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Op-ed Organic Farming

Zero Budget Natural Farming-An obscure unscientific farming option

It is only recently I read that the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, the premier body of agricultural scientists in the country, requested the Government of India not to waste its efforts and resources for the obscure Zero budget natural farming (ZBNF). The Academy on its part had deliberated this concept (and practice) in its meeting and had invited its proponent, Mr Subhash Palekar to talk about it in its meeting. Mr. Palekar did not attend the meeting for the reasons best known to him. Last time, I heard about this gentleman attending a meeting was in a gathering organized by Isha Foundation. With the award of Padma Shri, Palekar now carries an aura for many in this country, but certainly not for many more who would critically like to know what he is proposing is scientifically correct and logically understandable. I have also read an article in Marathi newspaper challenging Mr Palekar to validate his method of Zero Budget Natural Farming for the claims it make. Other than these, I have not known about this man or his concept of natural farming.

Natural farming is the recent addition to our knowledge consequent of organic farming that has gained some ground amongst the well-to-do farmers and well-to-eat consumers in past few decades. Organic farming does not believe in using chemicals like fertilisers and pesticides for crop production and protection. It does not advocate use of chemicals during post-harvest. It is not against use of high yielding varieties, nor against use of mechanisation in cultivation or storage until the produce reaches the consumers. Organic farming would like supply of essential soil nutrients through natural resources like manures, and other farm waste. Yet, organic farming allows use of fermentation products of microbes like use of bacteria or fungi for pest control. A step further in this direction is use of insecticides like spinosad, emamectin benzoate, pyrethrum which may have organic origin, but are similar to any other acute poison in their action and leave their residues for natural processes to weather like any other chemicals. Quite interestingly, while organic produce has to have organic sources for its production, inorganic sources like plastics of various kinds is acceptable to pack them and sell to the (organic food) consumers who finds everything wrong with the modern farming practices. 

Zero budget natural farming failure
Author (in hat) standing in Cotton field, Bhavnagar (Gujarat)

Natural farming as the term denotes is a retrograde step, going back to ages when agriculture was in its infancy and what was produced on the farm with hands or elementary tools considered as natural as possible. I am not sure what Zero budget Natural Farming would like itself to be in time concept. Mr Palekar advocates some concoctions based up on cow urine, dung, curd for use on the farms. He call them “beejamrit” (seed treatment with uring, dung and soil), jiwammrit (again mix of urine, dung, jaggary, dal flour and soil) to rejuvenate soil with 500 crore microbes, waaphasa (soil aeration) by allowing crop residues to ferment with irrigation. He insists on using local resources. What kinds of standards he has for these concoctions is any body’s guess? How will they be effective and farmers not deceived in the name of natural products? All these he claims are without any costs, for everything carries costs. Even nominal costs are costs and for poor farmers, everything matters. Again the proponents do not shy away from making exaggerated claims of crop productivity. For instance, he claims to get yields of about 40 tons of basmati rice per hectare with this technique, unbelievable as it appears to anybody in agriculture (in an interview with Sindhu Vijayakumar on the 4th Jan 2018 published in Timers of India). It is only recently in 2018 that rice productivity in India has crossed 2.5 ton per ha with all technological inputs.

He insists on using local resources. What kinds of standards he has for these concoctions is any body’s guess? How will they be effective and farmers not deceived in the name of natural products? All these he claims are without any costs, for everything carries costs. Even nominal costs are costs and for poor farmers, everything matters.

Natural farming also claims that 98% of nutritional needs of crops are met from the nature only. Probably true if we leave the plants to produce whatever they can. But for realising maximal crop yields, this is certainly not true. Not all nutritional needs are available in all soils or air or water in the forms for plants to assimilate, and hence, supplementing these has become a necessity for the farming in recent times. 

Natural farming as the name denotes is a retrograde step to organic farming and takes us back to ancient times. Believe me, not everything in ancient times is right and acceptable in contemporary times.

Not content with its poor acceptance amongst the farmers, proponents of ZBNF are deflecting attention from its nitty gritty-components and their use to accuse others, especially agricultural scientists and conscious farmers of undermining agroecology. The basic tenets of scientific farming are based upon agroecology, ecological basis of farming which include right conditions of crop husbandary and also management of biotic and abiotic constraints. Without these principles, no farming can ever be performed. Yet, Sujata Byravan in her article on 25th Sept 2019 in the Hindu covered up the story of ZBNF under the title, “The attack on agroecology“, an offensive broadbased to confuse people, make them believe in the sinister designs of the Academy or/and scientific farming, and continue with this pseudo-science of natural farming. 

Sujata also feels that this is a fight between corporate lobbies with vested interests and the proponents of ZBNF, disguised under the broad umbrella of agroecology. This is stooping low as it is common knowledge that funding of corporates to the individual scientists for the projects in agriculture is not comparable to what the Government spends on agricultural research and development. And no scientist or organization will risk his job or reputation to please the corporates with ad-hoc projects or questionable funding.

If proponents of ZBNF are so sure, they should not miss a single opportunity in any fora of their liking or disliking to defend their concepts. Subhash Palekar did gross injustice by not accepting an invite of the Academy and presenting his concepts to the well-respected Academy. Let us hope that Andhra Pradesh which has committed itself to ZBNF as reported utilises the budget more sensibly, and other do not fall in the trap of misguided Andha farm approach.

Author, Govind Gujar, PhD., Ex-Head, Entomology, IARI, New Delhi (2006-2015); Ex-DBT Visiting Res Professor at IASST, Guwahati (2015-16); Marie Curie Post-Doc Fellow at Univ College Swansea UK 1995 and at Johaanes Gutenberg Univ Mainz, Germany; expertise in insect resistance management and transgenic crop sustainability; consultancy in crop protection; blogs at govindgujar.blogspot.in lives in New Delhi. You may email at gtgujar@yahoo.com

All opinions expressed are of Author’s.