Presented against the backdrop of a worsening agrarian crisis and the government’s stated goal of doubling farm income by 2022, there was much hope that the Union Budget 2019 would provide a clear road map to reverse the fortunes of the agricultural sector. However, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman failed to excite the sector. Worse, her prescription of Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) raises serious questions on the government’s understanding of the problem and commitment to the sector. This article explains why the government should reconsider its endorsement of ZBNF.
Zero Budget Natural Farming
Propagated by Pune-based Subhash Palekar, ZBNF is a farming system that seeks to completely avoid the use of synthetic inputs. Its primary difference from organic agriculture is that it is purportedly a self-reliant system, one that accepts zero external inputs for its operation.
Palekar advances his system through a narrative that is more emotional than rational. He is deeply critical of the Green Revolution and terms it a well-devised strategy to exploit poor farmers. He bemoans the multiple problems that the Green Revolution has created, mostly without basis – environmental destruction, extinction of species, human diseases, including AIDS, social inequity and an impaired judiciary. ZBNF is his panacea for all the ills the Green Revolution has caused.
Principles of ZBNF
The affirmation that only 1.5% of the nutrients required by a plant is received from the soil is central to Palekar’s model. The remaining 98.5% comes from (sic) air, water and sunlight. He further asserts that the 1.5% is present in abundant quantities in all types of soil but not in a readily available form. While there is no scientific explanation supporting these claims, he tries to buttress them by citing the example of forests, which are self-sustaining systems that receive no external inputs other than natural ones.
Anyway, let’s assume these claims are true. It then follows that the key to successful farming is to unlock the practically unending store of nutrients in the soil for the plants to draw the 1.5% share from. This can be achieved by simply increasing the number of microorganisms in the soil. For this, Palekar proposes four miracle concoctions, namely: Jeevamruta, Beejamruta, Mulching and Waaphasa.
Jeevamruta: A fermented mixture of desi cow dung, cow urine, jaggery and besan (lentil) flour in given proportions, Jeevamruta is the prime component of Palekar’s package and serves to increase the micro-organism population of the soil. Palekar had observed that many microorganisms like ants get attracted to some sweet secretions in the forest plants and then increase soil fertility. So, he hit upon using jaggery to attract insects.
As for besan, Palekar had apparently found that any highly productive plant in the forest has many dichotomous plants growing in its vicinity (the ratio of dicots to monocots is 3:1, as per his claim). So he deduced that adding the flour of a dichotomous plant like besan will attract more microorganisms.
Here are the logical arguments against Jeevamruta and its efficacy:
• Sweetness will attract many harmful insects and microorganisms too which will destroy the plants. For instance, if you grow rose plants, you may occasionally notice a powdery coating on them. It indicates that the plant will die very soon. This is a pest known as mealy bug. It secretes a sweet liquid, which attracts other insects that eat away and kill the plant. How will such pests be kept out when Jeevamruta is applied?
• Sweetness or increased sugar always reduces immunity and disease resistance. Bad microorganisms/bacteria feast on sugar and breed much faster than good organisms. Sweetness also increases susceptibility to diseases, rotting of biological matter and decay.
• Sugar is like a steroid. Adding of sugar gives a flush of sudden energy and euphoria but ultimately damages and weakens any organism.
• All leguminous plants are dichotomous. They have the ability to store nitrogen in their roots, which increases soil fertility. Any leguminous plant will make the soil on which it grows nitrogen-rich. So, if you have added, say, whole green gram, it would make sense. How besan flour helps, beats scientific knowledge and logic.
Agniastra, Brahmastra and Neemastra as miracle cures for pest control: All these are concoctions of cow dung with tobacco, custard apple seeds, neem and other natural products. Every BSc (Agriculture) student is taught that the initial pesticides were made from tobacco, neem seeds, custard apple seeds and chrysanthemum flowers. It’s traditional knowledge. Science perfected the technology and created concentrated pesticides.
Mulching and Waaphasa: Mulching is a concept highly recommended and researched by every agricultural scientist. Waaphasa is nothing but the concept of drip irrigation. Palekar has just rehashed these techniques and renamed them and is now propagating them as his own discovery.
It Isn’t Zero Budget
Whether idealists accept it or not, farmers know ZBNF will drastically reduce yields. Market forces will not pay proportionally higher prices for natural produce, because of these factors.
• Variability in quality: The primary concern of any agricultural marketing is uniformity of produce. Natural produce cannot guarantee uniformity in size, shape or taste.
• Limited market for natural or organic produce. Only a small segment of the population is ready to buy organic at a significant price premium.
• While named zero budget, it’s not really so.
There are many invisible costs involved such as:
a. Mulching will require significant labour costs
b. Making jeevamruta involves huge labour
c. Cost of grading produce: When variability is more, grading requires more labour and effort, which in turn leads to higher costs.
d. Cost of dung: Admittedly, Palekar’s system envisages production of cow dung on the farm itself. What this means is, cow dung has an opportunity cost.
Newspaper reports of indifferent results in Maharashtra and Karnataka where major State government-sponsored ZBNF projects are running, should be viewed seriously.
ZBNF is built on the magical properties of desi cow, its dung and urine. So the support is self-explanatory. Palekar being awarded Padma Shri in 2016 should be seen in this context.
ZBNF will destroy food security in India. Due to very low yields, India will become a food-scarce country and will have to depend on imports. Thus, promoting this will serve the commercial interests of certain developed countries.
Indian agriculture is beset with a host of structural issues such as decreasing size of operational holdings, water shortage and low productivity. While the much-criticised Green Revolution has helped us attain self-sufficiency in food production, the crisis in the farm sector is deepening. Low productivity is one of the big problems.
We rank a lowly 119 in agricultural productivity, globally. Rather than promoting fanciful ideas like ZBNF, the government should initiate concerted policy action and efforts to make our farming globally competitive. At the very least, the system should be piloted in multiple farm conditions over a reasonable period of time and the results analysed, before considering scaling up.
(Pasanth KC is a management consultant based in Kochi, Narsi Reddy Gayam is an M Engg graduate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and runs PROMAC, a GRE coaching institute, and applywiz.com, an education website)