In February 2018, Ruth Richardson, Executive Director of the Global Alliance, was invited by Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives (APPI) to travel to Andhra Pradesh – a state of 49 million people in south-east India – with a mission to see first-hand the ambitious Climate Resilient Zero Budget Natural Farming initiative (ZBNF) supported by APPI and the Andhra Pradesh government.
This five-day journey took Ruth, along with Ananthapadmanabhan Guruswamy, Chief Executive Officer of APPI, and Dr. T Vijay Kumar, Advisor to the Government of Andhra Pradesh, to villages close to Madanapalle and Tirupati and their Zero Budget Natural Farming fields, to see tomato crops and rice paddy, non-pesticide management input shops (to supply botanical extracts and other green inputs), nadep compost (recycled agricultural crop residue), and other essential components of the ZBNF approach. They attended village meetings, and met with farmers’ self-help groups and women farmers spearheading ZBNF.
“This is not incremental but transformative change. Amazing how quickly this happens when you farm in harmony with nature. Mother nature forgives our depredations quite fast! One can only imagine the impacts when the entire cluster of villages become 100% ZBNF.” ~ Dr. T Vijay Kumar
Zero Budget Natural Farming is built on farmer-to-farmer learning, with a core set of practices that underpin the approach, including: building soil fertility; eliminating the use of pesticides; diversifying crops; conserving water and increasing water efficiency; incorporating trees, forest produce, animals, birds and fish, for example, by erecting bird perches to encourage predation by insectivorous birds; nurturing a strong grassroots village federation of farmers and farmers’ producer organizations; fostering village seed banks and natural input shops; and creating a stable monthly income for farmers to increase the farmer’s share of the consumer rupee. It is a very strategic and thoughtful process, with the “best-practising” farmers leading knowledge dissemination and farmer outreach.
APPI and the Andhra Pradesh government will support ZBNF farmers in villages across the state for at least five years, with plans to scale up Zero Budget Natural Farming to six million farm-lands in the next six to eight years through farmer outreach programs. In one case, 8,000 farmers came out for a nine-day training. A local university of horticulture and forestry has also started experimenting with ZBNF crops.
During conversations with farmers engaging with ZBNF, Ruth recorded numerous positive impacts expressed by the farmers: money is being saved from not having to buy inputs; it has significantly decreased water use (significant in a drought region); yields have increased; cultivation costs have decreased; food tastes better; food stores longer; there are health improvements in families and communities; social capital is built; some crops are getting higher prices; there is increased “plant strength and vigour”; farms are more resilient due to diversified crops; the prevalence of pest attacks has gone down; household nutrition needs are being met; and more and more farmers are signing onto ZBNF, some quitting their non-farm jobs to farm full-time.
The scope and scale of the ambition for ZBNF is impressive and its potential critical in a world where, according to the FAO, WHO, IFAD, UNICEF and WFP, in 2016, there were an estimated 815 million undernourished people, 155 million children under the age of five suffering from stunted growth, and 641 million obese adults. In India, since 1995, more than 300,000 farmers and farm workers have committed suicide; and farmers have marched to fight for their land rights.
In connection to the work the Global Alliance has been doing on documenting the positive and negative externalities of the food system – through TEEBAgriFood and a recent report, Unravelling the Food-Health Nexus – there is much to learn from the example of ZBNF in Andhra Pradesh, leading to better human health, soil resilience in the face of climate change, and stable farmer incomes to counter poverty.