In her Budget speech, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the country would go back to the basics on one count — agriculture — with zero-budget farming. She called it an innovative method that must be scaled up, and appreciated states like Andhra Pradesh which were training their farmers to take up zero-budget farming.
But, why go back to the basics? Has the Green Revolution failed us?
Production of food grains is continuously increasing. The net annual availability of foodgrains per person has increased from 145 kg in 1951 to nearly 185 kg in 2017, although the population has increased 3.56 times during this period. It is the cultivation of high-yielding varieties, which are responsive to chemical fertilisers, that has done the trick.
But, at the same time, farmers are in debt. For that, agricultural markets and gaps in insurance and irrigation coverage need to be fixed, and small uneconomic holdings consolidated.
Also, depletion of groundwater has affected the agriculture sector. Groundwater is overexploited in 1,592 blocks spread over 256 districts, the Finance Minister had said, blaming faulty policies for the situation.
Free electricity to farmers in Punjab encourages them to grow rice. But it is not ecologically suitable unless they adopt sustainable techniques like direct-seeding. Overuse of urea, which is subsidised, is another faulty practice in states where wheat and rice are procured at minimum support prices.
“The success of the Green Revolution has allowed us to criticise it as well,” says agricultural economist and NITI Aayog member Ramesh Chand. “I believe that we will not be able to afford chemical-free agriculture. However, using less chemicals may work out.”
In April, NITI Aayog vice chairman Rajiv Kumar wrote two articles in the Business Standard praising the Zero-Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) as a model of sustainable agriculture that could reverse environmental degradation and relieve farmers’ distress. He wanted it to be quickly scaled up without awaiting certification from “respected foreign institutions”.
Andhra Pradesh officially adopted ZBNF in 2015. Till last year, five lakh farmers in the state have practised it, says Vijay Kumar Thallam, co-vice chairman of Rythu Sadhikara Samstha (RySS), which is driving the movement. The target this year is to double the number of farmers practising ZBNF.
Thallam, a retired IAS officer, says he was convinced that community-based soil health management was the way to go while working with women’s self-help groups since 2004. When asked whether the official adoption was based on any scientific evaluation, he said the benefits were visible.
He listed the benefits as increased crop production, higher yield, lower cost of cultivation, improved soil health, increased bio-diversity, better resilience to climate change, lower water consumption and better human health. But a comprehensive evaluation will be conducted, he said.
ZBNF is the brainchild of Subhash Palekar, a Padma Shri awardee from Bellura village in Maharashtra’s Amravati district. According to him, when cow dung, cow urine, gram flour, jaggery and earth from forests or the bunds of fields are fermented, the count of beneficial microbes increases by several folds. This fermented mixture, when added to the soil, increases its microbial activities and provides essential nutrients and air to plants.
This form of farming does not require any external input. Being chemical-free, it makes the crop resilient to pests and diseases, which can be warded off with fermented applications of the leaves of neem, custard apple, datura and other trees that have insecticidal properties.
The essential ingredients of the mixture are cow dung and cow urine. However, only the dung of native cows, especially that of the black-coloured Kapila, are effective.
Palekar terms Jersey and Holstein cows as dangerous. He calls the Green Revolution a system of exploitative dependency devised by manufacturers of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. In contrast, he says his system is self-contained. A desi cow produces about 11 kg dung every day that can fertilise 30 acres, he says.
Government supporting ZBNF has caused dismay among agricultural scientists, but most are unwilling to voice their criticism.
Peter Carberry, the Director-General of ICRISAT, the Hyderabad-based international agricultural research institute, however has openly criticised Palekar’s system, saying the quantity of dung which he prescribes is “clearly inadequate” for plants.
Delivering the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) foundation day lecture on 5 June, he said the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) defined ‘zero-budget’ as the practice of agriculture “without using any credit and without spending any money on purchased inputs.”
If Palekar’s method complied with the FAO definition, the yield would be so low as to make agriculture unprofitable. Any recommendation should be based on evidence, he said, and the evidence should be obtained before the recommendation is made.
Carberry was speaking on how Indian agriculture could help Africa. That he chose to speak tangentially about ZBNF indicates his discomfort with Palekar dissing the Green Revolution, and agricultural universities for supporting it.
When gram flour, jaggery and even dung have to be procured and wages have to be paid in cash, how can Palekar’s method be called zero budget, one may wonder. To this, Palekar says that instead of single crop cultivation, a shorter-duration crop should be planted with the main crop. The income from the secondary crop will cover the expenses of the main crop, making it ‘zero-budget’.
Institutes of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), like the coconut research centre in Kasaragod, Kerala, and the Borlaug Institute for South Asia, also recommend inter-cropping.
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This correspondent visited Palekar’s village, Bellura, in June and found that none of the farmers there were practising ZBNF. Even the caretaker of his farm did not know the ingredients for Palekar’s potions. Famers in Bellura use chemical fertilisers along with farmyard manure. The advocates of Green Revolution also insist on the application of farm yard manure to raise the organic carbon content of soil, and improve soil texture and increase microbial activity. It is just that most farmers do not abide by the recommendations.
Another advocate of ZBNF is Acharya Devvrat, the patron of Gurukul Kurukshetra and Governor of Himachal Pradesh. The Gurukul switched to ZBNF three years ago, after practising organic farming for 15 long years.
But a team of scientists from the Indian Institute of Farming Systems Research (IIFSR), Modipuram, said soil samples taken from the 180-acre farm showed low organic carbon content. They said the yields from ZBNF were lower than from organic farming. While six cows should have been enough to fertilise the farm, the staff had no explanation for what they were doing with the ‘excess’ dung, though they claimed they were not disposing it off outside.
ICAR is evaluating ZBNF at Pantnagar University, Punjab Agricultural University, IIFSR and Gurukul Kurukshetra since 2017 winter. In April, NITI Aayog set up a committee for the empirical validation of ZBNF. In May, at the urging of Devvrat, the committee was reconstituted, as the earlier committee did not have ZBNF sympathisers.
Meanwhile, activists of agri-ecology systems like permaculture, Jaivik Krishi, biodynamics and organic farming have protested Andhra Pradesh’s patronage of ZBNF. They have written to Thallam, urging him among other things, to disclose the funding details. Thallam says Rs 334 cr has been spent on promoting and propagating ZBNF. He has posted their letter on the RySS website along with his response.
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