Q&A with Mr. Vijay Kumar, Advisor, Government of Andhra Pradesh’s Zero Budget Natural Farming project, on how ZBNF revolutionizes Indian agriculture & farm incomes

Q. Tell us about your transformational Zero Budget Natural Farming programme? How did the Andhra Pradesh government develop this from a concept to a scalable workable solution? 

A. India is facing severe agricultural distress. Chemical intensive agriculture and its pollution is ruining our natural capital. Farmer livelihoods are under risk due to indebtedness, high cost of farming, uncertain returns in both production and prices and climate uncertainties. For them, the cost to achieve a decent quality of life is increasing faster than their returns from agriculture. Livelihood apart, this situation is only delaying the inclusion of millions of farmers into India’s addressable middle-class consumer base. At the same time, India’s population is growing at a decent rate – one of the fastest amongst large countries.

Given this backdrop, there is an imminent need to achieve both farmer welfare and freedom from hunger. The United Nations is advocating climate change resilient agro-ecology as the key to achieve food security by 2050. The Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) programme launched by Andhra Pradesh state government in India is one of the best climate resilient agro-ecology interventions for achieving these goals. Andhra Pradesh’s ZBNF is implemented by Rythu Sadhikara Samstha, a corporation set up by the state government to enhance farmers’ welfare and empowerment, specifically the small and marginal farmers.

Field-level implementation under ZBNF started from the kharif crop of 2016. Within two years, this programme earned laurels from national and international organizations. The Indian government’s Ministry of Agriculture and the state government are supporting it under the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana and the Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana. Recently, the Chandrababu Naidu-led Andhra Pradesh state government has announced to extend this programme to 6 million farmers across the state by 2024.

Q. What are the advantages of the ZBNF programme?

A. For the farmers, the key benefits include low/no cost of inputs and seeds, zero chemical usage with beneficial impacts on the soil and biodiversity, reduced interest payments and fairer returns, higher crop yields, restoration of soil fertility, soil organic matter and soil carbon, cost reduction through natural means of disease/pest management, intercropping, polycropping, reduced water losses and low water requirement, reasonable income from small plots of lands through multi-tiered models, better and longer withstanding of dry climate spells and heavy rains. In short, apart from assisting providing sustainable livelihoods for marginal and vulnerable farmers, the ZBNF addresses farmer welfare by improving soil fertility, water retention, biodiversity, etc.

For the citizens, ZBNF safeguards their interests by making available more food – which is free from chemical residues and is more healthy and nutritious.

The programme is farmer-centric in its design, planning and implementation. The programme’s design enables it to be scaled up in a seamless manner to cover all the farmers in a state. Ultimately, it has huge potential for accelerating the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Farmer-to-farmer knowledge dissemination is another advantage of ZBNF. The best farmers of ZBNF become trainers under a Community Resource Persons (CRP) framework. The best farmers have seen their lives transform by ZBNF. This motivates them to communicate the ZBNF practices to new farmers and hand-holding them. The ZBNF programme invests significantly in capacity-building. The CRPs themselves are provided multiple rounds of training at the district and state level. Several informative short videos are being disseminated, and farmers’ practices are being tracked easily on smartphones.

Q. Tell us about the process involved in ZBNF?

A. ZBNF is based on regenerative agriculture. This leverages the power of photosynthesis in plants to close the carbon cycle, build soil health, crop resilience and nutrient density. In fact, ZBNF is part of the agro-ecology movement that has gained popularity globally. Padma Shri Awardee Mr. Subash Palekar is the father of the ZBNF movement in India. He has conducted three mega farmer-trainings for this programme. ZBNF practices cultivate ecosystem services for food security and sustainable livelihoods. It reduces farmers’ costs through eliminating external inputs and utilising in-situ resources to rejuvenate the soil, whilst increasing incomes, restoring ecosystem health and climate resilience through multi-layered cropping systems.

The transformation process for a farmer and the entire gram-panchayat (rural divisions of a district in an Indian state) takes roughly 3-5 years. That is why the vision is set for 2024-2026. In terms of the progress of a farmer under ZBNF, he is introduced to the concept and becomes a partial ZBNF farmer in his 1st year. In the 2nd year, he becomes a seed-to-seed farmer in 0.5 acre of land. In the 3rd year, the farmer becomes a Z+ farmer and expands the coverage to 25-50% of his land. In the 4th year, his entire land is covered under ZBNF.

The four practices of ZBNF are Jeevamrutham to stimulate microbial activity to  make nutrients, protect against pathogens and increase soil carbon, Beejamrutham to protect young roots from fungus and seed/soil borne diseases, Acchadana to produce humus, conserve topsoil, increase water retention, encourage soil fauna, supply the soil with essential nutrients and control weeds, and Whaphasa to increase water availability, water use efficiency and increase resilience to droughts.

Most importantly, ZBNF uses zero synthetic chemicals. Pest and disease management are done using natural formulations. Inter-cropping, poly-cropping, and incorporation of trees in farms also contribute to effective pest management through increased biodiversity and ecosystem resilience.

Q. What is the impact on the ZBNF grown crops vis-à-vis non-ZBNF crops? What is the impact on net incomes?

A. During the Kharif 2017 season, the 1,614 crop-cutting experiments conducted on ZBNF and non-ZBNF crops showed positive results. In 88% of these 1,614 crop-cutting experiments, the net income has increased due to an increase in yield values and decrease in the cost of cultivation. In another 10% of these crop-cutting experiments, net income rose despite a decrease in yield values since the cost-reduction compensated for the deficit. Thus, in only 2% of the cases did the net income decline because the cost reduction could not compensate the reduction in yields.

In terms of crops, the yield of paddy was 9% higher under ZBNF land vs. non-ZBNF land, guli ragi was 40% higher, ragi was 17% higher, black gram 21% higher, maize 12% higher, groundnut 26-36% higher, cotton 11% higher and chilli 26% higher.

In terms of farmer net income, the net income in paddy was 51% higher under ZBNF land vs. non-ZBNF land, 54% higher in guli ragi, 25% higher in ragi, 43% higher in black gram, 54% higher in maize, 61-135% higher in groundnut, 87% higher in cotton and 53% higher in chilli.

Q. What is the coverage under ZBNF now, and what is the long-term plan to scale this up?

A. The ZBNF programme had covered 0.16 million farmers across 972 villages in 13 districts of Andhra Pradesh by March 2018. This was backed by 800+ CRPs.

It targets to reach 6 million farmers across the state by 2024.This would cover a total of 8 million hectares of agricultural land across Andhra Pradesh. The objective is to make the Andhra Pradesh a natural farming state by 2026 – a state that practices regenerative agriculture free from synthetic chemicals, while increasing yields and farmer incomes.

Image Courtesy: HMTV News

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