In Andhra Pradesh, World Agroforestry dives deep into the science of Zero-Budget Natural Farming

A farm worker prepares a ZBNF decoction called ‘agni astram’ to control pests and disease. This batch was made of neem leaves, tobacco, chili, garlic, cow urine and water. Other leaves, such as lantana, can substitute for neem. Photo: World Agroforestry/C. Watson


Zero-budget natural farming (ZBNF) is reported to be followed by 8% of farmers in Andhra Pradesh, India, making it probably the world’s most successful natural farming approach. “Adoption rates elsewhere of nature-friendly agriculture rarely exceed 1%,” says Vijay Kumar, the government advisor rolling out ZBNF .


The practice is called ‘zero-budget’ because all inputs are made from local, natural materials at little or no cost. This offers farmers an escape from the debt that often entraps them when they spend heavily on chemical fertilizers and pesticides and then their crop fails. Debt is a major cause of farmer distress that is sweeping rural India. In Andhra Pradesh, this is exacerbated by a severe drought that currently grips three-quarters of the State.

Hanumantha and Sulochana Rao display the pulse flour and jaggery that goes into ‘jeevamrutham’, the soil inoculum that stimulates microbial activity. Photo: World Agroforestry/C. Watson

ZBNF offers an alternative to chemical inputs. Farmers who adhere to ZBNF swear by it. ‘I will never go back to chemicals,’ says farmer Hanumantha Rao. He blames the chemicals for unhealthy food and much of the ill health in his village.

‘Technology and nature are wonderful things. With ZBNF, we will be chemical free with good air, water, food and soils,’ says Chief Minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu.

A modernizer who made Hyderabad an IT hub, Naidu would like to see all six million farmers in the State take it up by2024.

But there is one snag to all this. How do the practices that constitute ZBNF actually work? The science that underpins ZBNF is still largely unknown, the mechanisms producing results mostly undocumented. This, however, should soon changed.

“We are taking help from various centres so that ZBNF is scientifically established,” explained Vijay Kumar.

Vijay Kumar has a reputation for delivery and wants to reach 15% of the State’s farmers by next year. Photo: World Agroforestry/C. Watson

One such centre is World Agroforestry (ICRAF), which this month began rolling out three studies into ZBNF on the invitation of the Government of Andhra Pradesh. The studies are funded by Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives, a major backer of ZBNF, and carried out in close collaboration with Rythu Sadhikara Samstha (RySS), a not-for-profit led by Kumar that is owned by the State. The research itself is also of immense importance to ICRAF.

‘We are interested in how, and whether, avoiding artificial fertilisers and pesticides improves soil fertility through greater biotic activity and reduces greenhouse gas emissions while sequestering more soil organic carbon, all the while hoping that claims of no reduction in productivity hold true,’ says Ravi Prabhu, ICRAF’s Deputy Director-General.

The first ICRAF study is led by soil scientist Leigh Winowiecki. Early December found her training special RySS cadres, known as Natural Farming Fellows and Community Research Persons, in how to collect soil samples, classify soil erosion, measure on-farm tree density and diversity and the rate of infiltration of water into the soil, a proxy for soil carbon.

(L) Leigh Winowiecki points to water levels as it seeps into the soil as (R) researchers Garapati Sreenija (left) and Vattikuti Haripriya observe attentively. Photo: World Agroforestry/C. Watson

Her study spans six randomized sites across a climatic gradient and deploys ICRAF’s Land Degradation Surveillance Framework, a biophysical, field-survey methodology. The purpose is to map soil-health indicators across the entire State, track trends over time and compare ZBNF and non-ZBNF sites.

The second study, led by Todd Rosenstock, aims to develop a first, rough estimate of greenhouse-gas emissions from ZBNF fields and compare them to those from conventional, chemical-based farming practices.

