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International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability
ISSN: 1473-5903 (Print) 1747-762X (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/tags20
Towards redesign at scale through zero budget
natural farming in Andhra Pradesh, India
Zareen Pervez Bharucha, Sol Bermejo Mitjans & Jules Pretty
To cite this article: Zareen Pervez Bharucha, Sol Bermejo Mitjans & Jules Pretty (2020): Towards
redesign at scale through zero budget natural farming in Andhra Pradesh, India, International
Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, DOI: 10.1080/14735903.2019.1694465
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/14735903.2019.1694465
© 2020 The Author(s). Published by Informa
UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis
Published online: 12 Jan 2020.
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Towards redesign at scale through zero budget natural farming in Andhra
Zareen Pervez Bharucha
, Sol Bermejo Mitjans
and Jules Pretty
Global Sustainability Institute, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK;
School of Life Sciences, University of Essex,
Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) is a form of agricultural system redesign being
practiced at scale in India, particularly in the state of Andhra Pradesh. ZBNF 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’ZBNF to all 6 million of the state’s farmers
through a state-led programme of training and extension. We present data showing
statistically signiﬁcant diﬀerences between ZBNF and non-ZBNF yields and farmer
incomes at multiple locations and with a variety of crops, as well as preliminary
results on farmers’experiences with crop health and household transitions
following the adoption of ZBNF. We conclude with reﬂections on the lessons
derived from Andhra Pradesh’s state support for ZBNF.
Agroecology; India; redesign;
zero budget natural farming
There is growing evidence that sustainable intensiﬁca-
tion can increase crop yields by redesigning ecosys-
tems on and around farms (Garibaldi et al., 2019;
Godfray et al., 2010; Pretty & Bharucha, 2018; Reganold
& Wachter, 2016; Royal Society, 2009). In some con-
texts, sustainable intensiﬁcation is achieving scale,
reaching large numbers of farmers and hectares
(Gunton, Firbank, Inman, & Winter, 2016; Pretty et al.,
2018). This paper addresses the system of Zero
Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF), an emerging agroeco-
logical practice that has spread in India, as a form of
agricultural system redesign. The focus is on the
southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh, where the
state government has announced the intention to
roll out ZBNF to all the state’s 6 million farmers by
2024 (UNEP, 2018). This represents an infrequent con-
temporary example of a policy-led sustainability
transition at signiﬁcant scale in India, and provides a
number of lessons for other state-led initiatives for
We ﬁrst introduce the concepts of sustainable
intensiﬁcation and agricultural system redesign. We
then brieﬂy describe some of the social-ecological
challenges faced by smallholders in India’s peninsular
drylands and outline how alternatives are emerging to
mitigate these. We go on to describe the evolution of
ZBNF, beginning as a grassroots social movement
(Khadse, Rosset, Morales, & Ferguson, 2017) and evol-
ving into a major policy initiative in Andhra Pradesh.
We then present some of the ﬁrst available ﬁndings
on the impacts of ZBNF amongst early-adopters in
Andhra Pradesh, focusing on crop yields, costs of cul-
tivation, farmer income and observed impacts on farm
ecosystems and within households. We conclude the
paper by discussing ZBNF as a form of agricultural
© 2020 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License (http://creativeco mmons.org/
licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/), which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not
altered, transformed, or built upon in any way.
CONTACT Zareen Pervez Bharucha firstname.lastname@example.org Global Sustainability Institute, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge
CB1 1PT, UK
*IJAS Editorial and Review: The Handling Editor for this manuscript was Dr Howard Lee. Dr Lee solicited peer-reviews, assessed revisions made by
the authors and made all editorial decisions on the paper.
This article has been republished with minor changes. These changes do not impact the academic content of the article.
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF AGRICULTURAL SUSTAINABILITY
system redesign, and reﬂecting on the lessons and
questions it presents for wider transitions to sustain-
able agriculture at scale in India and in comparable
1.1. Sustainable intensiﬁcation and redesign
Agricultural intensiﬁcation from the mid-twentieth
century centred on two linked goals: avoiding land
conversion and raising yields. It was assumed this
would help to meet growing demand but also spare
biodiverse, non-agricultural land from being con-
verted to low-productivity, extensive systems. Implicit
in this view was the belief that agriculture would inevi-
tably cause harm to non-cultivated landscapes (e.g.
Collier, Wiradi, & Soentoro, 1973; Conway & Barbier,
1990). The resulting high throughput models of agri-
cultural intensiﬁcation have been successful at
raising yields, particularly of a small number of
cereal staples, and in the short term. Pellegrini and
Fernández (2018) estimate that during the Green
Revolution, yields grew threefold on average,
helping growth in agricultural yield to outpace popu-
lation increases. For each person worldwide, there is
now 25% more food than was produced per capita
in 1960 (Pretty & Bharucha, 2014).
Yet productivity growth has come at a signiﬁcant
social-ecological cost. Intensiﬁcation has been
enabled by a 2-fold increase in irrigated area globally,
a 2-fold increase in the use of agricultural machinery,
a more than 6-fold increase in the application of
nitrogenous fertilizers, a four fold increase in phos-
phorus application, and a ﬁve fold increase in potass-
ium (Pellegrini & Fernández, 2018; Pretty & Bharucha,
2014; Tilman, 1999). As a result, agriculture is now a
key driver of breached planetary boundaries (Campbell
et al., 2017; Rockström et al., 2017; Springmann et al.,
2018; Tilman, Balzer, Hill, & Befort, 2011; Willett et al.,
2019). Globally, it accounts for around 70% of global
freshwater use, around a third of all GHG emissions
and is the leading driver of land conversion (despite
early conﬁdence that intensiﬁcation would protect
non-cultivated ecosystems). Soil erosion in agricultural
landscapes is between 10–100 times the natural back-
ground rate (IPCC, 2019). Mitigating these impacts will
require radical shifts to the ways in which we produce
and consume agricultural goods and services.
The potential for synergies between agriculture and
ecosystem health was ﬁrst hinted at in the context of
smallholders in less-developed countries in the use of
the term sustainable intensiﬁcation (Pretty, 1997). The
approach is not meant to be prescriptive, recognizing
that there is no single form or initiative that can accom-
plish sustainable outcomes over all types of agricultural
system. Instead, interventions as varied as crop varietal
improvements, multi-cropping, integrated pest man-
agement, conservation agriculture, the system of
crop intensiﬁcation (starting as the system of rice inten-
siﬁcation and expanding to other crops), and the inten-
siﬁcation of small patches of land have shown the
potential to achieve positive social-ecological co-
beneﬁts alongside healthy yields (Pretty & Bharucha,
2014,2018; Pretty, Toulmin, & Williams, 2011). These
outcomes have extended ambition about what is poss-
ible beyond the avoidance of harm, and towards an
agenda of radical ecosystem restoration, community
regeneration and social-ecological resilience.
