Why ZBNF is not good for India

By Bhargavi Rao on Oct. 21, 2019 in Perspectives

The second in a two-part series on Zero Budget Natural Farming, this article argues that it is time to allow farmers to make the choice of what to cultivate and how, rather than promoting a one-size-fits-all approach.

Agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for about half of India’s population. Based on the nature of soil, climatic region, geography and irrigation facilities available, farmers employ different techniques of farming: subsistence, shifting, plantation, intensive, dry, wet cultivation and terracing.

An amazingly diverse range of food and other agricultural produce is cultivated employing a wide range of farming practices—permaculture, organic farming, natural farming, biodynamic farming, no-till agriculture, integrated pest management, crop rotation, plantation agriculture and, of late, Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF). All these are part of what is broadly described as agroecological farming.

To implement ZBNF, farmers will have to first invest in rearing and protecting native cows, which are known to need large tracts of natural grazing land | Picture courtesy: Arjun Swaminathan

This system relies on traditional knowledge which is deeply rooted and entwined with the land, its bioresources (especially seeds), and climatic conditions; and it is reflective of socio-cultural needs. It is this highly evolved agroecological system of farming that was extensively engineered out by the introduction of highly centralised, and eventually corporatised, interventions of the Green Revolution in the 1960s and the GMO Revolution in the 1990s.

One followed the other in pitching their cause as massively improving India’s food security and agricultural economy. Critical investigation into these interventions now reveal that while volume of food and agrarian production improved, especially with the introduction of hybrids, it has come at a very heavy cost—massive extraction of groundwater, loss of agro-biodiversity and associated traditional knowledge, soil salinisation, and erosion.

Most distressingly, it has resulted in the epidemic of farm suicides (more than 3 lakh farmers have killed themselves in the past two decades alone) as farm productivity, economic viability and ecological sustainability of these ‘modern’ farming methods began to collapse. In response to this nation-wide crisis, Subhash Palekar claims Zero Budget Natural Farming is the solution.

Recently, the central government released a report on policies and an action plan for secure and sustainable agriculture, in which the controversial, heavily financialised and corporatised use of genome editing, using the CRISPR/CAS 9 technology, is being promoted, along with the highly centralised and pro-agri-business corporation Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India.

Clearly, it appears that there is no robust strategy to rescue farmers from their crisis, barring the promotion of ZBNF. This points to the poverty of imagination in the state and central governments in relation to solving the current farmer crisis.

What is ZBNF?

Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) is a farming practice that promotes chemical-free farming, drawing on age-old traditional agroecological practices. Subhash Palekar conceptualised it as an alternative to the Green Revolution, and the methods involve preparation of beejamrit—a concoction made out of a pulp of neem leaves, tobacco, and green chillies, a sort of bio-pesticide to treat seeds. They also involve applying of jeevamrit—a mixture of fresh native cow dung, aged native cow urine, jaggery, pulse flour, water, and soil on farmland.

“Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) is a farming practice that promotes chemical-free farming, drawing on age-old traditional agroecological practices.”

According to this method one native breed cow is needed for 30 acres of land. The main components of ZBNF involve the following: Mulching (applying a layer of organic material to the soil surface) which prevents water evaporation and contributes to soil humus formation. They also involve waaphasa or soil aeration through a favourable micro-climate in the soil with the help of the microbial culture.

Back door entry for genetically modified crops

ZBNF is said to be agnostic to seed type and it has been recently claimed by Palekar that it can turn genetically modified seeds into native varieties. This has quite understandably drawn widespread criticism and condemnation, particularly from those who have practiced organic farming and permaculture.

There is a growing worry now that Palekar’s claims may have opened a back door for the entry of genetically modified food crops. And given his popularity with farmers, many of them may believe his claims of turning GMOs into native varieties with ZBNF techniques.

