Case Studies, Systems Thinking

Community Managed Natural Farming: An agroecology movement takes root in India’s Andhra Pradesh state

If you asked Vijay Kumar Thallam 10 years ago about the state of agriculture in Andhra Pradesh, the prognosis would have been grim. “Soils have eroded, the productivity has plateaued, the costs of cultivation are increasing year after year. […] The riskiness of agriculture has increased,” described Thallam in a video interview.

Thallam lives in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, a region on the country’s south-east coast. A retired public servant with the state’s agriculture department, Thallan was responsible for conceiving a program to bring a natural farming method called Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) to the state. The program is overseen by Rythu Sadhikara Samstha (RySS), a non-profit organization that was established by the state government and of which Thallam is Co-Vice Chairman.

In 2018, the Government of Andhra Pradesh, supported by the United Nations Environment Programme, launched a plan to transition its farmers from conventional, chemical-based agriculture to ZBNF by 2024—an estimated six million farmers. In doing so Andhra Pradesh became the first 100% natural farming state.

Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment, declared the move “an unprecedented transformation towards sustainable agriculture on a massive scale, and the kind of bold change we need to see to protect the climate, biodiversity, and food security.”

What is Zero Budget Natural Agriculture?

Zero Budget Natural Agriculture (ZBNF) is a farming method that believes in the natural growth of crops without the addition of fertilizer or pesticides. The “zero budget” part of the name comes from the fact that the technique doesn’t require any budget for agricultural inputs, and that any money farmers do spend will be earned back in increased productivity and income. 

These principles align with the core values of agroecology. “[ZBNF’s] greatest strength is that it is based on the latest scientific discoveries in agriculture and, at the same time, it is rooted in Indian tradition,” says RySS’ website.

ZBNF is built on four core principles, all of which have been localized to the Indian context. The first is Beejamrutham, which involves coating seeds and young plant roots in a microbe-rich formulation produced from cow urine and dung. The treatment protects the plants from fungus and diseases that can affect crops during the monsoon season.

The second principle is Jeevamrutham, where the soil microbiome is enhanced through a combination of fermented cow dung, cow urine, and other local ingredients. This vital ingredient is to promote the activity of microorganisms and earthworms in the soil. 

Third is Achhadana, the name for cover crops and mulching. Under ZBNF methods, soil should always be covered with some type of mulch, be it soil, straw, or live mulch (mixed crops growing on the land).

Finally, Waaphasa is about ensuring plant roots have access to water vapour, which can be achieved through aeration and a reduction in water for irrigation. 

“The basic principles of natural farming are very simple: if soil biology is restored, the plant is enabled to get the nutrients that are locked up in that soil,” summarizes Thallam on the Andhra Pradesh Community Managed Natural Farming YouTube channel. Pest management, he adds, is handled through different botanical extracts sprayed on the crops. 

“ZBNF is ‘smart’ agriculture where farmers not only enjoy the direct economic benefits, but also get resilient crops, improved health due to safe agriculture practices, and consumption of chemical-free food,” says Thallam, citing other benefits such as increased biodiversity, soil and water security, and ecosystem regeneration.

ZBNF in action

A video produced by the United Nations illustrates the story of Antiparthi Satyavathi, a young woman living in Andhra Pradesh’s Araku Valley. Satyavathi grew up in a farming family, and her parents relied on conventional methods to cultivate their rice, millet, lentils, and sorghum crops. “When we use chemicals we see instant growth but less healthy plants,” observed Satyavathi.

Learning about natural farming methods, Satyavathi and her family became the first in the village to incorporate it into their farming. “After witnessing our results, the rest of our village started to adopt natural farming practices,” explained Satyavathi. 

RySS and the Government of Andhra Pradesh depend on individual farmers like Satyavathi to share their successes with others in real-time. This farmer-to-farmer dissemination of training and support has been central to the program’s approach. RySS has additionally focused on making ZBNF inputs such as cow dung available, building the capacity of farmer and women-led organizations, and improving the welfare of farmers. 

By restoring natural ecosystems and harnessing the natural fertility of those environments, ZBNF is better for the planet and the people who depend on it. Said Satyavathi: “The results we’ve been seeing [with ZBNF] fill me with joy and motivate us to keep working.”