By Vaishnavi Rathore 

Zero Budget Natural Farming is a fairly self-explanatory term. An alternative to conventional farming, ZBNF claims to have almost negligible investment in farming by adopting chemical-free agriculture, which are drawn from traditional methods of farming. Put together in mid-1990s by Mr Subhash Palekar, a farmer from Maharasthra, the efforts have spread aggressively to Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, and other states of Himachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Kerala.

Some farmers seem to have benefitted from the approach. A study in Andhra Pradesh compared the cost of biological and chemical inputs to find that the cost of ZBNF inputs per acre was Rs 1706 while that of non-ZBNF inputs turned out to be Rs 5361 for paddy crop; ZBNF methods were helping farmers save Rs 3655/ acre.  

However, when the term regained spotlight during the Budget speech by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in July with her mentioning the need to go “back to basics” with ZBNF, scientists from National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) immediately responded by terming it as an “unproven” technology. With that, replicating the model of ZBNF seems to require a re-assessment. Whether this one size solution of ZBNF can fit all and rejuvenate the agricultural sector is a big question mark.

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: Zeroing Down on Zero Budget Farming

Is it Really Zero Budget?

The Government of Andhra Pradesh has been amongst the few who have attempted to scale the initiative up. Their objective was to ensure that every single farmer is able to come out of the present chemical input-based agriculture and practice climate change resilient, low cost natural farming. To implement ZBNF, they established a para-statal agency, which is an agency wholly or partly owned by the government, by the name of Rythu Sadhikara Samstha (RySS), which literally translates to ‘Farmer Empowerment Organisation’.  

The official website of Andhra Pradesh’s ZBNF aims to reach 691 Gram Panchayats by 2022, impacting 35 Lakh farmers. By 2027, they plan to scale up enough to cover the entire cultivable area of the state. To manage this heavy task, they estimate a budget of Rs 16,452 crores, a large amount for a project on Zero budget farming; the irony is difficult to miss.

“More than being ironic, it is indicative of the deep rooted strategy of the Naidu administration, which viewed farming as global investment opportunity,” says Leo Saldanha who works with the Bengaluru-based Environment Support Group. “Here, UN agencies, foreign financial institutions and private foundations worked through RySS in promoting a model in which farmers, local governments and even the Legislature have had little or no say.”  In this case, even the Agriculture Department was sidestepped comprehensively. 



While the funds seem to be to cover the costs of creating an ecosystem to support this type of farming through capacity building, institution building and funds to farmers’ institutions, one time subsidies, certification, marketing capacity building etc., it misses out a caveat: there is no allocation to be paid directly to a farmer, specifically supporting them with hand holding during the initial shift.

Concerns on lack of transparency in financials were raised in a letter signed by Leo Saldanha and other signatories including Vandana Shiva from Navdanya, P. Sainath, Journalist and Bittu Sahgal, Editor of Sanctuary Magazine who wrote to the Deputy Chairman of RySS in September 2018. While in its response, the Deputy Chairman mentions that “This is required for scaling up the programme across the state…and to provide continuous handholding support of 3 to 5 years to each farmer till they transit to natural farming”, there is no mention of this component in the budget details on the website. Officially, then, this kind of support that is required during the initial slump in production and associated economic loss still does not exist to be addressed.

Vulnerable to Risks

In a paper authored by Leo Saldanha, he mentions that CM Chandrababu Naidu spoke at the United Nations Headquarters on the theme ‘Financing Sustainable Agriculture Landscapes-Global Challenges and Opportunities.’ In his speech, he said that he travelled to New York in search of collaboration and to seek ‘finance, philanthropy, market sharing’, so that ZBNF concept could be taken on ‘a fast track to a global community.’ But a highly financialised model like this has political and economic implications that transfer risks that accompany international demands and prices upon farmers.


If ZBNF model experiences a nation-wide scale-up, it needs to move away from a centralised, didactic and a top-down approach like that of the Green Revolution or Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) based farming.  These allowed for the capture of food and farming spaces, which should instead be guided by farmers and consumers.   

