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Report wary of large-scale switch to zero-budget natural farming

Feb 20, 2022 12:34 AM IST

A 16-member expert committee of the state-run Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), which was mandated to look into various aspects of ZBNF in 2019, submitted its report recently, the panel’s head Praveen Rao Velchala said.

A large-scale switch to zero-budget natural farming (ZBNF), a farm technique being promoted by the Narendra Modi government, could cut yields and productivity, jeopardising food security in a country where nearly 800 million people are dependent on grain subsidies, a report by a government committee has stated.

ZBNF, a technique of farming developed by Padma awardee Subhash Palekar of Maharashtra, aims to bring down input costs by making farmers rely on natural inputs, shifting away from agricultural chemicals, which has degraded soils heavily in states such as Punjab.
ZBNF, a technique of farming developed by Padma awardee Subhash Palekar of Maharashtra, aims to bring down input costs by making farmers rely on natural inputs, shifting away from agricultural chemicals, which has degraded soils heavily in states such as Punjab.

A 16-member expert committee of the state-run Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), which was mandated to look into various aspects of ZBNF in 2019, submitted its report recently, the panel’s head Praveen Rao Velchala said.

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The ZBNF should be tried out first in rain-fed or non-irrigated lands, instead of irrigated tracts, which produce the largest quantities of food both during the summer-sown kharif and winter-sown rabi seasons, Velchala said.

“A large-scale shift to ZBNF could affect yields and food security,” he said, adding that the panel has submitted an in-depth analysis after reviewing hundreds of technical papers and interviewing farmers who have adopted ZBNF in seven states.

ZBNF, a technique of farming developed by Padma awardee Subhash Palekar of Maharashtra, aims to bring down input costs by making farmers rely on natural inputs, shifting away from agricultural chemicals, which has degraded soils heavily in states such as Punjab.

ZBNF mainly relies on a fermented admixture of urine and dung of native Indian cows, which supposedly increases soil microorganisms, boosting crop health and doing away with the need for chemicals.

The Modi government has said that a shift towards ZBNF will result in healthier foods, improve environmental outcomes and substantially raise farm incomes. ZBNF is said to work out even cheaper than organic farming, according to Palekar. A large number of farms in Karnataka, Gujarat and Telangana have adopted ZBNF. Farmers adopting ZBNF have reported a drop in costs of cultivation.

The Union Budget 2022-23 has proposed to promote chemical-free natural farming throughout the country, beginning with 5km wide land corridors along the Ganga. The Budget also proposed upgrading curricula in agricultural universities to include courses on ZBNF.

In 2019, the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) wrote to Modi, expressing concern over the possible negative impacts of ZBNF on farm incomes and food security.

In August 2019, the NAAS, which has nearly 650 fellows, held a day-long brainstorming session of top scientists to scrutinise the scientific evidence around ZBNF. It was attended by Trilochan Mohapatra, director-general of the ICAR, and Ramesh Chand, member of the NITI Aayog, the government’s think tank.

Farmers who have switched to natural farming are, however, all praise for it. KV Homendra — an agriculturalist from Andhra Pradesh who is part of Rythu Sadhikara Samstha, a farm organisation — said ZBNF had improved yields in his horticultural farm in Kunoor, while cutting costs.

“I think fertiliser companies have deep stakes in our agricultural system and ZBNF is a move away from chemicals. That is why there is a move to downplay the benefits of chemical-free farming,” said Rajendra Kumar, promoter of SafeSeeds, a start-up helping farmers eschew chemicals.

India had increased food production in the 1970s through the Green Revolution, which promoted high-yielding seeds and massive subsidies for fertilisers. But overuse of chemicals has now substantially degraded soil health. Declining soil fertility potentially cuts farm incomes by two-thirds, a recent study by the think-tank Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations found.

The ICAR committee has recommended an integrated and sustainable agricultural system using manure, intercropping and crop diversification for improving soil health quality and increasing farm incomes, a second member said, requesting anonymity.

One scientist pointed to Sri Lanka’s decision to clamp a total ban on fertilisers, largely imported, to tide over a balance-of-payments crisis, which has sent food prices soaring after a cut in output.

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