Another Research Body Raises Questions Over Zero Budget Natural Farming

ZBNF is a technique of farming developed by a Vidarbha based social activist, Subhash Palekar, who claims that between 98 and 98.5% of nutrients that a crop needs are ‘taken from air, water and solar energy’.

New Delhi: The country’s top body of agricultural scientists have criticised the government’s focus on promoting zero budget natural farming (ZBNF), calling it ‘unproven’ and saying that it is unlikely to bring any significant gains for farmers, the Indian Express reported.

“The government should not needlessly invest capital and human resources towards promoting ZBNF. We have given our recommendations in writing to the prime minister and it reflects the view held by the scientific community,” Panjab Singh, president of the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS), told the English daily.

ZBNF is a technique of farming developed by a Vidarbha based social activist, Subhash Palekar, who claims that between 98 and 98.5% of nutrients that a crop needs are ‘taken from air, water and solar energy’.

The rest, according to Palekar, are present in the soil and can be utilised if micro-organisms are enabled to act on them. To allow micro-organisms to do their job, farmer must not spray fertilisers and insecticides. Instead, Palekar prescribes, that farmers use cow dung, cow urine and neem as manure, fertilisers and pesticides.

Also read: Zero Budget Natural Farming: Another Case of ‘Raw Wisdom’ Over Science?

In her budget speech in July, Nirmala Sitharaman announced the government’s intentions to endorse Palekar’s methods as a response to widespread farmers’ distress and a means to doubling farmers’ incomes.

Now, the NAAS has joined an increasing list of scientific bodies and individual scientists who have advised a degree of circumspection with regards the effectiveness of ZBNF which remains unstudied. The NAAS’ reservations also stem from the lack of any data, studies or experiments on the effectiveness of ZBNF for it to be considered a feasible technological option.

In August, The Wire had reported that there exists no robust research on natural farming and how it impacts productivity, soil and plant health and farmers’ income – all of which the government has claimed will change for the better if ZBNF is followed across the country. In the absence of scientific research and technical reports, it is unclear what forms the basis of the government’s claims.

We had also reported that the government had only recently commissioned a ‘project’ to “understand the farmers’ perception about natural farming for different crops and its implication on crop yield and farmers’ income”. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the National Academy of Agricultural Research Management (NAARM) are collaborating on the project.

We spoke to a number of scientists working with these organisations and some of whom are working on the project to discover that even the study that has been commissioned is unlikely to be of any significant scientific value.

Also read: Zero Budget Natural Farming: Effective Tool or Inconsequential Nudge?

According to the scientists, the study period – six months – is not nearly enough to study the impacts of the natural farming technique. For instance, to determine whether ZBNF is a superior alternative to existing techniques of farming it is imperative to assess whether the prescribed fertiliser replacement, ‘jeevamrut’ – made of cow dung, cow urine, jaggery and pulse flour – can provide the requisite variety and amount of nutrients needed by the soil and plant.

That assessment, according to several scientists, is not possible in six months and needs a period of at least two years. “For a proper analysis to actually understand the impact, we would need many samples over a period of more than one harvest season to be able to get pre- and post-harvest level of nutrients. We need to monitor the soil and plants over a longer period of time,” a scientist who specialises in soil and plant analysis told The Wire.

The Print also recently spoke to a few agriculture scientists at the ICAR and Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) who argued that hasty implementation of ZBNF could lead to a decline in farmers’ income.

“Without multi-agroclimatic location studies, and scientific validation of long-term impact and viability of ZBNF, it should not be scaled up and promoted country-wide. The results can be devastating,” a scientist said on the condition of anonymity.

Palekar though has stood steadfastly behind the ZBNF technique. “NAAS has no expertise to validate my method of farming. They have neither spoken to me nor the farmers who are practicing it,” he told the Indian Express.