Redesign is key to these outcomes. The term comes
from a three-stage framework ﬁrst developed in the
mid-1980s, which proposed that transitions to sustain-
able agriculture occur along three distinct, non-linear
phases: eﬃciency, substitution and redesign (Gliess-
man, 2016; Hill, 1985).
Eﬃciency is additive and incremental, though
can involve step changes within existing agricul-
tural regimes. It involves reducing waste and
making the best use of resources. Examples
include targeting the use of inputs, precision agri-
culture, mulching to reduce loss of soil moisture,
drip irrigation, deﬁcit irrigation, irrigation schedul-
ing, monitoring soil moisture, the use of selective
compounds or selective spraying, using fuel-
eﬃcient farm machinery, reducing post-harvest
losses, or choosing varieties that make more
eﬃcient use of water or nutrients.
Substitution involves replacing harmful com-
pounds, practices or techniques with alternatives
that have less negative environmental or health
impacts. Examples include replacing ineﬃcient crop
varieties with those that are better at converting nutri-
ents to biomass, or ones which tolerate climate
extremes; the use of biological control agents to sub-
stitute for synthetic inputs, the use of RNA-based gene
slicing technologies, replacing the use of soil
altogether in hydroponic systems, and no-till to
replace inversion ploughing. As these examples
show, eﬃciency and substitution are not mutually
exclusive. Substitution may drive eﬃciency improve-
ments, such as when wasteful or ineﬀective inputs
or practices are replaced by better performing ones.
In India, Davis et al. (2018) estimate that replacing
rice with millets, maize or sorghum would reduce
2Z. P. BHARUCHA ET AL.
irrigation water demand by 33% while improving the
production of protein, iron and zinc.
Both eﬃciency and substitution are progressive
steps towards sustainability, and usually require
more than new technologies. For example, the per-
formance of infrastructure declines over time,
wasting both water and energy, so regular monitoring
and maintenance (and accompanying institutional
architectures to enable this) is important. At the begin-
ning of the century, the World Bank (Briscoe & Malik,
2006) estimated that Rs 17000 crore (US$250 million)
would be required annually for the upkeep of Indian
irrigation infrastructure, but less than 10% of this
amount was actually available and even less was
likely to be spent eﬀectively (Thakkar, 2010). Where
investment in eﬃciency-enhancing technologies is
made, farmers and water managers need to be
trained to manage them properly (Levidow et al.,
2014; Perry, Steduto, Allen, & Burt, 2009). Finally, pre-
vailing practices are also a function of farmers’per-
spectives and priorities. For example, there may be a
fundamental mismatch between farmers’goals
(aimed at maximizing economic returns) and water
managers (aimed at minimizing water use); these mis-
matches need to be reconciled through knowledge
exchange and communication between diﬀerent sta-
keholders (Levidow et al., 2014). Thus, eﬃciency
depends as much on social and human capital, collec-
tive action and well-functioning institutions as it does
on new technologies or practices.
Both eﬃciency and substitution are necessary for
responsible stewardship, but neither is suﬃcient for
fully sustainable agroecosystems. Water saved
through eﬃciency improvements on individual
farms, for example, may not reduce overall water con-
sumption across the landscape –and may even
increase it (Grafton et al., 2018). The substitution of
some harmful inputs with more benign ones may
not be enough to tackle resource degradation or miti-
gate key negative social and ecological externalities
(Altieri & Rosset, 1996).
What is needed once basics are mastered is rede-
sign. Hill described redesign as an approach that
‘recognises the existence of natural, ecological and
psychosocial laws …and takes them into account in
all of its designs and management procedures’(Hill,
1985, p. 86). In practice, this has come to mean the
harnessing of agroecological processes such as preda-
tion, parasitism, nutrient cycling, biological nitrogen
ﬁxation and allelopathy to achieve healthy yields
(Gliessman & Rosemeyer, 2009; Gurr et al., 2016).
Farmers practicing redesign proactively manage the
functional relationships that support these ecosystem
services. They understand the agroecological basis of
farm functioning, and focus on preventing problems
before they occur (Gliessman, 2015).
Redesign requires three important shifts: in knowl-
edge systems, farming communities and supporting
institutional architectures. First, knowledge systems
need to broaden away from the simpliﬁed ‘technics’
of high-throughput agriculture and include context-
speciﬁc knowledge of whole agroecosystems, includ-
ing knowledge of how eﬀectively to steward the bio-
diversity and ecosystem services that inﬂuence
them. Second, redesign requires farmers to work
together, with collective action important across land-
scapes. Third, redesign requires institutional links
between multiple stakeholders across scales. In
essence, redesign is less about particular technologies
or practices and more about the social, institutional
and human dimensions of learning, communicating
and monitoring dynamic agroecosystems.
Four broad principles characterize redesign
(i). The ﬁrst is a focus on transformation rather than
management of an existing system. Redesigned
farms are fundamentally altered by the addition
of new elements, new conﬁgurations and lin-
kages between elements. A corollary to this is
an explicit emphasis on a new, essentially norma-
tive vision, and a commitment to tackle what Hill
referred to as ‘root causes.’For Hill and MacRae
(1996), redesign is achieved ‘when the causes
of problems are recognized, and thereby pre-
vented, being solved internally by site- and
time-speciﬁc design and management
approaches instead of by the application of
external inputs’(p. 82). Hill argues for a deeper
understanding of the psychosocial ‘roots’of
unsustainable practice (within agriculture and
in society more broadly) and distinguishes
between ‘shallow’and ‘deep’orientations to
change (Hill, 2014).
(ii). Second, redesign initiatives are agroecologically-
based. Farmers actively steward biodiversity to
manage processes of predation, parasitism, allelo-
pathy, herbivory, nitrogen ﬁxation, pollination and
trophic dependencies (Gliessman & Rosemeyer,
2009; Gurr et al., 2016). While eﬃciency and sub-
stitution are based on particular inputs, practices
and technologies, redesign focuses on
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF AGRICULTURAL SUSTAINABILITY 3
maintaining and managing biodiversity and
whole ecosystems on and around farms. In
doing so, the aim is to create ‘systems capable
of sponsoring their own soil fertility, crop protec-
tion and yield constancy’(Altieri & Rosset, 1996,
(iii). Third, redesign involves new relationships and
forms of organization and is essentially a social,
political and cultural challenge. It depends on
social capital, which comprises relations of
trust; reciprocity and exchange; common rules;
norms and sanctions and connectedness.
Where these new relationships and forms of
organization are nurtured, farmers are able to
beneﬁt from social learning, can spread new
ideas, share resources and collaborate to advo-
cate for their rights and entitlements.
(iv). Finally, redesign is knowledge-intensive and draws
on a wider variety of knowledge-bases than is
typical within conventional, high-throughput
systems. Redesign emerges from, and is supported
by double- and triple-loop learning. Double-loop
learning helps us to question the assumptions
behind the questions we ask, and can thus lead
to reframing. Triple-loop learning reconsiders
underlying values and beliefs. Double- and triple-
loop learning involves reconsidered norms and
transformed institutions (Armitage, Marschke, &
Plummer, 2008; Hill, 2015). Both are supported
by participatory and decentralized pedagogies.
