country, besides the livelihood of millions of farmers, needs to be borne in mind before we plunge into natural farming. It is better to be sure than sorry.

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