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TIGR2ESS: Transforming India's Green Revolution by Research and Empowerment for Sustainable food Supplies

A Global Challenges Research Fund project


Charles is reading for a Masters in Climate Change and International Development at the University of East Anglia, under the supervision of TIGR2ESS FP6 co-lead Dr Nitya Rao. He is a film artist and works in agroecology, permaculture and small-scale urban farming. Charles recently submitted his dissertation on how the agroecological method Zero-Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) is reaching scale in Andhra Pradesh, South India. He spoke with TIGR2ESS Impact Manager Sarah Bailey to tell her all about his research.

You have been interviewing farmers about Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) in India, focusing on the sociocultural aspects of the programme. What is ZBNF and why are you interested in it?

ZBNF is a set of agroecological farming methods that promotes growing crops in harmony with nature. A central feature of ZBNF is a belief in its capacity to reduce farm input costs and improve yields through the self-production of non-synthetic fertilisers, crop seeds and chemical-free food. ZBNF also aims to improve soil health and increase agro-biodiversity, whilst simultaneously increasing farmers’ food security by adopting climate-resilient farming practices. Pioneered by Shri. Subhash Palekar as an alternative agricultural paradigm to industrial farming, ZBNF is seen as one possible solution to extreme indebtedness and high suicide rates amongst Indian farmers.

ZBNF started as a grassroots movement in the state of Karnataka, and is now successfully scaling-up across India. In the past few years ZBNF has transitioned from a small-scale farmer-to-farmer movement to a state-led programme initiated by the Rythu Sadhikara Samstha, a not-for-profit owned and co-run by the Government of Andhra Pradesh (AP). Rythu Sadhikara Samstha is working to transform AP into the first natural farming state in India.

I’m interested in ZBNF because I strongly believe in the ability of agroecology to increase farmers’ capacity to adapt to climate change while simultaneously increasing the food sovereignty of small holder farmers. I’ve worked in agroecology for several years and have seen first-hand how these systems can support farmer autonomy, sustainability across the food supply and demand chain and the removal of synthetic chemicals.

What drew you to carrying out research in India?

India is an interesting place to carry out research because of how rural livelihoods, gender and caste systems interact. I was particularly interested in how the diversity of people and cultural practices, notably between different castes and scheduled tribes, symbolise nature and navigate caring for the soil and conserving desi (native) varieties of flora and fauna.

You have recently spent time in the field in two districts of Andhra Pradesh conducting interviews with local ZBNF practitioners. What were the most interesting insights?

It was very interesting to see how women self-help groups and Internal Community Resource Persons within Rythu Sadhikara Samstha’s ZBNF Programme are effectively disseminating agroecological and ZBNF knowledge. Similar to other ground-up movements, the programme is helping to build trust in ZBNF between community members and encouraging horizontal farmer-to-farmer learning. For example, farmers can visit successful ZBNF model farms to witness this success firsthand. This, combined with how ZBNF’s founder Palekar is mobilising farmers based on shared concerns around farmer debt, negative health effects of farming with chemicals and environmental degradation in India, is rapidly motivating farmers to take up ZBNF.

Another fascinating discovery was Sanjeevini’s community-based “living seed bank” in the tribal area of Araku Valley. Sanjeevini Seed Bank, a longstanding initiative that is now supporting ZBNF as a resource non-governmental organisation (NGO), believes in agroecology and is working to reintroduce climate resilient native seed varieties. Since the introduction of hybrid seed varieties and a shift towards the cultivation of cash crops, many varieties of desi (heirloom) crop seeds are at risk of extinction. The loss of these varieties, alongside the loss of indigenous agroecological knowledge, threatens the nutritional security of smallholder farmers in India. Sanjeevini works with tribal farmers to promote the cultivation and conservation of desi seeds. The farmers are encouraged to cultivate these seeds and return a certain proportion, say ten per cent, back to the bank. In turn this helps to keep a steady supply of desi varieties.

ZBNF started as a grassroots movement. Are there any characteristics that make India more amenable to ZBNF than other countries?

There’s a shared concern amongst farmers who are directly impacted by the problems associated with the Green Revolution; essentially the fallout of industrial and chemical agriculture. Everyone can name a member of their family who has committed suicide due to debt pressure from purchasing external inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides.

There’s widespread reports of cancer and skin problems through handling chemicals used in farming. Farmers also say that they have seen a reduction in biodiversity and soil fertility on their farms. As a result, there’s a shared belief that there needs to be a shift towards more sustainable farming practices. The motivation for switching to ZBNF and other types of natural farming and then converting others to make the switch seems to be the same wherever you go.

Your research is at an early stage, but do you see any patterns or key features emerging?

The role of trust between farmers is very important – it’s essential for the programme’s success and scaling-up to reach many farmers will not happen without it. It was evident that where trust was absent there was a lack of motivation for farmers to take up ZBNF. Knowledge dissemination is only really possible if there is farmer-to-farmer teaching; seeing other farmers’ success underpins others making the switch. Lots of resources have been mobilised in Andhra Pradesh to roll out ZBNF but prior to this the dissemination was already very good because of the influence of social capital and group work, not to mention Palekar’s mobilising force.

The state-level work of Rythu Sadhikara Samstha’s in Andhra Pradesh is crucial for bringing the imperative of sustainable farming to the global public, whilst also addressing the possibility for agriculture to contribute towards several of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Ultimately though, the programme will end, with the current end date in 2021-22. The intention is that by its conclusion the programme will have successfully supported farmers to run ZBNF on their own by working together to, for example, form Farmer Producer Organisations to create ZBNF marketing and livelihood opportunities. However, there is a risk that once the funding and support mechanisms are removed, farmers might not continue to scale-up ZBNF; there could be a problem with state dependency as a result of the programme.

India is a large country – what do you see as the future of ZBNF in India?

As a grassroots movement ZBNF is already being successfully implemented across numerous states in India. However, my conversations with ZBNF practitioners suggested that there are sometimes conflicting opinions about how it should develop. Some argue for pursuing a more globalised and market-integrated approach through organic certifications schemes, while others argue that such a move would privilege consumers in the Global North and risks reducing farmers’ food self-sufficiency. Whether or not ZBNF will exist alongside industrial agriculture or seek to completely replace remains to be seen. Either way, I believe that ZBNF should remain a movement for food and nutritional security, but if this could be preserved in tandem with improving farmers’ wealth and livelihoods that would be great.

To succeed across India, ZBNF would also need to adjust its philosophy; the current programme involves recipes and criteria which are very prescriptive. This means that, in its current form, it wouldn’t be suitable in some agricultural areas or socioeconomic situations. This could be addressed by accepting that ZBNF is part of a wider agroecological movement, rather than a standalone philosophy, allowing more fluidity in its application and collaborations between like-minded partners to form.

What do you hope will be the real-world implications of the work you are doing?

ZBNF and agroecology, alongside other successful sustainable farming practices provide us with important examples for what an alternative agricultural system could look like. There’s increasing global awareness of the need for food systems that are resilient to climate change. However, to fully realise this goal we need significant shifts in policy and food governance targeted at reducing unsustainable food consumption and encouraging a transition towards more localised food systems. This would require not only a drastic change to our globalised food systems but also a fundamental change in the way we think about and relate to food.