‘ZBNF represents a wholesale change in farm management,’ says Rosenstock, an agroecologist with ICRAF. ‘This will affect the emission profile of farms. We are exploring if that shift will contribute in a major or minor way to environmental sustainability.’

Harvest in rice field cultivated without chemicals. Photo: World Agroforestry/C. Watson

Finally, a study led by Karl Hughes, ICRAF’s head of Monitoring, Evaluation and Impact Assessment, is addressing the central question of what impact are farmers experiencing as they adopt ZBNF? Which of its elements do they take up? Covering 528 village clusters where ZBNF has been promoted, and not promoted, across Andhra Pradesh’s 13 districts, data are being collected on farming practices, input expenditure, crop yields, food consumption, assets, savings, and levels of indebtedness.

The study uses the Perceived Stress Scale to investigate farmers’ well-being, with questions such as, ‘In the last month, how often have you been upset because of something that happened unexpectedly?’ The study’s theory of change articulates how uptake of ZBNF might reduce indebtedness and other sources of farmers’ distress.

ZBNF was developed by an agriculturalist called Subhash Palekar. Now nearly 70, he has written more than 60 books on his philosophy of natural farming, which has its roots in Indian spirituality as well as Marx and Gandhi.

Subhash Palekar, the founder of ZNBF, has trained many thousands of farmers. World Agroforestry/C. Watson

‘For proposing a method to eliminate chemical inputs, Palekar is revered by those who follow him,’ says Chief Minister Naidu. ‘We know it is wrong, but we are continuing to eat chemical food. The solution has come: Subhash Palekar.’

ZBNF rests on four pillars: ‘beejamruthum’, a seed treatment made from plants and urine of an indigenous cow; ‘jeevamrutham’, a soil inoculant made of jaggery, pulse flour, water and indigenous cow dung and urine that multiplies beneficial soil microbes; mulching with tree leaves, crop residues or cover crops; and ‘waaphasa’, improving water-vapour concentration in the soil.

‘God has given a great role to microorganisms and earthworms,’ says Palekar. ‘And the soil is an ocean of untapped, solulizable nutrients.’

ZBNF adopter Anapareddy Malleswari. Photo: World Agroforestry/C. Watson

A report by the Sustainable India Finance Facility and Council on Energy, Environment and Water says that ZBNF can contribute to all 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The report notes that, ‘Experiments indicate a sharp decline in input costs and an improvement in yields’ and posits that the ‘increased net income will improve the cash flow of poor and vulnerable farmers and may enhance their ability to deal with economic shocks and extreme climate events’.

Given such reports and the accounts of followers, it is tempting to endorse ZBNF outright. But that is not ICRAF’s assignment.

‘ICRAF’s role is to impartially and scientifically investigate the extent to which it works, how it works, in what contexts, and for whom,’ says Karl Hughes.

‘We are science partners and we have, quite uniquely, been given the freedom to carry out our research independently,” says ICRAF’s Prabhu. ‘We must honour this expectation of providing the scientific evidence.’









World Agroforestry (ICRAF) is a centre of scientific excellence that harnesses the benefits of trees for people and the environment. Knowledge produced by ICRAF enables governments, development agencies and farmers to utilize the power of trees to make farming and livelihoods more environmentally, socially and economically sustainable at multiple scales. ICRAF is one of the 15 members of the CGIAR, a global research partnership for a food-secure future. We thank all donors who support research in development through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund.'

Cathy Watson

Cathy Watson is chief of programme development at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi. Before joining ICRAF in November 2012, she founded and ran two NGOs in Uganda -- Straight Talk Foundation and Mvule Trust. She was made a senior Ashoka fellow for social entrepreneurship in 2006. She has also been a foreign correspondent, working for The Guardian and the BBC, among others. A graduate in biology and Latin American Studies from Princeton, she has over 30 years of work experience in Africa with a focus on trees, youth, HIV, families, and communication for social change. She holds a graduate certificate in agroforestry from the University of Missouri.

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