Is Zero Budget Natural Farming Right for India?

The government of India is promoting a method of farming which intends chemical-free agricultural activity known as Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF). The reality of farming without fertilizers and agrichemicals/pesticides could have huge implications for agriculture in India.

Crop input veterans have raised a number of questions on the subject to which Pradip Dave, President of the Pesticide Manufacturers & Formulators Association of India (PMFAI), replied giving his opinion. Below are his responses to those questions and the effect ZBNF could have on the industry.

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Q. The government is promoting Zero Budget Natural Farming. What are your views?

Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) being encouraged by the government of India with an expectation that this can help in doubling farmers’ income. It is too early to predict any positive impact of ZBNF, as the idea to promote this approach in large-scale has contemplated by the government very recently. Zero Budget Natural Farming is a method which intends chemical-free agricultural activity, viz. farming without using of fertilizers, agrichemicals/pesticides (insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, etc.)

First of all, though it is called as Zero Budget Farming, in reality ZBNF is not at all Zero Budget Farming as major expenses are incurred on water, electricity, pumps, seeds, manpower, etc. Even organic inputs like cow dung, cow urine, and composts come at a cost, as the majority of the farmers do not have their own cows, particularly the marginal farmers with small land holding. Vermicompost, which is used in organic farming, is a very expensive input. Moreover, natural farming or organic farming is always labor intensive, which pushes the production cost further. There are also indirect costs involved in terms of feeding the cattle, labor, etc. to produce cow dung, cow urine. For farming in higher land areas of about more than four acres or so, practically, the ZBNF method of farming will be very difficult considering high quantity requirement of organic inputs.

Until the 1950s Indian agriculture was organic with no use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. During those years the nation was facing poverty due to acute shortage of agricultural production and was dependent on grain imports from global agricultural nations.

India’s agricultural growth only happened with use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides after the 1960s. The Green Revolution of India which commenced 1960s lead to an increase in food productivity with the use of technologies including quality fertilizers, pesticides, and seeds. (There has been) accelerated growth in India’s agricultural output since 2000. While growth between 1970 to 2000 was to the tune of $76 billion; growth between 2000 to 2014 was to the tune of $ 266 billion. Currently India ranks second largest country in the world, surpassing the USA, Brazil, etc. in terms of agricultural production with a value of $367 billion and eighth largest in agricultural exports with a value of $35 billion.

The World Bank in May 2014 mentioned — “India has brought about a landmark agricultural revolution that has transformed the nation from chronic dependence on grain imports into a global agricultural powerhouse that is now a net exporter of food.”

In India, at present, per hectare consumption of pesticides is one of the lowest in the world and stands at 0.6 kg/ha against the global average consumption of 3 kg/ha and 17 kg/ha consumption in China, 12.5 kg/ha consumption in Japan; 4.5 kg/ha consumption by USA, 3.7 kg/ha consumption in Germany & France and 2.8 kg/ha consumption in UK.

India is losing nearly one-fifth of our crops to insect pests, diseases and weeds every year and the value of the crops lost is estimated to be a staggering over Rs.90,000 crores (in 2009) as per the government’s own statistics. While our population at present stands at 130 crores, it is expected to reach 150 crores by 2030. Pacing our agricultural production to that extend is very key, particularly in an era of climate change and ever reducing farmland due to urbanization and housing needs, which forces conversion of agricultural land to non-agricultural usages.

Under such a situation, coming times will say, how Zero Budget Natural Farming without using technologies, is going to help or support achieving food security of the nation.

Q. What will be the immediate effect on the agrichemicals (insecticides, pesticides, fertilisers, etc.) in the market? Do you see a decline in sales in the near future?

In the near future, I do not foresee any reduction from the current level of use of agrichemicals, as farmers are unlikely to switch over to ZBNF model of farming in large-scale, as ZBNF method of farming have unpredictable agricultural produce output. Secondly, as mentioned above, already the country has one of the lowest consumption of pesticides and only 25% to 30% of cultivated area is coming under crop protection umbrella.

Q. In what ways can agrichemicals be made soil and plant friendly reducing the chemical impact in farming?

Technology is always improving. Low dose molecules are entering the market. Modern chemical crop protection products have unique modes of action, based on the latest advances in sciences, and are designed to target noxious pests and weeds with minimal or no adverse effects on human health or non-target species.

Q. What are the challenges in ZBNF process?

Countering any major incidence of pest attacks and meeting the required plant nutrients for achieving desired productivity output will be key challenges. If the method fails in this front, farmers stands to lose their investment and mainly small land holding farmers (who are in majority) can’t afford to bear the losses.

Further, the seeds sowed in natural farming without treatments tends to affect the soil. The seeds can suffer mechanical injury during processing and these damaged seeds pave way for fungal spores to seed contamination. There could be fungal attack on damaged seeds, which can make way for soil borne seed diseases.

Though there are high claims of large number of farmers adopting the method of ZBNF, the reports are there even in media that only handful of farmers practicing ZBNF in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, and Haryana. The reports in media mentions that Nagpur, Wardha, and Amravati districts (Maharashtra) only few farmers involved in this method of farming. A similar situation exists in the South where the ZBNF method is very limited to few areas of Palakkad, Thrissur, Wayanad, and Ernakulam districts of Kerala. In Punjab also, hardly 1,000 out of 1 Crore Acres of sowing area is utilized for natural farming.

Sikkim, the state which practice organic farming is heavily dependent on other states to feed its people. The organic farms are not found sustainable model due to low productivity and large requirement of organic manures. At the end organic farmers are compelled to sell the produce at premium price.

Q. Do you feel ZBNF can be a success in Indian farming improving the health of crops?

It has not scientifically proven that ZBNF method of farming improves the health of crops. Research institutions and agricultural universities are still studying on this aspect and also experimenting the method on various crops.

As we look back, pre-1960 experience is not encouraging.  The claim of new method of ZBNF has not yet proven the capacity to even maintain the agricultural productivity though the need of the hour is increasing the productivity in pace with growing population. As I understand scientific research institutions like Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) is still studying the ZBNF methods practiced on basmati and wheat, etc., evaluating the impact on productivity, economics, and soil health including soil organic carbon and soil fertility. Reports from markets of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra says farmers have reverted to conventional farming after seeing their ZBNF returns drops.

The scientific community in India is unsure about the impact of Zero Budget Natural Farming because of lack of scientific analysis and also anonymity.

Considering the above situation, I am not optimistic about success of ZBNF in Indian farming, particularly in high land farming. Looking at the scenario and the needs, it is high time the country aims at increasing the agricultural productivity by adopting proven methods, as reverses can hit the economy very hard. Feeding the ever-growing population will be greatest challenge before the nation and the government.