Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) may have received endorsement from the NITI Aayog, the finance minister’s budget speech and Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself. But that hasn’t stopped the country’s premier academy of agricultural scientists from coming out against an “unproven technology” that, they say, brings no incremental gain to either farmers or consumers. Since the mid-1960s, India’s annual foodgrain output has risen from 80-85 million tonnes (mt) to 280 mt-plus, just as it has from about 20 mt to 176 mt for milk and by similar magnitudes in vegetables, fruits, poultry meat, eggs, sugarcane and cotton. A significant part of these increases have come from crossbreeding or improved varieties/hybrids responsive to chemical fertiliser application, and also crop protection chemicals to ensure that the resultant genetic yield gains aren’t eaten away by insects, fungi or weeds. Today’s millennials may have little connect with the Bengal Famine or the ship-to-mouth times hardly five decades ago. But they should know that without IR-8 rice, urea, chlorpyrifos or artificial insemination, the nation would simply not have been able to feed itself.
The basic idea of “zero budget” itself rests on very shaky scientific foundations. Its propounder Subhash Palekar Palekar, for instance, claims that nitrogen, the most important nutrient for plant growth, is available “free” from the air. Yes, nitrogen makes up 78 per cent of the atmosphere, but being in a non-reactive diatomic (N2) state, it has to be first “fixed” into a plant-usable form — which is what ammonia or urea are. Even maintaining indigenous cows and collecting their dung and urine — the main ingredients in Palekar’s microbial, seed treatment and insect pest management solutions — entails labour cost. Simply put, agriculture can never be zero budget. Also, crop yields cannot go up beyond a point with just cow dung that has only around 3 per cent nitrogen (as against 46 per cent in urea), 2 per cent phosphorous (46 per cent in di-ammonium phosphate) and 1 per cent potassium (60 per cent in muriate of potash).
That said, there is a strong case for promoting techniques such as conservation tillage, trash mulching, green manuring and vermi-composting, apart from reducing use of chemical fertilisers and insecticides through integrated nutrient and pest management. The time has also come for eliminating fertiliser subsidies to encourage their judicious use. The government should give farmers a fixed sum of money per acre, which they can use to buy chemical-based inputs or to engage the extra labour necessary for organic agricultural practices. Discrimination must end; let the farmer choose between non-organic, organic or even ZBNF.
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