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Despite environmental benefits, experts doubt efficacy of zero budget natural farming, call for nation-wide scientific studies

Hyderabad: The Economic Survey 2018-19 and the Union Budget 2019 pitched for the adoption of Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) by farmers across the country in order to double their incomes and arrest agrarian distress.

However, the response to this suggestion has been a mixed bag with experts being wary about the efficacy of ZBNF and farmers welcoming it while acknowledging the challenges involved in it.

ZBNF is a natural farming technique pioneered by Subash Palekar, a Maharashtra-based agriculturist. It is called Zero Budget as the practitioners of this farming technique need not spend any credit on buying inputs.

The technique involves the use of cow dung and urine to increase soil fertility and is based on the principles like jeevamrutham (mixture introduced once in a fortnight to promote biological activity in the soil), beejamrutham (seed treatment with natural concoction), waaphasa (to improve soil humus), mulching and inter-cropping.

Despite environmental benefits, experts doubt efficacy of zero budget natural farming, call for nation-wide scientific studies
Bhaskar Padire at his ridge gourd farm grown using ZBNF technique in Majidpur, Rangareddy district of Telangana. Image courtesy: Prudhvi-Vegesna

Doubts over efficacy of ZBNF

Experts cast doubts over the efficacy of ZBNF as it is not tested on a wider scale. There are also questions over the technique’s applicability across all soil types and agro-climatic zones.

Professor R Ramakumar of the Centre for Study of Developing Economies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, said that ZBNF is an untested procedure and various claims that are being made with regards to it have to be verified and checked if this technique is to be applied on a wider scale, and before its introduction.

“Economic Survey’s recommendation on adoption of ZBNF by farmers is unscientific and irrational. It actually deepens the agrarian crisis in India instead of solving it. It is an ill thought out initiative of the Union government which has no basis in agriculture science,” he informs.

Eliciting similar views, Professor Venkatesh Athreya, economist and consultant at MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai, said, “ZBNF would not be workable across all soil conditions and the yields are much lower when compared to modern scientific agriculture.”

Athreya added, “Farmers would opt for the technique that gives them good yields to pay back their debt.”

However, Palekar claimed that the yields would improve starting from the first year of the introduction of ZBNF.

According to Palekar, ZBNF is the only way out to prevent farmer suicides, arrest rural migration and address the problems associated with the global warming and climate change.

Is the government shying away from its responsibility?

Professor Ramakumar said that the government should first address issues that resulted in agrarian crisis like rising input costs, better MSP (minimum support price) to farmers and falling or stagnant prices.

“What government is saying is leave all these issues and go for ZBNF. That means I will not reduce price of any input, you can also don’t need to buy any input at all by going for ZBNF. This is nothing but a cop-out,” he said.

Professor Athreya said that the introduction of a new technology is important but before adapting it, the government should strengthen the extension support in order to reduce the dependency of farmers on dealers. “Instead, the government is cutting back expenditure on agriculture.”

Enthusiastic response from farmers

Several farmers who are practicing ZBNF in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana for the past few years, welcomed it, and said that ZBNF has given them good yields and acknowledged the challenges associated with it.

Nara Pardhasaradhi of Uppanesinapalli village in Anantapur district, Andhra Pradesh, said that after initial failure in farming due to various factors like high input costs, he had grown horticultural crops like banana and papaya through ZBNF in 2012 and got good yields.

Nara Pardhasaradhi, founder of Anantha Naturals, at a mango orchard owned by the collective
Nara Pardhasaradhi, founder of Anantha Naturals, at a mango orchard owned by the collective.

Pardhasaradhi quit his well paying IT job in Bengaluru and took up farming full time once positive results started coming from ZBNF.

Bhaskar Padire of Majidpur village in Rangareddy district, Telangana said, “ZBNF is 100 percent profitable and its environmental benefits outweigh economic benefits.”

A bumpy road ahead?

Experts and farmers opine that even if ZBNF is adopted at a national scale, the challenges that are associated with modern agricultural farming like knowledge gap, availability of native seed banks, cold chain facilities, price support, and marketing issues would remain unresolved.

Oganic products produced by farmers of Anantha Naturals on display at a marketing event.
Oganic products produced by farmers of Anantha Naturals on display at a marketing event.

Pardhasaradhi said, “Initially, I worked hard to understand various issues related to ZBNF and tried multiple options like forming farmer groups and creating awareness about ZBNF before selling organic products to residents of gated communities in Bengaluru. I built up a market strategy after struggling for four years and formed a farmers collective — Anantha Naturals Farmers Producers Company.”

Anantha Naturals is a network of more than 500 farmers belonging to Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka, which trains farmers on ZBNF.

Bhaskar said that the knowledge gap is a major challenge and it should be bridged for better outcomes as many farmers are not aware of ZBNF. To bridge this gap, Bhaskar formed a natural farming group of about 10,00 small and marginal farmers and provided training to them on ZBNF.

Professor Ramakumar cautions that in the absence of proper mechanism in place, there will be a glut in the market and prices will fall when more and more farmers enter it as organic products primarily cater to ‘high-end consumers’.

Key to the success of ZBNF

ZBNF farmers want the government to play a more active role in terms of bridging knowledge gap, establishing local markets and provision of inputs among others.

According to Pardhasaradhi, creation of local models and encouragement of farmer collectives, provision of seeds locally at least at the mandal level, and provision of inputs like jeevamrutham by the government at least in the initial stages are key to the success of ZBNF.

Bhaskar said that the government should establish local markets in order to help farmers get remunerative price for their produce.

According to him,”Local products should be sold locally for a win-win situation for both farmers and consumers and the government should create awareness about the importance of organic products in terms of health and environment among others.”

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