 “The horrific scale and intensity of farm suicides suggest that the prevailing highly financialised and proprietary model of industrial farming is collapsing, and the burden of its failures are borne primarily by farmers,” says Leo.

What instead ought to be focussed on is what the Andhra Pradesh ZBNF website claims, but does not seem to practice: “this paradigm relies on self-reliance”. The key aim of ZBNF is to create autonomy of the farmers, which demands a strong role of Panchayats, and involving farmers and consumers in decision making.

What’s in a Name?

ZBNF, Chemical-free farming, organic farming, Jaivik Krishi—these are a few terms which are all sides of the same coin.  But regardless, there is an air of exclusivity around ZBNF.  In a paper by Daniel Muenster, where the author physically attended some workshops by Mr. Palekar, the author quotes Mr. Palekar’s rejection of all alternative farming. “All these techniques are alternative techniques, but unnatural and non-scientific techniques,” Palekar is quoted saying. According to him, “what is natural, it will not be certified by Agriculture University or Organic University or any third party.”

This exclusivity is dangerous; even when all alternative farming may be standing to promote natural farming and making input costs for farmers lower, the cause would get lost in the war of terms. Not only that, it rejects and ignores groups of farmers practising other agro-ecological methods available. Moreover, there exists data to validate organic or agro-ecology systems, which ZBNF is currently being criticised for not having.

 One-Size Fit all Solution?

The country’s agrarian crisis is situated in diverse ecological, agro-economic and social conditions. It requires an equally complex and diverse solution. Undoubtedly, promoting ZBNF as a one-size-fits-all solution would not help.

ZBNF is one of the many agro-ecological methods available, and should be adopted where it is appropriate. As people become more aware of the irreversible and adverse impacts of chemical, hybrid and GMO based farming, the government should support opening up spaces in Panchayats for farmers to cooperatively transition to any of the many agro-ecological methods that are available, based upon what is appropriate locally.

 “By itself, ZBNF should not be promoted as a solution to the diverse agronomic conditions of India,” says Leo. 

“All complex decisions are best take collaboratively and cooperatively, and deeply democratic decision making is the best methodology we now have for making such choices.

This piece is co-published by The Bastion and Mongabay-India

Vaishnavi Rathore

Vaishnavi works as an Environment Associate with The Bastion, and is interested in covering stories on forest and land rights, ecological restoration, governance of commons, and environmental justice.


  1. Hi Sandeep, Thanks for writing in. If you could explain what propganda you think I might be spewing, it would be better for me to respond.
    1) I have not mentioned the ingredients of Beejamrut AT ALL here, so i dont understand when you say that i have got it wrong. How can i get something wrong when I havent even written about it in the first place?
    2)I havent explained ZBNF because this comes from a vantage point that readers here would know what ZBNF is. Since i plan to write a long, analytical piece on it, I would not want to spend a lot of time explaining what ZBNF is. If it were an academic paper, ofcourse, i agree with you, how much i have written would not suffice. But since this is not, and I do have editorial limits, i choose to use words carefully.
    3)I have not written ANYTHING about owning a cow/using a cow here in this article, so i do not understand what you are finding misleading. Maybe you read another article and responded here?
    4)Once again, I have NOT WRITTEN ANYTHING ABOUT THE COST OF INPUTS (jaggery etc) here, so again, what is it that you find misleading? maybe if you could quote directly from the article, it would help me.
    5) you think some broader aspects have been missed out: maybe you would like to share what those are?
    6)Nowhere in this article have i mentioned that Mr. Palekar supports GMO. I have said that scaling this up in a centralised manner may have implications of the centralised functions of Green revolution and GMO farming. There is a huge difference between what you think i am saying, and what I am saying in the article. Maybe you would like to have a second look?
    7) Finally, i think we agree at some point. That contextulised, adaptable models are important. My point is, that they exist in many ways in agro-ecology, and not ONLY in ZBNF.
    8) I am suprised you say this, since you seem to have read my last piece on ZBNF which was a ground coverage. Apart from visiting the farm (Ofcourse, I may not have visited as many as you claim to visit), i spoke with many people in this field to ensure that I understand what is comprised in the field. I went through Mr. Palekar’s website. I have thoroughly gone through APZBNF’s website, which has even been quoted amny times in the piece.
    It is disheartening to see that you understand this piece to be AGAINST ZBNF. It is not. It is a piece that flags off what problems may exist while scaling such efforts up. Since the government is planning to scale this up, dont you think it is important for them to look closely at what problems might exist?
    Also, i do not know which “other piece by Kavitha Kuruganti” you are referring to, if you could help me see that, it would be good. Thanks!
    P.s–i would love to visit a workshop organised by APZBNF. In case you come across an invitation, do send it across. Thanks,

