New Delhi: Top serving and retired government officials, agriculture scientists and policymakers have warned that the zero budget natural farming (ZBNF) method, actively promoted by the Modi government, could lead to severe food shortage in the country.
The ZBNF is a low-cost farming method propounded by the 2016 Padma Shri awardee Subhash Palekar. It involves the application of a mixture of fresh indigenous cow dung and urine along with jaggery, pulses and flour on the soil to be cultivated.
But a policy paper published by the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS), a government-funded science agency, in the first week of December has warned that the ZBNF method, if adopted widely, is likely to result in a significant drop of national food grain production over the years.
“Even a drop below the half mark, with increasing pressures of climate change could lead India to severe food shortages,” states the the paper titled Zero Budget Natural Farming — A myth or reality.
The paper, which has contributions from Trilochan Mahapatra, secretary, Department of Agricultural Research and Education, Ministry of Agriculture; and Ramesh Chand, NITI Aayog member, describes ZBNF as a “myth” that is not supported by science.
It further states that the ZBNF method had been practiced in the pre-Independence period, and had led to multiple famines then.
The paper points out that one-fourth of the world’s hungry and 40 per cent of the world’s undernourished, stunted, and wasted children live in India. On the other hand, increasing income, especially of 80 per cent of small and marginal and resource-poor farmers is also a big challenge.
In such a scenario, the paper states that if all the production zones of the country adopted ZBNF, it would lead to “massive damage to the hard-earned knowledge and benefits of agricultural R&D earned over the last 70 years”.
The paper has been prepared with contributions from 62 serving and former government officials, agriculture scientists and academics from the sector.
It comes on the back of the Modi government actively promoting the ZBNF method. In her Budget speech on 5 July, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman referred to the ZBNF and said such steps can help in “doubling our farmers’ income in time for our 75th year of Independence”.
‘ZBNF will result in drastic decrease in yield’
According to the paper, field tests conducted by the government to assess the viability of ZBNF have resulted in a sharp decline in production.
Tests conducted by the ICAR-Indian Institute of Farming System Research (IIFSR), Modipuram, have shown drastic reduction in yield levels of rice-wheat cropping system that is crucial to national food security, the paper states. There was a 59 per cent production decline in wheat and 32 per cent in basmati.
The University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS), Dharwad, also experimenting on the yield returns of ZBNF in the last three years, has found a 30 per cent decline in soybean-wheat, groundnut-sorghum and maize-chickpea production. There was also a 17 per cent production decline in the cotton-groundnut intercropping system. As a result, the paper infers that the country’s food security will be seriously challenged along with the farmers’ income if ZBNF is adopted.
NAAS fellow, Dr R.S. Paroda, who has served as the director general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and as a secretary in the agriculture ministry, told ThePrint that ZBNF is not viable with the country’s increasing population.
“The current wheat production of India requires five times more land if it has to happen through ZBNF,” he said.
He also cited the exorbitant price of agriculture products charged in the name of organic and natural farming.
“We aim to impart food security to 67 per cent of Indian population, which means providing them cereal and pulses at Rs 1-3/kg. This is impossible to achieve through ZBNF yields,” Paroda added.
‘Will not fulfil nutrient demand’
The paper states that due to the intensive nature of agriculture in India, the continuous raising of crops exhausts soil nutrients that have to be replenished. These deficiencies become a yield-limiting factor, it adds.
According to the paper, in the rice-wheat system the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK) requirement cannot be fulfilled for higher productivity levels without the application of chemical fertilisers. Fertilisers, however, are prohibited in the ZBNF method.
The paper also sets out to debunk the ZBNF claims that dung and urine from one indigenous cow can support 30 acres (12 ha) of land. For one, the paper says, the cow has to be indigenous Kapila cow and not other cattle like exotic or crossbred cows, bulls or buffaloes.
The scientists and officials write that on an average, a cow yields around 5,000 kg dung in a year that supplies 12 kg Nitrogen. Keeping in mind the fertiliser requirement for a hectare, it’s difficult to support the cultivation of 12 hectares of agricultural land by ZBNF, the paper states.
It further points out that India will soon become the most populous country in the world with an anticipated population of nearly 1.7 billion by 2050. “If India is to attain and maintain a GDP growth rate of 8.0%, then we need to produce 457 million tonnes (MT) of food grains (including 50.3 Mt of pulses) by 2050,” it states.
“Similar increase in production level of other food items like edible oils (45.2 MT), vegetables (438.6 MT), fruits (183.4 MT), milk (483.6 MT), sugar (58.2 MT), meat (18.1 MT), eggs (202.5 billions) and fish (27.0 MT) is also required.”
This, the paper adds, would require four times increase in land productivity, a three-time increase in water productivity, doubling of energy use efficiency along with a six-fold increase in labour productivity.
So even if half of the small and marginal farmers, who constitute 86 per cent of the total farmers in the country, adopt ZBNF, it could have a devastating impact on national food security.
The paper concludes that the writers are of the opinion that there is no scope for an incremental value gained by the farmer or the consumer through ZBNF.
“Therefore, it is recommended that the Government of India should invest capital, efforts, time and human resources towards developing a strong research base and technologies to produce ‘more from less for more’ instead of promoting a technology like ZBNF,” the paper states.