Context: Recently, the Prime Minister of India has urged farmers to replace the chemical fertilizers and pesticides that encouraged the Green Revolution along with the dung and urine of indigenous cows, advocating for a “completely science-based” shift from chemistry labs to nature’s laboratory.
The Government of India has been promoting organic farming in the country through schemes like-Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (PKVY) and Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY).
Organic farming is an agricultural system that uses fertilizers of organic origin such as compost manure, green manure, and bone meal and places emphasis on techniques such as crop rotation and companion planting.
Sikkim is the first organic farming state in India.
Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) is a type of chemical-free farming where the total cost of growing and harvesting plants comes out to be zero (taking into consideration the costs incurred by the farmers are recovered through inter-cropping).
This means that farmers need not purchase fertilizers and pesticides in order to ensure the healthy growth of crops.
It is, basically, a natural farming technique that uses biological pesticides instead of chemical-based fertilizers.
Farmers use earthworms, cow dung, urine, plants, human excreta and such biological fertilizers for crop protection. It reduces farmers’ investment. It also protects the soil from degradation.
It gained prominence when Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman mentioned it in her 2019 budget speech, speaking of it as a source of doubling farmers’ income.
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.
Four wheels of ZBNF to be implemented in practically:
The “four wheels” of ZBNF are ‘Jiwamrita’, ‘Bijamrita’, ‘Mulching’ and ‘Waaphasa’
Jiwamritais a fermented mixture of cow dung and urine (of desi breeds), jaggery, pulses flour, water and soil from the farm bund. This isn’t a fertiliser, but just a source of some 500 crore micro-organisms that can convert all the necessary “non-available” nutrients into “available” form.
Bijamritais a mix of desi cow dung and urine, water, bund soil and lime that is used as a seed treatment solution prior to sowing.
Mulching, or covering the plants with a layer of dried straw or fallen leaves, is meant to conserve soil moisture and keep the temperature around the roots at 25-32 degrees Celsius, which allows the microorganisms to do their job.
Waaphasa, or providing water to maintain the required moisture-air balance, also achieves the same objective.
Benefits of Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF):
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 order to achieve the Central government’s promise to double farmers' income by 2022, this method will help in reducing farmers’ dependence on loans to purchase inputs they cannot afford. Meanwhile, inter-cropping allows for increased returns.
As both a social and environmental programme, it aims to ensure that farming – particularly smallholder farming, is economically viable by enhancing farm biodiversity and ecosystem services.
It reduces farmers’ costs through eliminating external inputs and using in-situ resources to rejuvenate soils, whilst simultaneously increasing incomes, and restoring ecosystem health through diverse, multi-layered cropping systems.
Cow dung from local cows has proven to be a miraculous cure to revive the fertility and nutrient value of soil. One gram of cow dung is believed to have anywhere between 300 to 500 crore beneficial microorganisms. These microorganisms decompose the dried biomass on the soil and convert it into ready-to-use nutrients for plants.
Zero budget natural farming requires only 10 percent water and 10 percent electricity than what is required under chemical and organic farming. ZBNF may improve the potential of crops to adapt to and be produced for evolving climatic conditions.
A limited study in Andhra Pradesh claimed a sharp decline in input costs and improvement in yields.
This method offers self resilient food systems.
In Maharashtra some farmers 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.
Some experts within the Central policy and planning think tank NITI Aayog, note that India needed the Green Revolution in order to become self-sufficient and ensure food security.
They also warn against a wholesale move towards ZBNF without sufficient proof that yields will not be affected.
E.g. Sikkim, which has seen some decline in yields following a conversion to organic farming, is used as an example regarding the pitfalls of abandoning chemical fertilizers.