“Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the cornfield.” If one estimates dignity by its immediate utility then agriculture is beyond any doubt the primary and noblest science. Are these “founders of civilization” then, given the adequate right to choose their fate?

The new government completed 100 days of its second term last week. On this occasion, most of the cabinet ministers showcased the achievements of their ministries. What went missing were the headlines showing anything but “bold moves” for ongoing agrarian distress. The sector affects the largest number of people and thus it could find its mention in the 14th Conference of Parties (COP14) to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India was “focusing on Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF)”. The Budget speech by the Finance Minister likewise witnessed the need to “go back to basics”, and to “replicate this innovative model that can help in doubling our farmers’ income”.

What is ZBNF?

Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) is an environment-friendly technique of chemical-free agriculture drawing from customary Indian practices. It seeks to encourage farmers by bringing down the input costs for them. This method of farming was originally propounded by Maharashtrian agriculturist Subhash Palekar, a Padma Shri recipient, as an alternative to intensive irrigation methods driven by chemical fertilizers and pesticides. He claims, perhaps quite rightly, that the increasing cost of these inputs was the main reason behind farmer indebtedness and suicide. Economic Survey tells the same story. As indicated by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), practically 70% of agricultural families spend more than they earn and more than half of them are in debt. In States, for example, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, levels of indebtedness are around 90%.

At the very outset, it should be made clear that ZBNF is different from organic farming which involves the use of bio-fertilizers, vermicomposting, etc. and thus is comparatively expensive. Natural farming, on the other hand, is a method that uses fermented microbial culture called “jeevamrit” – made using herbs, cow dung, urine, jaggery, etc. to bring down the cost of cultivation to almost zero. The concept behind ZBNF is that over 98 percent of the nutrients required by crops for photosynthesis — carbon dioxide, nitrogen, water, and solar energy — are already available “free” from the air, rain, and Sun.

Why this shift from the conventional method?

The Green revolution in India, which started in the year 1965, was intended to fulfill the countrywide increased demand for food. However, it was highly dependent on more intensive crop production practices due to which it later received a wave of criticism. The optimal ratio of using nitrogen (N), phosphate (P) and potash (K) differ from plot to plot at an all India level, but it is generally agreed that the combination of N, P and K should be in the ratio of 4:2:1. In 2010, the Nutrient Based Subsidy (NBS) scheme was introduced which almost freed prices of P and K from the government administration. However, urea (N) was excluded from the above scheme i.e. it continued to be under government control. As a result, several studies today show that urea as a fertilizer is used disproportionately by the Indian farmers. This not only results in a massive loss of agrobiodiversity and associated traditional knowledge but also increased dependence on credit. As per the data from the Dept of Fertilizer, Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers, the ratio of N, P and K in the recent years stood at 28:8:1 for north Indian states, and 7:2.7:1 as the national average.

Fertilizer subsidy, of which urea has the largest share, is the fourth-highest revenue expenditure for the government at present. Owing to the high subsidy, the urea prices in India are perhaps lowest in the world, and certainly the lowest amongst the major countries.

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What then stops the country to adapt to this ubiquitous yet unprecedented idea of natural farming?

The answer to this lies in another interrogative sentence – has the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) contemplated the possible impact of ZBNF on yields of major harvests in contrast to the conventional method? Unfortunately, only limited information is available which suggests a 30 to 50 percent drop in yields using such a technique. This could puncture a big hole in India’s food security basket. Scientists speak about the lack of sufficient evidence to support Palekar’s claims of the competence of ZBNF. Further, giving up of high-value seeds and fertilizers can hurt agribusiness. According to some sincere ZBNF farmers, the government, in a rush to promote natural farming, has inflated the figures by adding non-ZBNF farmers who have no knowledge of the method. So, do we want to head towards the “ship-to-mouth” situation of the mid-1960s when India was the world’s best-known basket?

Another bone of contention is the argument put forth by the crusaders of natural farming which claims that 98 percent of the nutrients required by crops are already freely available. Undoubtedly 78 percent of air is nitrogen, however, it isn’t openly accessible to plants. Being non-receptive, atmospheric nitrogen must be fixed into a plant-usable form such as urea or ammonia. Moreover, many farmers, including in Mr. Palekar’s native of his State, have returned to regular farming in the wake of seeing their ZBNF returns drop following a couple of years. National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) suggested in a letter written to Prime Minister last week that there is a need to do large scale testing in different regions across the country to see the implications of ZBNF. Such studies have not been conducted yet. In fact, for rigorous scientific analysis and to assess the productivity, quality, and effect on soil nutrition, we need to look at two full cropping cycles.

The government ought to be cautioned against a complete move away from the conventional model without any adequate evidence of yields not getting negatively influenced by natural farming. Sikkim, which has seen some reduction in yields following a transformation to natural cultivation, is used as a wake-up call regarding the peril of discarding chemical fertilizers.

What can be some interim measures?

The subsidy, which is budgeted at Rs 80,000 crore for 2019-20, should be granted to farmers directly on a per hectare basis and shall be allowed to take the decision – ZBNF or chemical-fertilizer based farming. This would be akin to the concept of free-market force which Adam Smith talks about in “The Wealth of Nations.” The prices of such chemicals will then be determined by the market forces which would ensure their rational usage. The diversion of fertilizers like urea to non-farm uses as well as illegal cross-border sales would be arrested. The PM-Kisan Yojana (PMKY) —income support of Rs 6,000 per year to small and marginal farmer households is a first small step towards direct cash transfer to farmers.

The right of farmers to choose their own methodology is what should be advocated, keeping the restrictions and inconsequential nudge as reasonable as possible. The circumstances won’t change unless there is consistency between the price of fertilizers and the farmer’s income, to encourage them to use all fertilizers proportionately. This must be the foundation of fertilizer policies if the conventional method is to be followed. The case of direct benefit transfer and free and fair market is essential to realize the ambitious goal of doubling farmer income by 2022. Before that, any improvement in their standard of living remains a far cry.

The government should learn from the examples of other emerging economies. I recall something that a professor of mine had told me years ago, about his visit to Brazil for a research-related project. In the midst of conducting a probe into the fertility of a crop field in Mato Grosso, he observes a truck that comes and gets parked alongside his car. I could relate to the amusement when he narrated how the person who came out of his vehicle, opened his MacBook and spotted it over the bonnet. The person, through satellite imaging, was managing the irrigation system of his fields, gathering information and extrapolating the productivity for the season. He was neither an engineer nor a scientist. Yes, he was a Brazilian farmer.

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Kush Sharma is a policy researcher with experience in the field of public finance and public policy with the Government of India. His last engagement was with the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs. Prior to this, he has worked with the Department of Economic Affairs, Ministry of Finance.

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