Climate change impacts—including crop losses due to global heating—unregulated use of fertilizers and pesticides leading that degrade the soils, deplete groundwater and cause health hazards; costly seeds, inputs and high interest rates on loans are among the challenges facing India’s agricultural sector. The latter are leading to chronic farmer indebtedness and are causing great distress to farming families.
“High-input based agriculture that has been practised since the green revolution of the 1960s is one of the causes of these problems,” says Harpinder Sandhu, Senior Lecturer, University of South Australia, Australia, and close collaborator with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on agriculture and food issues. “It is not an option in future, and hence farmers are looking for alternatives.”
Zero budget natural farming is a form of agricultural system redesign being practised at scale in India, particularly in the state of Andhra Pradesh. It is an emerging set of agricultural practices designed dramatically to reduce farmers’ direct costs (hence “zero budget”) while boosting yields and farm health through the use of non-synthetic inputs sourced locally (“natural farming”).
Andhra Pradesh has set out the aim of “rolling out” this approach to all 6 million of the state’s farmers through a state-led programme of training and extension.
UNEP hosts the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, a global initiative focused on “making nature’s values visible”. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food was launched in 2014 to make the dependencies and impacts that the agri-food value chain has on nature visible to decision makers.
“The principles of zero-budget natural farming are aligned with the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food’s own principles, as they seek to steer away from the prevailing focus on per hectare productivity, and instead focus on a holistic approach that also values human, social and environmental benefits and costs from agriculture,” says Salman Hussain, the coordinator of this UNEP initiative.
He adds that agriculture brings myriad positive and negative externalities, that is, costs or benefits that are externalized to third parties. Examples of negative externalities include the pollution of water bodies from nitrate leaching and human health impacts such as pesticide poisoning.
“A farming enterprise may not even be aware that it is imposing such costs on society, or it may be aware of it, but is not incentivized by the market, to change its behaviour. On the flip side, the positive contributions that farming can make to communities are also systematically undervalued—such as providing community cohesion and the maintenance of livelihoods for smallholder farmers,” says Hussain.
“The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food evaluation framework examines the true costs of agriculture and food systems. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity has not as yet conducted a full assessment of zero budget natural farming (although one is planned for later this year) but there is evidence that it has positive ecological effects—on soil quality, fertility and water retention capacity—as well as socio-economic benefits such as decreases in yield variability, and increased and diversified farmer incomes through intercrops. There is also evidence of positive impacts on food security and climate change resilience.
“The key point is this: some of these benefits simply do not get included in economic decision-making. We need a level playing field, with positive and negative externalities being accounted for, otherwise we are not paying the true cost for our food. In other words, we need true cost accounting.
“Since zero budget natural farming is reportedly providing a range of positive externalities, this would show up in a the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food evaluation. The evaluation aims to inform decision makers on the extent to which society at large is benefiting from zero budget natural farming and thus the value of encouraging it.
“The jury is out on whether zero budget natural farming produces consistently higher yields or not, compared to more conventional farming practices, but to measure performance on this sole metric is fundamentally flawed.
“Those who criticize zero budget natural farming should do so having accounted for the myriad positive externalities it provides, and the negative externalities of conventional systems. We should also be aware of the political economy at play here—there are vested interest groups which benefit from externalizing costs and maintaining the status quo of heavily subsidized intensive farming,” says Hussain.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations also stresses the importance of transitioning away from high-input, resource-intensive farming, and is urging nations to adopt approaches such as agroecology, to increase productivity, deliver sustainable food and make efficient use of natural resources. The organization has therefore been very supportive of zero budget natural farming in Andhra Pradesh. However, agricultural scientists are also recommending location-specific solutions.
“Zero budget natural farming may offer such solutions at the local level and has the potential to improve farm outputs, protect the environment and enhance societal well-being,” says Sandhu.
The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021–2030, led by the United Nations Environment Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and partners such as the Africa Restoration 100 initiative, the Global Landscapes Forum and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, covers terrestrial as well as coastal and marine ecosystems. A global call to action, it will draw together political support, scientific research and financial muscle to massively scale up restoration. Help us shape the Decade.