Farmer ﬁeld schools, the use of new media, and
multi-stakeholder platforms, are all examples of
tools that are being used extensively alongside
scaled-up redesign initiatives. Nicholls and Altieri
(2018, p. 2) highlight how peer to peer knowledge
exchange has led to an ‘unprecedented return on
agricultural technology investment’.
Agricultural systems exemplifying these principles are
achieving scale worldwide. A recent global assessment
of 400 projects, initiatives and programmes worldwide
showed that of these, 47 exceeded the 10
either hectares or numbers of practicing farmers).
Within this set, 17 exceeded the 10
scale and 14 were
. Overall, an estimated 163 M farms worldwide
(covering 453 M hectares, or 9% of the global total) have
redesigned their operations by implementing integrated
pest management, conservation agriculture, by steward-
ing biodiversity on and around farms, incorporating new
mixed farming elements, redesigning irrigation and crop
water management and intensifying production on
small patches of land or water (Pretty et al., 2018).
These initiatives show promise for transformation at
scale, and open up a new frontier in thinking about agri-
2. The emergence of alternative
agricultures in post-Green Revolution India
Productivity gains achieved during the Indian Green
Revolution (mainly focused on high-yielding wheat
and rice) have not averted a pervasive agrarian crisis
India. Farmers received free electricity to pump
groundwater, high yielding varieties of wheat and
rice, subsidized inputs and minimum support prices.
Output soared, but at a price: the northern Indian
heartlands of the Green Revolution are now perhaps
‘the most heavily irrigated region in the world,’with
‘probably the largest rate of groundwater loss in any
comparable-sized region on Earth’(Tiwari, Wahr, &
Swenson, 2009, p. 1). Some 1 M ha in NW India are
aﬀected by irrigation-induced salinization and in the
state of Haryana, waterlogging and salinity cause
losses estimated at US$37 million annually (Datta &
de Jong, 2002).
At the same time, smallholders, those without
access to private tubewell irrigation, and those culti-
vating so-called ‘resource poor’farms were largely
eclipsed from the ‘state subsidized windfall’experi-
enced by more prosperous farmers (Stone, 2019;
Subramanian, 2015). Up to the late 1980s, invest-
ment in irrigation and ﬂood control was twenty-
two times that dedicated to soil and water conserva-
tion in rainfed landscapes (Vaidyanath, 1994), which
remained ‘unrecognized in mainstream planning’.
The ﬁrst mention of rainfed dryland farms in the
national planning process in the 1980s was
accompanied by the admission that ‘decades of
neglect had led to dryland areas being caught in a
vicious circle of high risk, low investment, poor tech-
nology and low production’(Chhotray, 2011, p. 56).
Farmers in these landscapes continue to experience
hunger, poverty and malnutrition and are increas-
ingly vulnerable to a combination of climatic varia-
bility and economic development (Kumar,
Shivamurthy, & Biradar, 2016;O’Brien et al., 2004;
Yadav & Lal, 2018).
A number of alternatives have emerged in
response to these crises, seeking to reverse rural
decline through revitalized, sustainable farming
systems. Encompassing a diverse array of state,
private and third-sector initiatives, grassroots
4Z. P. BHARUCHA ET AL.
movements and hybrid forms, the nascent post-Green
Revolution transition to agricultural sustainability in
India does not constitute a homogenous nor internally
consistent whole. Forms, approaches and even under-
lying ontologies vary markedly, but in common is a
commitment to revitalizing smallholder agriculture
and the ecosystems on which it depends. Many
these initiatives may broadly be said to be forms of
sustainable intensiﬁcation, some may qualify as
forms of redesign.
Emerging either in opposition to dominant agrar-
ian political economy, as a response to longstanding
marginalization, or to mitigate the social-ecological
externalities of conventional cultivation, these alterna-
tives take various organizational forms. These range
from organized development initiatives, farmer collec-
tives (e.g. for seed saving and sharing), formal certiﬁ-
cation schemes (most notably for organic
production) and a new wave of what Münster (2016)
terms ‘neoliberal agro-entrepreneurship’. There is
also a broad tradition of ‘natural farming’, propounded
by advocates such as Narayana Reddy (in Karnataka),
Shripad Dabholkar (Maharashtra), G Nammalvar
(Tamil Nadu), Partap C Aggarwal (Madhya Pradesh)
and Bashar Save (popularly referred to as the
‘Gandhi of Natural Farming’, working in Gujarat).
Finally, in recent years there has also been a wave of
state-led initiatives to ‘convert’entire provinces to par-
ticular forms of (more) sustainable agriculture –most
notably organic. The states of Sikkim, Karnataka,
Mizoram, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh,
Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and
Gujarat all have organic farming policies or regu-
lations. A total of 835,000 Indian farmers are certiﬁed
organic cultivators (amounting to 30% of the total
number of organic farmers globally, on 1.78 M ha of
land, representing an increase of some 290,000 ha
since 2017) (FiBL and IFOAM, 2019). In practice,
alternatives overlap and co-exist, with farmers devel-
oping and adopting components of diﬀerent
packages in combinations best suited to their farms.
Driving these transitions have been a combination
of grassroots social movements (e.g. Khadse et al.,
2017) on the inﬂuence of these dynamics on the
spread of ZBNF in Karnataka, the formation of hetero-
geneous networks transcending conventional net-
works (e.g. Basu & Leeuwis, 2012, on the spread of
the system of rice intensiﬁcation (SRI) in Andhra
Pradesh) and the engagement of conventional
actors such as state agricultural universities and
Many alternatives actively position themselves in
terms broadly consonant with ‘redesign’, inasmuch
as they aim towards vibrant rural lifeways and seek
to fundamentally re-vision farmers’relationship with
the land and with the market. Münster characterizes
these initiatives as a form of ‘protective double-move-
ment’,‘aiming to regenerate rural society from the
consequences of the commodiﬁcation of land (nonhu-
man nature) and labour (human nature)’,or as ways to
repair or rework the metabolic rift brought about by
capitalist agriculture (Münster, 2016, p. 222). Most
promote ‘low external input’forms, advocating ‘ecolo-
gically integrated techniques and the development of
local food markets to reduce farmers’dependency on
market inputs that are external to the local farm
system …theoretically reducing expenses while low-
ering the ecological burden of agriculture’(Brown,
2018, p. 3).
3. Zero budget natural farming and its
spread in Andhra Pradesh
ZBNF is a system developed in the 1980s by Indian
farmer, agricultural scientist and extension agent
Subhash Palekar who established ZBNF after a
period of self-study of the Vedas (the oldest of the
Hindu scriptures), organic farming and conventional
agricultural science, testing methods on his own
farm. The phrase ‘Zero Budget’refers to the aim of
achieving dramatic cuts in production costs by
ending dependence on external synthetic inputs and
agricultural credit. It is not meant to signify ‘zero
costs’. Instead, as practicing farmers clarify, it is
meant to signify that ‘the need for external ﬁnancing
is zero, and that any costs incurred can be oﬀset by
a diversiﬁed source of income’(ABZNF 2018 quoted
in Khadse & Rosset, 2019, p. 9, emphasis added). The
phrase ‘Natural Farming’invokes the agroecological
basis on which these cuts are to be achieved. The prac-
tice consists of four principles, referred to by ZBNF
practitioners as the four ‘wheels’of ZBNF (Table 1).
