Zero Budget Natural Farming has been on the government's agenda, which got another push from Prime Minister Narendra Modi on December 14, 2021. While addressing an event marking the 98th anniversary celebration of Sadguru Sadafaldeo Vihangam Yog Sansthan in Varanasi, Modi said Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) should become a mass movement and people should be made aware of its benefits.

The PM is also expected to promote ZBNF while addressing around 5,000 farmers in a valedictory session via video conferencing at the National Summit of Agro and Food Processing in Gujarat's Anand on December 16, 2021.

"Farmers from all over the country will join in this. I would like that all of you [Varanasi gathering] also get maximum information about natural farming on 16th December and later tell the farmers from door to door. This is a mission that should become a mass movement, and you all can play an important role in this," said Modi in Varanasi.

Earlier, ZBNF gained prominence when Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had highlighted the approach as a source of doubling farmers' income by 2022 during the first Budget speech of the 17th Lok Sabha in July 2019. "We need to replicate this innovative model. In a few states, farmers are already being trained in this practice," she said.

Since then, the NITI Aayog too has been in the forefront in suggesting states to adopt natural farming practices. "It is roughly estimated that around 2.5 million farmers in India are already practicing regenerative agriculture," read NITI Aayog's website. In fact, natural farming is being promoted under Bharatiya Prakritik Krishi Paddhati Programme (BPKP), which has been adopted in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala.

What is Zero Budget Natural Farming?

Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) is a farming practice that promotes chemical-free agricultural practices. It was originally introduced by agriculturist Subhash Palekar in the mid-1990s as an alternative to the Green Revolution methods such as adoption of High Yield Variety (HYV) seeds and use of inorganic fertilisers and pesticides.

While current farming practices are driven by using chemicals, ZBNF promotes low-cost inputs such as use of cow dung, aged cow urine, jaggery, pulse flour and other plant-based extracts.

Palekar has argued that the cost of external inputs such as pesticides and fertilisers were the leading cause of indebtedness and suicides among farmers in the country. By implementing traditional methods, he said that production costs and interest rates for credit could be significantly reduced. Similarly, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), a zero budget promises to end reliance on loans which in turn could help in ending the debt cycle for farmers.

According to Palekar's website, natural farming is based on four pillars: 1) Jeevamrit (nectar of life), 2) Beejamrit (seed treatment), 3) Acchadana (mulching) and Waaphasa (soir aeration), 4) Jiwamrita, a fermented microbial culture containing ingredients such water, cow dung, cow urine, jaggery or sugarcane juice, ripen fruit pulp, flour of any pulses (Beans, Black gram, Cowpea, Bengal gram, Red gram, Pigeon pea) and a handful of soil from bund of a farm or forest. About 200 litres of this mixture should be sprayed twice a month per acre. Further, ZBNF also promotes soil aeration and mulching (spreading a layer of material to the surface of the soil for moisture retention).

Efforts to Promote Practice

The Indian government, while promoting organic farming for the welfare of farmers, rolled out the Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (PKVY) in 2015-16 wherein state governments can avail funds for agricultural development projects and can adopt any model of organic farming including ZBNF depending on the farmers' choice.

Further, the government renamed PKVY to Bhartiya Prakritik Krishi Padhati (BPKP), as a sub scheme of PKVY in 2020-21 for the promotion of traditional indigenous practices for farmers including small and marginal farmers. The scheme mainly emphasises the exclusion of all synthetic chemical inputs and promotes on-farm biomass recycling, said Union Minister of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare Narendra Singh Tomar in a response in Lok Sabha on August 10, 2021.

An area of 4.09 lakh hectare and an amount of Rs 4980.99 lakh has been released by the central government to eight states, namely Andhra Pradesh. Chhattisgarh, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Of these, Chhattisgarh with Rs 1,352.53 lakh has received the most funds, followed by Kerala (Rs 1336.60 lakh), Madhya Pradesh (Rs 787.64 lakh) and Andhra Pradesh (Rs 750 lakh).

In June 2018, Andhra Pradesh announced a plan to become India's first state to practice 100% natural farming by 2024 while aiming to phase out chemical farming over 80 lakh hectares of land. The state has been promoting ZBNF through Rythu Sadhikara Samstha (RySS), a non-for-profit company since 2014. As per latest available data from the 2019 Lok Sabha response, the programme has reached out to 5.23 lakh farmers across 13 districts, covering an area of 5.01 lakh acres.

Research Still in Progress

The Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) initiated an experiment on 'Evaluation of zero budget farming practices in basmati rice-wheat system' at Modipuram (Uttar Pradesh), Ludhiana (Punjab), Pantnagar (Uttarakhand) and Kurukshetra (Haryana) from Rabi 2017 to study the impact of ZBNF on productivity, economics and soil health including soil organic carbon and soil fertility.

The study is still in progress. However, National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS), a think-tank of agriculture scientists in India, said, in a policy brief, that ZBNF is an "unproven technology" because of insufficient data.

In 2019, National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) had expressed concern over the possible effects of ZBNF on income of farmers and food security. "We had recommended that unless there is scientific evidence about its efficacy and benefits, there is no need for the government to rush for it," Panjab Singh, former president of NAAS, had told Mint.