  2. This article is a blatant Propaganda piece, an example of motivated writing that ignores the facts and creates fiction! I wonder whose interests the author is pushing.. or this website is pushing…

    The least one would expect is that an article on a topic be written after educating oneself about the topic. The above piece is full of factual errors.. The ingredients of beejamrut are listed wrong, the understanding of ZBNF methods is deficient, the analysis of costs is reductionist, and not realistically comparative… Apparently, the author has no understanding of ZBNF at all.. or its context. What is wrong with this article?

    Description of ZBNF: The author has resorted to such a simplistic description of ZBNF, it is described in terms of some inputs. Hardly a scholarly perspective. What is ZBNF? The key factors that define ZBNF are that it attempts at restoring and reviving soil and ecosystem, through multi-cropping & multilayering with native species, soil cover and reintroduction of soil microbes, makes the farmer self-reliant, opposes purchase of inputs from outside, save some minor ones like jaggery and flour…and the method reduces water consumption by 90%, reduces labour also by 90%…

    The advocacy of cow is only to use its urine and cowdung to produce jeevamruth, which is a microbial inoculate.. And the fact that a cow of any age would do, would go towards protecting overage and non milk producing cows from slaughter, as they would find alternate use. The notion that large grazing tracts are required for a single cow is utter nonsense, any one who owns a cow knows that is totally misleading. Further, the density of a cow requirement being just one in 30 acres, means, a cow could be shared by an entire community, its not essential to own one exclusively. All misleading arguments.

    Misleading comparisons: ZBNF actually reduces cost by more than 90% as compared to conventional chemical based farming… the author focuses rather absurdly on the cost of purchasing jaggery and flour, which are used only to create inoculate (very low cost), and conveniently ignores the alternative high costs under chemical farming which required for chemical fertilisers, pesticides, weedicides, and then repeated labor for tilling, deweeding, and the resultant costs that farmers recur due to soil degradation by purchasing top soil every year,…….

    On a genuine comparison to the intensive cost of chemical farming, ZBNF is almost zero cost… (its just a manner of speech) that this nuance has been missed and the real core issues and the broader picture have been ommitted! It either points to carelessness, or inability to understand, or deliberate misinformation.

    On the topic of GMOs, Subhash Palekar had issued a Public Press Release on the 10th of August, clarifying that he does not support GMOs.… Hence, factually wrong again!

    The one size fits all argument is the nail in the coffin, it shows that the author really hasn’t studied anything about this. ZBNF has highly diverse and adaptable models for each climatic zone, with native species. It is a genuine effort at bio-diverse agro-ecology.

    And the fact that about 50 lac farmers have adopted this across the country speaks volumes about its adaptability and genuineness. And for someone to write about it without even visiting a single zbnf farmer is highly questionable.

    The real motive for the article seem obvious when one notices that the core focus is on replicating propaganda against ZBNF indulged in by a particular group. So, its less about ZBNF, more about some vested interests.

    Unlike the other article by Kavitha Kuruganti, this one has not relied on any checking of facts on the ground. Purely relies on theorising.

    Therefore, this is a flawed article on all counts!

    What I’d suggest is that the author and whoever is propping her up, if they find it difficult to visit one of the 50 lac farmers who practise ZBNF, they could at least take up the invitation of the APZBNF which conducts periodic travel workshops that include field visits, interactions with farmers and all other information exchange. Once they get an education, it might be better for them to write on the topic.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.