In addition to these, ZBNF farmers also reduce or
avoid the application of synthetic pesticides, relying
instead on homemade preparations for controlling
fungus and insect pests, sourced from locally available
trees and plants such as neem, chili, garlic and
tobacco. Finally, farmers are encouraged to plant live
fences, use trenches for water harvesting and design
ﬁelds using a ‘ﬁve layer’multi-cropping model, inte-
grating trees with crop plants in a ‘canopy’formation
wherein each plant is able to access the right amount
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF AGRICULTURAL SUSTAINABILITY 5
of sunlight (Khadse & Rosset, 2019; La Via Campesina,
2016; Palekar, 2019). While ZBNF remains the most
widely used term to describe these practices, there
has been recent discussion amongst policy-makers
and leading practitioners of a potential change in ter-
minology to ‘Chemical Free’Natural Farming or even
‘Community Managed’Natural Farming to better
reﬂect farmer practices and avoid misunderstanding
regarding input costs. In this paper, we retain use of
the term ‘Zero Budget’in order to reﬂect existing
usage, and in the absence of any formal or widely
accepted change in terminology.
ZBNF has so far been adopted most prominently in
the states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Adoption
in Karnataka has been achieved through a grassroots
social movement, initially spearheaded in 2002 by
the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (an organizational
member of La Via Campesina) (Khadse et al., 2017).
Palekar’s teachings initially received a mixed response
from farmers, until early adopters began showcasing
success to peers (Khadse & Rosset, 2019). Training
workshops grew in number and size, with an esti-
mated 200 workshops having been organized over
the last 15 years in the state (Khadse & Rosset,
2019). The state governments of Himachal Pradesh
(Government of Himachal Pradesh, 2018) and Karna-
taka have since allocated funds to support the
spread of ZBNF and the state governments of
Rajasthan, Meghalaya, and Gujarat have all expressed
an interest in setting up programmes for ZBNF.
Precise ﬁgures for numbers of farmers adopting ZBNF
across the country are unavailable, partly because learn-
ing, teaching and practice are not centrally organized by
any single agency, and partly because farmers tend to
adapt the package, adopting one or two elements
(Khadse et al., 2017). What is clear is that farmers are
enthused by the method. In Karnataka for example, an
estimated 60,000–100,000 farmers have attended 60
training camps organized over the last decade (ZBNF
leader cited in Khadse et al., 2017).
In contrast to the ‘bottom up’, grassroots organiz-
ation of ZBNF elsewhere, Andhra Pradesh has made
ZBNF the central pillar through which to execute
state agricultural and rural development policy. The
formal roll out of ZBNF-focused extension in Andhra
Pradesh was foreshadowed by a number of initiatives
designed to help farmers (particularly smallholders)
transition to more sustainable and viable agricultural
livelihoods. Before turning to the speciﬁcs of the
ZBNF programme, we brieﬂy describe these initiatives,
which contained within them a number of institutional
innovations now supporting the spread of ZBNF.
Andhra Pradesh is located in southeastern India,
and has been known as India’s‘Rice Bowl’on
account of its tracts of irrigated paddy cultivation
within the basins of the Godavari, Krishna and Penna
rivers. Further inland, rainfed dryland farming predo-
minates, with farmers relying to varying extents on
protective irrigation from mainly private sources.
Across the state, some 62% of the population is
employed in agriculture and allied activities, cultivat-
ing around 8 M ha of cropped area and generating
just over a quarter of the state’s GDP. In addition to
rice, the state is also a major producer of fruit, eggs,
and aquaculture products. The adoption of Green
Revolution innovations contributed to signiﬁcant
yield growth for important food staples –rice, ground-
nut and lentils. However, from the 1990s, yields began
to decline. Conventional high-throughput systems
began to be recognized as costly and increasingly
ineﬀective. By the early 2000s, small farmers (those
cultivating <2 ha) were spending 35% of their
Table 1. The four wheels of ZBNF and their intended impacts (adapted from La Via Campesina, 2016).
Wheel and practices Intended Impact
Bijamrita (Seed treatment)
The application of a homemade seed treatment consisting of cowdung and urine to
seeds and seedlings.
Protection from seed and soil-borne disease
Increase soil carbon
Jivamrita (Liquid and solid inoculants)
The application of an in-situ culture of water, cow manure and urine (from the
indigenous variety, Bos indicus), unreﬁned cane sugar, legume ﬂour and
uncontaminated/ virgin soil (to introduce local soil microbiota).
Improve soil condition
Increase activity of soil biota including microbes and
Increase soil organic matter
Prevent harmful fungal and bacterial growth
Soil mulching (avoiding tillage), straw mulching (the application of straw to the soil)
and live mulching (intercropping with, e.g. nitrogen-ﬁxing crops).
Improving soil condition, particularly topsoil
Adding organic matter and fertility
Increased activity of soil biota (including microbes
activated by Jivamrita) and soil insects.
Whapasa (Soil aeration)
Building up of soil humus
Reduced overreliance on irrigation and improved
aeration and soil moisture proﬁle
6Z. P. BHARUCHA ET AL.
cultivation expenditure on synthetic pesticides and
fertilizers (against a national average of 30%) (Govern-
ment of India, 2005).
The signiﬁcance of this is two-fold. First, high
expenditure on synthetic inputs is a key driver of
indebtedness. In the early 2000s, small farmers in
Andhra Pradesh earned just $154 annually from agri-
culture and related sources (with an average annual
income of $440 and average expenditure on cultiva-
tion of $268) (Thallam et al., 2009). As a result, some
82% of farm households in the state were indebted,
with an average outstanding loan amount of $660
per farmer (more than twice the national average of
$280) (Centre for Economic and Social Studies,
2007). Second, this model of farming came with a
high ecological footprint, with the state recording
amongst the highest rates of consumption of syn-
thetic pesticides in India, with application rates of
0.87 kg a.i./ha (against a national average of 0.3 kg/ha).
Responding to these challenges, a number of
grassroots and civil society initiatives emerged in the
early 2000s, attempting (in the ﬁrst instance) to
eﬀect a transition away from synthetic inputs. NGOs
such as the Centre for World Solidarity helped
spread awareness of alternative, ecologically benign
methods of pest control. At the same time, farmers
began experimenting with alternative methods inde-
pendently, helping to create wider acceptance for
more participatory forms of knowledge creation and
innovation (Thallam et al., 2009).
