Context: Zero-Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) – critic to all other forms of agriculture with unsubstantiated claims.

Inorganic Farming: Inorganic farming, more commonly referred to as non-organic farming, is the contrasting method of agriculture to organic farming. Non-organic farming uses pesticides, chemicals and synthetic fertilizers to grow produce for human and livestock consumption.

Organic Farming: Organic farming, agricultural system that uses ecologically based pest controls and biological fertilizers derived largely from animal and plant wastes and nitrogen-fixing cover crops. Modern organic farming was developed as a response to the environmental harm caused by the use of chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers in conventional agriculture, and it has numerous ecological benefits.

History of agricultural chemistry:

  • Chemical fertilization began to be used in agriculture after the works of Justus von Liebig and Friedrich Wöhler in organic chemistry in the 19th century.
  • In 20th century, after the criticism to ‘chemicalisation’ of agriculture, non-chemical alternatives were proposed.
  • Examples of specific alternatives proposed: Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamics, Masanobu Fukuoka’s one-straw revolution and Madagascar’s System of Rice Intensification (SRI).
  • Indian alternatives to the chemical farming are homoeo-farming, Vedic farming, Natu-eco farming, Agnihotra farming and Amrutpani farming. 
  • The most recent one is Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) popularised by Subhash Palekar.

Subhash Palekar view about other technologies used in farming: Subhash Palekar is a critic to both inorganic and organic farming. His views are as follows:

  • He calls chemical fertilizers and pesticides as “demonic substances”
  • According to him, cross-bred cows are “demonic species”.
  • Botechnology and tractors as “demonic technologies”.
  • For him, “organic farming” is “more dangerous than chemical farming”, and “worse than an atom bomb”.
  • He calls vermicomposting a “scandal” and Eiseniafoetida, the red worm used to make vermicompost, as the “destructor beast”.
  • He also calls Steiner’s biodynamic farming “bio-dynamite farming”. 

Zero-Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF):

  • ZBNF is a holistic alternative to the present paradigm of high-cost chemical inputs-based agriculture.
  • It is very effective in addressing the uncertainties of climate change.
  • ZBNF principles are in harmony with the principles of Agroecology.
  • Its uniqueness is that it is based on the latest scientific discoveries in Agriculture, and, at the same time it is rooted in Indian tradition.  The word ‘budget’ refers to credit and expenses, thus the phrase 'Zero Budget' means without using any credit, and without spending any money on purchased inputs. 'Natural farming' means farming with Nature and without chemicals. 
  • UN-FAO in April 2018 urged all countries to move towards the adoption of Agroecology to meet the twin goals of global food security and conservation of the environment.
  • Four wheels of ZBNF: Bijamrit, Jivamrit, Mulching and Waaphasa.
    • Bijamrit is the microbial coating of seeds with formulations of cow urine and cow dung.
    • Jivamrit is the enhancement of soil microbes using an inoculum of cow dung, cow urine, and jaggery.
    • Mulching is the covering of soil with crops or crop residues.
    • Waaphasa is the building up of soil humus to increase soil aeration. 
  • ZBNF includes three methods of insect and pest management: Agniastra, Brahmastra and Neemastra.

Criticism to the ZBNF claims:

  • ZBNF is not zero budget methodology of farming. There are several costs such as cows maintenance cost, paid up cost for electricity and pumps, labour etc.
  • Lack of independent studies: There are no independent studies to validate the claims that ZBNF plots have a higher yield than non-ZBNF plots. 
  • Indian soils are poor in organic matter and several other micronutrients varying as per the type of soil. ZBNF insists on one blanket solution for all the problems of Indian soils. This cannot solve region specific soil problems.
  • As per Subhash Palekar, 98.5% of the nutrients that plants need are obtained from air, water and sunlight and only 1.5% is from the soil. Thus, ZBNF takes an irrational position on the nutrient requirements of plants. 
  • Creates cultural chauvinism: The spiritual nature of agriculture promoted by ZBNF is baseless and just creates cultural chauvinism.

Issues with Indian Soil:

  • Nitrogen: About 59% of soils are low in available nitrogen.
  • Phosphorous: about 49% are low in available phosphorus.
  • Potassium: about 48% are low or medium in available potassium.
  • Micronutrient deficiency:  Indian soils are also varyingly deficient in micronutrients, such as zinc, iron, manganese, copper, molybdenum and boron. This decline the fertility of soil.
  • Salinity: In some regions, soils are saline.
  • Acidity: In some regions, soils are acidic due to nutrient deficiencies or aluminium, manganese and iron toxicities.
  • Soil pollution: In certain other regions, soils are toxic due to heavy metal pollution from industrial and municipal wastes or excessive application of fertilizers and pesticides.

Way forward:

  • There is need for scientific intervention in the agriculture to improve the health of soil and thereby sustainably improve fertility and production. ‘Soil health card’ scheme is a step in right direction in this regard.
  • There is requirement of innovative technologies to deal with the wind and water erosion of soils and at the same time checking waterlogging, flooding and crusting.
  • There is need of location-specific interventions towards balanced fertilisation and integrated nutrient management.