Lack of access to native cows and grazing lands

Given that most Indian farmers are small and marginal farmers, not all of them have a native cow. Over the last five decades, native breeds—which are well adapted to the local climate and are disease resistant—have been systematically replaced with cross breeding from exotic, foreign stock. These highly productive breeds were promoted to increase milk and meat yield, and little effort went towards protecting the reservoir of the Indian cattle genetic material.

Farmers will now have to first invest in native cows which are known to need large tracts of natural grazing land. Diversion of grazing lands in rural areas to a variety of other purposes has already made animal husbandry a challenging livelihood; and, maintaining a native cow without access to natural pastures will be very tricky if not impossible.

External bio-inputs and labour are required

Preparation of the concoctions using cow urine and cow dung require a lentil powder and jaggery, which have to be purchased by most farmers. An additional cost to the farmer is the labour-intensive application of beejamrit and jeevamrit. In cases where farmers own smaller, fragmented lands, it adds to the difficulty.

“ZBNF certainly is not zero budget, as the farmer has to invest in a cow, preparation of bio inputs, and labour too.”

In reality, ZBNF certainly is not zero budget, as the farmer has to invest in a cow, bio inputs, and labour. Naturally, the cost of such produce will be higher and will only make it more challenging to find a suitable market. Although it is pesticide free, it will lack a pesticide-free label and hence cannot be sold as organic produce.

Linkages to loans and investments likely to increase farmer risk

The promise of investments from international banks for ZBNF and the enticement of Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) look more attractive on paper than they are in reality. While loans hold farmers’ land as collateral with no risk preparedness, FPOs come with their own challenges with respect to access, participation, and sharing of benefits. No different from other structures in the country today, gender, caste, class, and religion too play a major role in the everyday working of FPOs. 

The liability and pressure to achieve, collaborate, and endure the risks without any state support for the farmer is another gamble for Indian agriculture and sustenance of farming households when linked with loans, investments, outcomes, and impact.

Opaque decision making is against the principles of environmental justice

The lack of consultations with farmers across the country in accordance with the principles of environmental justice, such as the principle of prior and informed consent, principle of intergenerational equity, and the precautionary principle on the implementation of ZBNF is deplorable.

Farmer movements have been completely ignored and indigenous knowledge in farming landscapes and practices across the diverse agroecological climatic zones of the country have been ignored. A one-size-fits-all approach, like the one being promoted, is likely to become a recipe for disaster.

The promotion of ZBNF as an outcome of highly centralised decision making, and the comprehensive absence of formal engagement with panchayats and state legislature, as is the case in Andhra Pradesh, has come in for criticism.

“At a time when the impacts of climate change are clear across the sub-continent, it needs to be acknowledged that India’s farming and food security are deeply endangered.”

Besides, questions have arisen as to why the financial contracts backing the programme are not in the public domain. There has also been silence from key participants in the Andhra Pradesh programme and a lack of open discussions and sharing of learnings from the implementation of ZBNF.

At a time when the impacts of climate change are clear across the subcontinent, with storms, floods, and drought disrupting farming and life, and with increasing frequency, it needs to be acknowledged that India’s farming and food security are deeply endangered.

It is high time agroecological practices that are farmer-centric and inclusive, whilst also building food security, are embraced. It is time to allow farmers to make the choice of what to cultivate and how, a choice that has been denied to them for decades. And the prevailing state support for centralised decision making guided by international finance and agribusinesses, should be phased out in favour of ecologically and socio-economically viable agroecology, of which ZBNF is but one technique.