A step-change was brought about when the
Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP) (a
non-proﬁt set up by the Government of Andhra
Pradesh) integrated ‘Community Managed Sustain-
able Agriculture’(CMSA) into its poverty reduction
programme. This was managed by community
institutions –in the main, a pioneer initiative was
the creation of federated structures of women’s self-
help groups (WSHGs) encompassing some 10 M
women, organized into just over 850,000 groups and
representing around 90% of all poor households in
the state. This institutional architecture helped drive
a‘complete paradigm shift [away] from conventional
agriculture’(Thallam et al., 2009, p. 11, parentheses
added), as well as signiﬁcant cost-savings for farmers
(Rao, 2012) in three (non-linear, loosely overlapping)
stages (Figure 1).
As part of these eﬀorts towards sustainable agricul-
ture, Subhash Palekar was invited to conduct a
number of ZBNF training workshops in the state. At
around the same time, the Andhra Pradesh depart-
ment of agriculture set up a dedicated non-proﬁt
organization, the Rythu Sadhikara Samstha (RySS,
‘Farmers Empowerment Organisation’) in 2014. The
RySS now acts as the single institutional mechanism
coordinating ‘all programmes, schemes and activities
intended for farmer’s empowerment, encompassing
welfare, development, capacity enhancement, credit
ﬂow, ﬁnancial support and allied empowerment activi-
ties’(Government of Andhra Pradesh, 2019). The
spread of ZBNF is tightly woven into this mandate,
with the RySS designated by a formal Government
Order in 2016 as the Implementing Organisation
responsible for the roll out of ZBNF. The overall goal
is to reach 6 million farmers and convert 8 million hec-
tares (90% of the cultivated area) into ZBNF ﬁelds by
the end of the next decade, paying special attention
to conserving both farmer livelihoods and ecosystems.
The RySS estimates that around 580,000 farmers have
begun practicing ZBNF in the state by 2019, up from
163,000 in 2017–2018 (V Thallam 2019, pers. Comm.,
email dated 28th September, 2019).
4. Building social and human capital
Key to the scaling of ZBNF in Andhra Pradesh has been
the work done from the early 2000s to build a dense,
multi-layered community-based extension ecosystem.
This ecosystem is organized across 3 scales: a ‘zone’,
(consisting of approximately 80 households); a Gram
Panchayat (roughly analogous to a village-level
administration) and ﬁnally, a ‘cluster’of ﬁve Gram Pan-
chayats (Figure 2).
Peer to peer learning is key: ‘Community resource
persons’(CRPs) are farmers who have been desig-
nated as community-level extension agents. The
CRPs’main role is to communicate ZBNF principles
Figure 1. Three-stage transition towards sustainable production in
Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture in Andhra Pradesh
(adapted from Thallam et al., 2009).
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF AGRICULTURAL SUSTAINABILITY 7
among potential adopters, fulﬁlling a detailed brief
requiring extensive engagement with farmers.
Khadse and Rosset (2019) highlight how
they [CRPs] have a full schedule of mandatory daily activi-
ties to ensure that they cover all of the SHGs [self-help
groups] assigned to them. In the mornings, they organise
a study circle in a speciﬁc village. In the afternoon they
visit farmers’ﬁelds for troubleshooting. In the evenings,
they project videos related to the days learnings so that
farmers can engage in discussions. (p. 15, parenthesis
Farmer ﬁeld schools are held weekly, facilitated by
trained conveners, and include male and female
farmers engaged in ZBNF ‘best practice’.
Farmers transitioning to ZBNF in Andhra Pradesh
are thus embedded within a supportive network of
peers, practitioners and formally trained agronomists,
together forming a dense learning ecosystem
designed to support a knowledge-intensive transition
towards more integrated, complex agricultural
systems. Farmers are encouraged to experiment with
ZBNF, progressively deepening their practice. This
means that for some farmers, early adoption may be
restricted to simple input substitution –using ZBNF
formulations in place of synthetic externally derived
inputs. Success with these then encourages further
experimentation, and farmers may move closer to
adopting the whole ZBNF package. RySS interim
targets and scaling plans estimate that a typical
farmer begins by experimenting with ZBNF on
approximately one quarter of land available, sup-
ported by a ‘farm action plan’designed with the
local self-help group or village organization, transition-
ing to full-scale adoption across the entire farm in
approximately 3 years (RySS, undated).
Five Gram Panchayats together make a ‘cluster’,
each of which is additionally supported by a desig-
nated multipurpose extension oﬃcer, a Natural
Farming Fellow, and Community Resource Persons
(CRPs), including one dedicated to ‘social mobiliz-
ation’. Natural Farming Fellows are graduates who
undertake a 2-year Fellowship during which they are
resident in a village, practicing ZBNF as a ‘role model
farmer’(Figure 2), assisting in the spread of ZBNF
within the villages that form a cluster (Figure 2), and
working on a selected thematic area (RySS, 2019a,
2019b). CRPs are local residents who may be regarded
as ‘exemplar’ZBNF farmers, implementing all aspects
of ZBNF, who play a leading role in promoting
farmer-to-farmer learning and acting as advocates
Figure 2. Institutional-levels supporting ZBNF roll-out in each zone, gram panchayat and cluster (adapted from RySS, 2018a).
8Z. P. BHARUCHA ET AL.
for ZBNF (a function termed ‘social mobilization’
within the RySS) (RySS, 2019b).
The planned roll out aims to replicate this architec-
ture across each of Andhra Pradesh’s 12,924 Gram
Panchayats, at an estimated cost of Rs. 10,000,000
(US$ 140,100) per Panchayat (translating to around
Rs. 25,000 (US$ 350) per household). ZBNF ‘sub-com-
mittees’are formed at every level of village and local
government administration up to district level,
holding monthly meetings. Community-based moni-
toring is carried out by women’s self-group
members, who inspect ﬁelds (with budgets provided
for these inspections). Finally, village shops and
hiring centres are set up to act as knowledge centres
and supply points for ZBNF inputs, and equipment.
Local hiring centres contain low-HP machines such
as pulverisers, power weeders and sprayers.
Since the inception of the programme in 2016,
there have also been four further ‘mega-training’pro-
grammes in Andhra Pradesh organized with Subhash
Palekar, each hosting thousands of farmers, local
extension oﬃcers and RySS staﬀ. Community
Resource Persons continually acquire new skills
through human-mediated digital extension videos
on ZBNF practices followed by farmer group discus-
sions after video sessions. In order to facilitate this,
they are trained in using smart phones (as well as
ICT to monitor farmers’progress).
5. ZBNF outcomes for crops, incomes and
The literature on the impacts of ZBNF impacts, and
draws mainly on data collected outside Andhra
Pradesh. Khadse et al. (2017) surveyed 97 farmers in
Karnataka in 2012, asking farmers to rank changes to
general crop yields, income and production costs on
a three-point scale (increase, decrease or no change).
