Zero-budget farming

Agro-ecological farming needs a different set of policy framework and new pricing

Devinder Sharma
Food and agriculture specialist

FINANCE Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s mention of ‘zero budget’ in farming when she announced the focus areas in agriculture while presenting her first Budget has come at a time when a major report — Our Future in the Land — by RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission (FFCC) set up in the UK has called for ‘unleashing a fourth agricultural revolution driven by public values’. 

It’s time for a historic drive to put health at the heart of our food system, the Commission observes, and adds: “All effort, policy, legislation, money and resources must be directed towards implementing and accelerating a transition plan for climate, nature, public health and wellbeing.” Reading the report, I realise it is also time for a historic transformation in India, to move away from intensive farming, which has led to soil degradation, water depletion, increasing desertification, environmental contamination and soaring diet-related illnesses. Sitharaman has flagged a crucial issue which should assume a central role in the growth pathway that the new India is trying to enact. If it fails, we as a society, too, will fail to bring in a new agricultural revolution in harmony with nature and human health. 

‘Zero budget’ is a system of agro-ecological farming that relies on locally available inputs, including urine and dung from local cow breeds, with emphasis on mulching and multiple cropping, thereby reducing the cost of production. Travelling through Andhra Pradesh, where Subhash Palekar’s Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) is being practised, I see healthy soil, healthy crop and healthy people. There has been no farm suicide reported so far from areas where agro-ecological farming practices are being followed. The productivity of crops in the areas that have already been converted to ZBNF has not gone down, it remains more or less the same and the yields of many crops have increased. 

However, despite the claims, ZBNF is a collection of small farmer innovations that have evolved with time. It is one of the effective ecological farming systems that have been developed. Agro-ecological farming is a time-tested approach based on the location-specific technological innovations that small farmers have developed and perfected over the years. The late G Nammalvar from Tamil Nadu, Narayana Reddy (Karnataka) and Bhaskar Save (Gujarat) have earned international recognition for their pioneering work. At the same time, there are scores of organic practitioners in the country who have shown the non-chemical way in farming. Subhash Sharma (Yavatmal), Sarvadaman Patel (Anand), Manohar Bhau Parchare (Nagpur), Suresh Desai (Belgaum), late Surender Dalal (Jind) and Amarjit Singh Sharma (Punjab), to name a few. It is time to learn from all of them. Pushing in a monoculture in agro-ecology will be regressive.  

Earlier, Andhra Pradesh had experimented with non-pesticide management (NPM) which led to the formation of Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture (CMSA). It was a very successful agro-ecological model that extended to 36 lakh acres. As a result, pesticide consumption in AP (before its bifurcation) had come down by 60 per cent. Surender Dalal’s innovative Keet Pathshala (Insect Classroom) had also reduced pesticide consumption in Haryana’s Jind district. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has vetted hundreds of such technological innovations in a series of printed volumes that continue to gather dust. Agricultural universities do have short-term as well as long-term studies on the efficacy and viability of agro-ecological farming systems, largely unnoticed, and the immediate need is to mainstream it.  

Former AP Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu remains a pioneer in seeing the potential of agro-ecological farming. Beginning with CMSA, he was later drawn to the idea of zero budget, and had adopted ZBNF as a flagship programme, supported initially by a Rs 100-crore grant from the Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiative. Naidu had promised to bring the farming community, roughly 60 lakh farmers, under its fold by 2024. A laudable objective indeed, considering that shifting farming from chemical-intensive systems to climate-resilient agro-ecological methods is the need of the times. Himachal Pradesh is already on the path to agro-ecology. But as any programme grows in size, it needs additional finances. Except for the name, there is no zero budget in farming. The farmers have to incur cost on raising cows, investing in farm labour required to undertake farming operations and so on. But with no chemical fertilisers and pesticides being applied, the cost of production is far less. This will hurt the commercial interest of the agri-business industry, but the fate of the present and future generations is more important than the profit margin for people investing in the stock market. 

But to say that agro-ecological farming systems don’t need any price incentive is nothing but romanticism. As per the FFCC, the era of cheap food has already led to a devastation of environment and human health and exacerbated climate change. There is a cost for protecting the eco-system services, which has been denied to farmers all these years. 

When high-yielding varieties of wheat were introduced, it was accompanied by a package of policy initiatives. Agro-ecological farming systems, too, need a different set of policy framework, new pricing and marketing structures, and appropriate investments. Farmers would do the rest. The government should be willing to accord priority to the speedy transformation to agro-ecological farming. The FAO recently acknowledged: “Agro-ecology can support food production and food security and nutrition while restoring the ecosystem services and biodiversity that are essential for sustainable agriculture.” This is exactly what India needs.

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