Govt. should stop promoting zero budget natural farming pending proof: scientists

Agricultural scientists write to PM urging ‘scientific validation’ of the approach

Published - September 11, 2019 12:06 am IST - NEW DELHI

There is no need for the government to promote zero budget natural farming (ZBNF) in the manner it currently is, unless there is proper scientific validation, the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences suggested in a letter written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week.

“We are worried about the impact on farmers’ income, as well as food security,” NAAS president Panjab Singh told The Hindu . “As agricultural scientists, we do feel the need to move away from 100% chemical-based farming, but there needs to be proper scientific validation first.”

Addressing a United Nations conference on desertification on Monday, the Prime Minister told the global community that India was focussing on ZBNF. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had also emphasised the importance of ZBNF during her budget speech in July, calling for a “back to basics” approach and urging States to replicate the model in order to achieve a doubling of farmers’ incomes. This year’s Economic Survey also devoted a section to ZBNF, highlighting ecological advantages and the benefits to soil fertility and water stress.

Faced with such a wholesale promotion of the method by the Centre, the scientific community has been increasingly uncomfortable with endorsing methods which are unproven, asserted Dr. Singh. He bemoaned the fact that neither the Agriculture Ministry, nor Niti Aayog, which has been promoting ZBNF, had asked for inputs from NAAS, the country’s premier academic body for agricultural scientists.

“NAAS hosted a meeting of 75-80 scientists last month to examine and discuss the protocols and claims of ZBNF,” he said. “There has been a lot of talk about it, so we felt we should take a scientific view,” he explained.

The ZBNF method, originally developed by Maharashtra-based agriculturist Subhash Palekar, is a form of chemical-free farming that draws on traditional Indian practices. It claims that there is no need for expensive inputs such as fertilisers, pesticides and intensive irrigation; instead, applying a fermented microbial culture — made using the dung and urine of an indigenous cow — on the soil and seeds, along with topsoil mulching and minimal watering, is sufficient.

“One hundred years ago, all farmers in the country did natural farming. But slowly, over time, we have developed technologies which can meet the country’s demand for food, and earn money for farmers as well,” said Dr. Singh. “You cannot just drop all of that for an unproven method which makes unscientific claims about one black cow’s dung being enough for 30 acres... Some trials have been started, but a one year experiment is too short to judge the long-term impact,” he contended.

Niti Aayog member and agricultural scientist Ramesh Chand, who attended the inaugural session of last month’s NAAS meeting, agreed that one year may be too short to make definitive assessments of a new method. “We have not seen sufficient testing yet. For a rigorous scientific analysis, to assess the productivity, quality, effect on soil nutrition, we need to look at two full cropping cycles,” he told The Hindu , adding that one study group from Hyderabad was due to submit its draft report to the government this week, while other studies by the Karnataka government and the ICAR were ongoing.

“The Agriculture Ministry is coming out with a plan on natural farming, but that does not mean that the government is recommending a full replacement of conventional farming methods,” said Dr. Chand. “We must find alternatives to excessive use of chemicals, as the consumer is now conscious of this. Ultimately, we will need some combination of farming methods,” he added.

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