78.7% of their respondents stated that yields had
increased, 85.7% reported improvements to income,
and 90.9% reported that production costs had
decreased. In Andhra Pradesh, internal surveys
carried out by RySS of crop yields show higher yields
under ZBNF conditions and notable increases in
farmer income (mainly through reduced production
costs). Crop-cutting experiments conducted in 2017
showed that 88% of farmers surveyed (n= 1614) had
beneﬁted from an increase in yields and decrease in
costs, with yields increasing across crop types and in
some cases, outpacing average state yields for
Andhra Pradesh (RySS, 2018b).
We analyzed data from crop-cutting experiments
conducted by RySS amongst farmers who took up
ZBNF in 2016. Crop-cutting was conducted during
the 2017 kharif (monsoon) season, on 1531 ZBNF
and 1531 non-ZBNF plots. Data were sent to the UK-
based team as an Excel dataset. This was cleaned,
checking for errors or data gaps, and then saved to
a database on IBM SPSS Statistics for Windows,
version 25 (IBM Corp., Armonk, N.Y., USA) in advance
of analysis. These data cover food crops (rainfed and
irrigated cereals, legumes and horticultural crops)
and cash crops (irrigated and rainfed cotton) across
all 13 districts in Andhra Pradesh. To facilitate paired
comparisons between ZBNF and non-ZBNF con-
ditions, crop cuttings were taken from two 5 × 5 m
samples (10 × 10 m for cotton), one from crops
grown using ZBNF practices, and the other using con-
ventional practices. This control sample was taken
either from a section of a ZBNF farmers’ﬁeld where
conventional practices were being used (most
farmers stagger the adoption of ZBNF), or from an
adjacent ﬁeld where the same crop was being culti-
vated using conventional practices (subject to match-
ing for soil type, seed variety and irrigation regime).
The majority of the sample were smallholders cultivat-
ing <1 ha each of land.
Across the sample, a Mann–Whitney U Test (as the
data were non-parametric) showed a statistically sig-
niﬁcant diﬀerence between ZBNF and non-ZBNF crop
yield: (ZBNF (Md = 13.21), non-ZBNF (Md = 12), U =
956250.5, z = −8.82, p< 0.001). ZBNF yields were
higher than non-ZBNF yields across all districts
except one (the district of West Godavari, where
yields were 7% lower, likely due to anaerobic soil due
to water logging, which is a normal phenomenon in
the delta region). All crops except irrigated maize
and irrigated cotton show higher yields under ZBNF
relative to a non-ZBNF control (see Figure 3 for yield
diﬀerences that attained statistical signiﬁcance with
the Mann–Whitney test). Costs of cultivation under
ZBNF conditions were lower, and net incomes higher,
than non-ZBNF for all crops (Figures 4 and 5). Irrigated
crops achieved slightly larger reductions in costs of cul-
tivation relative to rainfed crops (−28% against −24%,
determined by calculating total reductions across all
irrigated crops versus all rainfed crops).
Previous models of agricultural intensiﬁcation in
India have relied either on the heavy abstraction of
groundwater or intensive water use of surface water.
India is the world’s largest consumer of groundwater,
with some 10 million wells supporting up to 70% of
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF AGRICULTURAL SUSTAINABILITY 9
Figure 3. Yields (t/ha) under ZBNF and non-ZBNF for key kharif season crops, 2017 (* signiﬁcant at p< 0.05 and ** signiﬁcant at p< 0.001).
Figure 4. Cost of cultivation under ZBNF and non-ZBNF crops (000 Rs/ha), kharif season 2017 (* signiﬁcant p< 0.05, ** signiﬁcant at p< 0.001).
Table 2. Mann-Whitney U Tests for diﬀerence in yields, cost of cultivation and income between ZBNF and non-ZBNF across a sample of rainfed
crops (n= 678 pairs).
ZBNF compared with non-ZBNF ZBNF Actual Non-ZBNF Signiﬁcance
Yields (t/ha) +16.5% 4.80 4.12 P< 0.001
Cost of cultivation (000 Rs) −23.7% 22.9 30.0 P< 0.0005
Gross income (000 Rs) +14.2% 80.6 70.6 P< 0.001
Net income (000 Rs) +50.0% 54.0 36.0 P< 001
10 Z. P. BHARUCHA ET AL.
the country’s agricultural production (Fishman, 2018;
Shah, 2008). New models of intensiﬁcation are thus
required; methods that do not work for rainfed crops
without requiring irrigation intensiﬁcation are unlikely
to be sustainable over time. In light of this it is
encouraging to note that rainfed crops within the
sample (n= 678 pairs; representing farmers of
rainfed paddy, maize, groundnut, ﬁnger millet and
cotton) fare better under ZBNF methods than non-
ZBNF controls (Table 2).
While the RySS continues to collect data from crop-
cutting experiments annually (thus allowing future
longitudinal assessments), independent evaluations
of changes to crop yields are also forthcoming (most
notably from multi-site trials being conducted by the
Indian Council of Agricultural Research).
6. Farmer testimonies on outcomes for farm
ecosystems and household transitions
Field observation, farmer testimonies and reports from
extension workers, are so far the primary source of
information on broad changes on and oﬀfarm in
Andhra Pradesh. Natural Farming Fellows, Community
Resource Persons and other RySS staﬀhave been col-
lecting farmer testimonies since the ﬁrst adoption of
ZBNF. In 2018, some of these were transferred to the
UK-based co-authors, anonymised, and saved as a col-
lection of short, qualitative testimonies on the themes
of biodiversity, resilience to climate shocks, and crop
health. It should be noted that these do not necess-
arily represent a systematically collected body of
generalizable evidence, but have been purposively
collected and presented to show that under favour-
able circumstances, farmers have experienced positive
outcomes across a range of farm health indicators
beyond increases to crop yields and incomes.
(i). Crop health and resilience to climate shocks: both
farmers and extension workers report better plant
health and vigour in ZBNF ﬁelds (Boxes 1 and 2)
amongst a range of horticultural and arable
crops, including after ﬂooding (Figure 6) and dry
spells. RySS workers attribute this to deeper and
larger root systems and more robust plant struc-
tures in plants raised under ZBNF conditions.
RySS workers and ZBNF farmers in the districts
of Ananthapur, Kurnool and Vishakapatnam, for
example, reported greater resilience to cyclone
damage (Figure 6) as well as dry spells (with
yields maintained under ZBNF conditions during
the 2016 drought as well as dry-spells in 2017).
The generalizability of these outcomes should
be established through further studies that use
stratiﬁed random sampling across the landscape
and assess the performance of ZBNF ﬁelds follow-
ing a range of diﬀerent types and severities of
(ii). Biodiversity: no systematic biodiversity assess-
ments have been conducted following the adop-
tion of ZBNF, but farmers and extension workers
have been using text messaging and WhatsApp
to share photos of insects and other fauna noted
on ZBNF ﬁelds. One systematic comparison
Figure 5. Net incomes under ZBNF and non-ZBNF crops (000 Rs/ha), kharif season 2017 (* signiﬁcant at p< 0.05 and ** signiﬁcant at p< 0.001).
