Zero budget natural farming - A complicated proposition

Debapriya Mukherjee
Finance Minister announced to promote “zero budget natural farming (ZBNF)”  in the first Budget speech of the 17th Lok Sabha, calling for a “back to the basics” approach in view of reducing the cost of production of farmers with a aim to double the farmer’s income. Several States, including Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, and Sikkim have been aggressively driving a shift towards this model as stated by finance minister.  But that should not be natural faming (NF) because basis of NF is to do nothing and everything related to production is to be taken care of by nature. Natural farming  is also referred to as “the Fukuoka Method”, “the natural way of farming” or “do-nothing farming”. We are relating the NF to fertility farming, Organic farming (OF), sustainable agriculture, agro-ecology, eco-agriculture or any other.
Though world grain harvests doubled to 2.5 billion tons between 1970 and 2010 with an average yield increase from 1600 to 3030 kg per ha  with the increase of global synthetic fertilizer usage from 32 to 106 Mt yr”1 (+331%) on account of  the Green Revolution and the availability of cheap synthetic fertilizers from the 1950s onward but these achievements have been accomplished at the expense of environmental damages such as biodiversity loss, pollution, desertiûcation,  greenhouse gas emission, climate change, reduction of the size of the terrestrial carbon sink and energy requirements. accelerated soil erosion and degradation, eutrophication including algal blooms and oceanic dead zones and  water pollution.  Though corporate brigade always advocates that agrochemicals remain a key to the success of agriculture accord and make the country self-sufficient in feeding our people but according to researchers, 30%–35% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture and crop irrigation accounts for 70% of the world’s freshwater withdrawals.
In this view, advanced policy has been framed in many countries to address the complexity of food supply but exposure of intensive farming to different environmental risks associated with product life cycle including, production, processing, analysis, distribution, and recycling are not properly addressed as if “NATURE” doesn’t matter. This dismal ES  stays well shrouded  on the grounds of social angles ( food security)  and thereby ES that is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”  are not considered with due accentuation by any government till date. Scientific truth behind this intensive farming has been manipulated simply to maximize the profit of agrochemical producers globally at the expense of human health and environment.
Many people have their own blinkers and ideologies that people will starve on rejecting conventional farming. Now emergent need is to critically appraise the impact of conventional agricultural practice otherwise the depleted soil, chemically fouled waters, scarcity of water, increasing demand of fertilizer with the loss of soil fertility  and worsening public health will lead to heavy financial burden. In this critical situation, central government has advocated the necessity of promoting the ZBNF but natural farming without any inputs to make “zero expenditure”  will be contentious issue.  What is being practiced in India or in other parts of the world is OF using indigenous seeds and  organic fertilizers originating from compost manures, green manure and emphasizing on techniques such as crop rotation. In OF, judicious land management particularly agricultural diversiûcation practices (multi-cropping and crop rotations) can improve aggregate stability of soil compared to conventional systems, enhance soil water retention, attract pollinators and improve water use eûciency especially under drought conditions.  These foods are good for human health, economic prosperity, the environment and for slowing climate change.  In Purulia (West Bengal), we have succeeded in preparing organic manure utilizing aquatic plants such as Water Hyacinth, Pistia and azolla with little amount of cow dung and pond sediment  to grow organic vegetables, flowers, fruits and lentils in a small scale  without any financial incentive to prove its sustainability. Most importantly, growth of plants in this soil, that was organically managed, has changed the soil quality for better.  In 2016, Indian state of Sikkim has achieved its goal of converting to 100% OF. Kerala, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Goa and Rajasthan are striving to shift to fully organic revolution.
Nowadays, the reality in OF seems to be more complex than appearances. OF has shown better environmental performance than conventional farming in many studies but conventional farming is significantly more energy efficient than OF as advocated by many scientist. The energy inefficiency of OF is attributed to the excessive use of energy for fuel and mulch film, and smaller crop yields. There are still knowledge gaps regarding the effects of OF on soil carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) fluxes, and thus on N2O and CH4 - greenhouse gas emissions from the soil. Another factor that raises the environmental cost of organic product is that more land must be used to generate the same volume of food, due to the lower use of fertilizers. This needs to devote greater acreage to agricultural production leading to deforestation that reduces the storage capacity of carbon in soils. The final effect is an increase in greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change.  However, averaged across all crops, organic yield averaged 80% of conventional yield. According to many scientists, several crops had no significant difference in yields between organic and conventional production, and organic yields surpassed conventional yields for some hay crops. The organic to conventional yield ratio varied widely among crops and management practices, and in some cases, among locations within a crop. A study published in the journal Nature concluded that organic peas have a 50% higher climate impact than conventional one, while this difference increases to almost 70% in the case of wheat. The organic pesticides employed to control pests are not necessarily less toxic than synthetic pesticides as warned by the scientists in University of Guelph(Canada) in 2010.  In addition to above, another major impediment is that agrochemical industry tries to convince the small farmers as observed in many villages that OF requires “rocket” science and cannot be effective to ensure profit. Despite many benefits in OF,  several key challenges are there to address the above issues. Now increasing public awareness about the value of OF and conducting research to explore the barriers and opportunities to OF are essential in overcoming these challenges.  Additional innovative agriculture practice is imperative to fill the gaps in the scientific understanding of the benefits of OF. Otherwise, sanctioning of huge public money in the name of OF or so called “ZBNF”  may be projected as a “proof” to establish the concern of the Government, State apparatus, regulators and the politicians, but cannot ensure practical benefit towards sustainable development addressing equilibrium among economy, society and environment.
The writer is Former Senior Scientist, Central Pollution Control Board based in Kolkata nd can be reached at 919432370163 & 916290099509 or [email protected]