First published by IDR Online in Oct. 2019

Story Tags: Biodiversity Conservation, GM, Food Sovereignty, agricultural biodiversity, agro-biodiversity, farming practices, food security, nutrition, rural economy, organic farming, natural farming, women, women empowerment, secure livelihoods


  • Rajendra Singh Rawat 2 weeks, 1 day ago
    जिस तरह से सुभाष पालेकर जी ने पूरे देश में घूम घूम कर किसानों को बीज कंपनियों कीटनाशक कंपनियों और बैंकों के कर्जे से मुक्ति दिलाने में एक नई दिशा दिखाई है वह अपने आप में एक बड़ी उपलब्धि है

    मैं एक कृषि स्नातक हूं लेकिन मैंने कभी भी किसानों को खेती से संबंधित ज्ञान नहीं बांटा क्योंकि कृषि कॉलेज मैं सीखा हुआ ज्ञान मुझे किसानों के लिए ज्यादा उपयुक्त नहीं लगता था लेकिन 2 साल पहले जब मैंने खाटू श्याम जी राजस्थान मैं पालेकर जी का शिविर किया तब से मैं लगातार किसानों के संपर्क में रहता हूं और उनसे खेती के विषय में अपनी जानकारियां साझा करता रहता हूं क्योंकि मुझे अपने आप पर भरोसा है कि जो मैं बता रहा हूं वह उनके जरूर काम आएगा और इसके अच्छे परिणाम मैंने देखे है प्राकृतिक खेती ही किसानों को शोषण से मुक्ति दिला सकती है

    लोग जब वातानुकूलित कमरे में बैठकर खेती किसानी के बारे में कोई लेख लिखते हैं तो वे किसानों का नुकसान ही करते हैं अगर आपको पता नहीं है तो मैं बता देता हूं कि पूरे भारत में गोचर भूमि पर प्रभावशाली लोगों ने कब्जा कर रखा है अगर आपको किसानों का कुछ भला करना है तो गोचर भूमि को मुक्त कराने के लिए अपनी आवाज उठाइए
  • Suneet Salvi 3 weeks, 1 day ago
    Obviously the writer is not a farmer and has no idea of rural life and the article is seems to have been written with a malicious or vested intent. In his interview he said GMO crop can also be grown by this method which farmers are already using in cotton, this was directed at the BT cotton farmers and not to give back door entry to GMO. Subhash Palekar is a champion for Indegenous one polinated seeds. Which means it's bad business for Seed Corporations, Fertiliser and pesticide companies.
    There are plenty of desi non milching cows available for free or next to nothing. These cows can be fed on virtually any thing that grows on the farm and DO NOT REQUIRE LARGE TRACTS OF FEEDING LAND. The writer has also made a mess of beejamrit showing total lack of research. Even material for Jeevamrut can be grown in the farm so there is no need to buy anything from out side. While ZBNF is not zero cost it is still the cheapest way to do farming any where in the world.
    All our problems started because we destroyed our soil, ZBNF is all about bringing back the soil to life and increasing the biodiversity and will also help solve our water crisis. Any agro ecology method that does this is most welcome. It one one the best and most suitable farming/ food growing methods anywhere and in most all climatic conditions.
    No international funding is required, so if any funding is sought then it's not by the farmers demand. The farmers are not forced to follow ZBNF but yet the numbers keep increasing by hundreds of thousands every year. Farmers from Himachal in the North to the southern most tip in the south India have found it sustainable and less risky then conventional farming.
    While the author claims no farmers were consulted in this policy decision I wonder how many ZBNF farmers were interviewed, how many ZBNF farms he visited or attended any shibir before writing this article.
  • Dr.Ambati Ravinder Raju 3 weeks, 1 day ago
    Biological jivamrut bijamrit can meet partial nutrition of crops.Yield decline to more than 50/- if no fertikizers are added. They are complimentary. Cant substitute palekar we have invited him to prove on icar CICR nagpur farm. I debated publicly in new english high school, nagpur. Adk him to prove.
  • Ram Mohan 3 weeks, 6 days ago
    The entire input cost for the total crop period of rice is less than one DAP bag.The writer conveniently forgotten the soil revival value and projects cow as ' cost and investment'.?
  • Manikanta 1 month, 1 week ago
    You are talking about input costs.

    Cow- is it not one time investment and much lower compared to a tractor?
    Bio inputs- very less cost compared to pesticides, urea, dap, fertilizer etc
    Labour - very less compared to chemical farming

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