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF AGRICULTURAL SUSTAINABILITY 11
between ZBNF and non-ZBNF ﬁelds occurred in
2018, ﬁnding a diﬀerence in earthworm numbers
and castings between ZBNF and non-ZBNF ﬁelds
across 480 samples taken from all 13 districts in
Andhra Pradesh. ZBNF ﬁelds hosted an average
of 232 earthworms per square metre, compared
with just 32 on non-ZBNF ﬁelds (RySS, 2018c
unpublished data). ZBNF farmers also report a
number of earthworms on ZBNF plots (Figure 7),
as well as beneﬁcial insects (pollinators and pest
antagonists), including honeybees, lacewing
bugs (an antagonist to aphids, leafhoppers,
whiteﬂies and mealybugs) and ladybugs in
various crop types and agro-climatic zones.
Box 1. Farmer testimony on the impact of ZBNF practices
on crop quality (*name changed).
Kamal*, a farmer from Anantpur district has been practicing
agriculture for 15 years. He has just over 2 hectares of land, on
which he has mainly been cultivating Papaya for the last 5
years. He was inspired by his interaction with a Community
Resource Person in 2017, and began practicing ZBNF. He has
been learning about the method through regular attendance of
his local farmer self-help group, which has also given him access
to credit with three loans.
At ﬁrst, he began by preparing Ghanajeevamrutham and
Dravajeevamrutham on his own. He avoided the use of any
synthetic fertilizer and used drip irrigation. Over the ﬁrst 7
months’, the entire papaya plantation has changed dramatically.
He has observed a number of changes to the papaya trees,
including dense leaf-growth, budding within 2 months and a
greater number of fruit per tree. In the ﬁrst cutting, he has been
able to fetch a higher than average price at market due to the
quality of the fruit. Kamal’s papaya ﬁeld attracts farmers from
surrounding villages and his success has inspired a number of
other farmers to take up ZBNF.
Box 2. Farmer testimony on improved farm health after the
adoption of ZBNF, improved yields and higher income
Mr. Kumar* had initially leased out his land on lease. The tenant
farmer indiscriminately used synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
Kumar was dismayed by the condition of the soil and cancelled the
lease agreement. He decided to practice natural farming on his
ﬁeld after he learned about its beneﬁt and underwent a training
programme over one week. After undertaking natural farming
practices he observed the following changes in his ﬁeld:
(i) Soil: Improved porosity and increased numbers of
(ii) Income: Intercropping of sugarcane with chilli, eggplant,
tomato and coriander provides
(iii) A year-round income.
(iv) Insects & pest control: He is maintaining 12 hens and 5
turkeys, to help control insects and pests in the ﬁeld.
(v) Mulching: He uses residue of previous crops
(vi) Value addition: Sugarcane to jiggery, paddy to rice
(vii) Marketing: Consumers come directly to his ﬁelds to buy his
(viii) Cattle: He has his own cattle shed through which he uses
cow dung and cow urine in his own ﬁelds along with selling the
surplus to the villages to create awareness about natural farming.
In addition to new crop types and rotations,
farmers have added new elements to ﬁelds to help
control insect pests. The addition of bird perches,
yellow plates, pheromone trap crops and the use of
‘friendly’insects, all introduced during earlier eﬀorts
Figure 6. ZBNF paddy ﬁeld (left) and non-ZBNF paddy (right) after cyclone damage, Vishakapatnam district, (2017) (Source: RySS Natural Farming
12 Z. P. BHARUCHA ET AL.
for community managed sustainable agriculture, con-
tinue to be used by ZBNF farmers. Farmers have also
begun experimenting with adding elements indepen-
dently, keeping small free-ranging poultry, like hens
and turkeys, and allowing them to forage through
ﬁelds as a means of pest control. Crop diversity has
also clearly increased, with farmers speciﬁcally encour-
aged to take up polycropping. Further work will need
systematically to assess biodiversity improvements on
and around ZBNF farms, and the pathways through
which change occurs.
(iii). Household transitions: in order to capture farm-
system and household-level change we asked a
small number of ZBNF farmers to describe house-
hold and landscape level change over the last
three years (from adoption of ZBNF in 2016 to
the present) (Figure 8(a and b)). This data was col-
lected remotely by RySS-based Natural Farming
Fellows following a template for participatory
rural appraisal (PRA) provided by the UK-based
co-authors. Ethical approval was obtained from
the Departmental ethics review panel at the
Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin
University prior to data collection. Ethical review
covered the methods used to collect, store and
analyse these participatory data. Before conduct-
ing the PRA, the UK-based research team pre-
pared a simple random sampling list of farmers
covering all crops and districts, after which a
subset of 34 individuals were purposively
selected based on their availability and willing-
ness to participate.
In July 2018, a two-day exercise was conducted
with the selected farmers, who were asked to follow
a single instruction: to graphically illustrate signiﬁcant
changes to their farms, households or wider commu-
nities since the uptake of ZBNF. We did not predeter-
mine what aspects of change farmers should illustrate,
leaving it to them to represent what they felt was most
important. Descriptions were captured through draw-
ings on one A5-sized sheet per farmer, with the
support and facilitation of local Natural Farming
Fellows. The drawings thus obtained consist of
resource maps of local villages and ﬁelds; social
maps illustrating new webs of relationships support-
ing crop cultivation, harvesting, storage and sale;
food plates illustrating new dietary regimes; income
and expenditure cycles and value chains. Figure 8(a
and b) provide a ﬁgurative example. Drawings were
scanned and sent electronically to the UK-based
team, who were debriefed on each drawing during a
conversation conducted over Skype. Key themes are
summarized in Table 3. Further work is necessary to
assess how these various outcomes play out over
time and across a stratiﬁed sample of ZBNF farms.
7. ZBNF transitions as a form of redesign
Agricultural system redesign constitutes a fundamen-
tally social, cultural and institutional challenge rather
Figure 7. Earthworms on ZBNF plot (Source: RySS Natural Farming Fellows 2018).
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF AGRICULTURAL SUSTAINABILITY 13
than either a set of technologies or practices (Hill,
1985). Within this section, we reﬂect on the ways in
which ZBNF is consonant with the concept of rede-
sign. An important qualiﬁcation is the lack of any uni-
formity in ZBNF ‘practice’either in general or within
the structured uptake of the package designed by
RySS by Andhra Pradesh’s farmers. Farmers adopting
the method following attendance of Palekar’s training
camps have adapted the method to suit the practical-
ities of their individual farms, and may adopt a suite
of methods –agroecological or otherwise –alongside
Palekar’s prescribed inputs and farm designs (Khadse
et al., 2017). Methods may also change year by year,
depending on external drivers (weather and prices)
or imperatives at farm and household level. The
resulting complex of results and impacts across the
state is likely to be extraordinarily complex, and
complicates eﬀorts to discuss ‘general’ZBNF practice
and outcomes. Farmers adopting ZBNF in Andhra
Pradesh through structured support from RySS,
though arguably part of a more formalized pro-
gramme, nevertheless also adopt the method pro-
gressively (Khadse & Rosset, 2019), leading to a
broad range of farm regimes across the landscape.
Nevertheless, our aim at this stage is to discuss under-
lying principles, rather than evaluating ZBNF practice
against a set of ﬁxed criteria.
First, ZBNF –both as advocated by Palekar and as
practiced speciﬁcally in Andhra Pradesh –is radical,
going beyond incremental change within existing
agricultural systems. Proponents aim to fundamentally
transform farm systems, and with them, rural liveli-
hoods. Palekar speciﬁcally discusses changed norms
and subjectivities: ‘the internal and external change
Figure 8. (a and b) Resource (ﬁeld) map representations on the evolution of cropping systems on a rainfed farm in Kurnool district, between 2015
and July 2018.
Table 3. Key themes from farmers’testimonies on ZBNF outcomes for farms and households.
Crop health and resilience Farmers reported greater crop resilience to dry spells and other climate shocks. Annotations with
income ﬁgures showed that losses of some high value crops due to pest attacks or climate shocks
were adequately oﬀset by stable yields in other crop types, an outcome enabled by the RySS
model of encouraging more complex crop mixes. Incomes were held stable despite crop losses,
due to signiﬁcantly lower production costs.
Greater crop diversity and more complex
Farmers illustrated transitions from monocropping to polycropping, with the progressive addition,
year on year, of new crops and crop mixes, the design of new rotations and more complex
cropping patterns. One farmer illustrated a transition from 1 crop type in 2016–10 in 2018,
representing a signiﬁcant increase in productivity but also human and natural capital.
Food plates Farmers illustrating food plates drew a greater number of food types as well as greater quantities of
Health Farmers illustrated a transition from periods of ill health to better health, smiling faces illustrated
Incomes Farmers illustrated improvements to housing, with transitions from katcha (rough, thatched)
housing to pukka (permanent, concrete or mortar) housing.
14 Z. P. BHARUCHA ET AL.
simultaneously’(Palekar, 2010). ZBNF farmers are seen
to be enacting new moral imperatives (Khadse et al.,
2017) and are encouraged by Palekar to undergo no
less than a ‘change of personality and of the culture
of farming’, with a new ecological rationality: ‘a new
mindset …which involves a curiosity about ecosys-
tems, renewed pride about being a farmer and a
focus on a good life’(Münster, 2014, p. 25). Münster
(2018, p. 755) describes how Palekar’s training
camps act as revival meetings in which farmers are
‘repeatedly invited to stand up, raise their right arm
and solemnly vow to transform themselves from
being a “demon destroyer of nature”to a “saint pro-
tector of nature”’.
Proponents and practitioners (particularly self-
identiﬁed ZBNF ‘purists’) also explicitly position
ZBNF in stark opposition to mainstream agronomy
and the dominant system of knowledge politics
that advances it. Palekar calls on farmers to
‘boycott all the techniques of Agricultural Univer-
sities’(Münster, 2018, p. 757) and he is also
opposed to alternatives that, in his view, make
insigniﬁcant or incremental adjustments. Organic
agriculture, for example, is criticized by Palekar for
not being radical enough, on the basis that
farmers simply replace synthetic inputs with permiss-
ible alternatives (Münster, 2016) without actually re-
visioning their relationship to the land. For Palekar,
ZBNF is meant to drive a more fundamental cultural
challenge to mainstream agronomy and replaces the
common focus on accumulation or productivity with
a focus on ‘autonomy, health and self-suﬃciency’
(Münster, 2016, p. 223). It is beyond the scope of
this paper to disaggregate these vibrant and conti-
nuing debates or to assess the relative merits of
various positions; here we seek to point out that
both ZBNF proponents and practitioners seek to
implement radical change that goes beyond incre-
mental improvements to farm eﬃciency or input
Both ‘zero budget’and ‘natural farming’are meant
to signify substantial shifts in relations with markets
and nature. The ﬁrst, ‘zero budget’, signiﬁes no less
than a drive for complete independence from external
inputs (and thus from input suppliers and, ostensibly,
the entire constellation of capital, credit and indebted-
ness so central to farmers’contemporary livelihoods).
In this sense, Palekar and ZBNF proponents seek to
engage with key structural drivers of farmer poverty
and agrarian distress, actively engaging with the
‘root causes’mentioned by Hill (1985). ‘Natural
farming’is about more than permissible inputs.
Instead, ZBNF farmers are encouraged to (re) concep-
tualize their farms as vibrant and intrinsically abun-
dant ecosystems, which simply need to be
stewarded respectfully. For example, Palekar com-
pares the sustainable farm to the ‘self-suﬃcient
forest’, which needs no external inputs in order to
For many farmers, Palekar’s trainings are the ﬁrst
time they come to explicitly understand the agroeco-
logical basis of sustainable cultivation (Khadse &
Rosset, 2019). In doing so they report undergoing a
‘paradigm shift’, realizing that soils are not an empty
medium requiring external fertilization, but inherently
fertile and abundant, only needing to be stewarded
appropriately. Farmers also report a new sense of per-
spective as to their capacities and the need for a ‘more
than human’approach: ‘From Palekar he (the farmer)
claims to have learned that there are many things
humans cannot do’(cited in Münster, 2018, p. 756).
Alongside this comes new ‘aﬀective relationships’
between farmers and their cattle, wherein indigenous
variety cows are ‘treated …like a pet; cuddled,
stroked, caressed, and admired for [their] beauty’
(Münster, 2017, p. 25).
Finally, in Andhra Pradesh, RySS (2018d, p. 14) pos-
itions itself as an organization that seeks to drive trans-
formative beneﬁts for the economy, environment and
equity through sustainable agriculture. It explicitly
Converting the agriculture sector of Andhra Pradesh to
100% regenerative agriculture, zero budget natural
farming through 6 million smallholders will deliver
transformative beneﬁts for the economy, environment
and equity. It will present a ﬁrst-of-its-kind blueprint
for sustainable commodities production that reverses
biodiversity losses and preserves ecosystem services,
providing an opportunity for reclaiming planetary
In all these ways, ZBNF discourses and material prac-
tices –diverse, variable and evolving as they are –
reﬂect a key feature of Hill’s concept of redesign:
working outward from a core normative vision, a
focus on addressing ‘root causes’and going beyond
technics to transform systems in their entirety and
from within (including, quite explicitly, the active
involvement of the farmers’inner life, a reconsidera-
tion of fundamental relationships between the
farmer, his land, and the rest of nature, and a rework-
ing of the knowledge politics which mediates this
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF AGRICULTURAL SUSTAINABILITY 15
A second key pillar of Hill’s concept of redesign is
its explicitly agroecological focus. Palekar’s vision
and ZBNF practice are clearly agroecological in
scope and biodiversity-focused (Khadse et al., 2017).
Palekar exhorts farmers to steward biodiversity on
and around farms and most notably within soil.
Within Andhra Pradesh, more complex cropping pat-
terns, including rotations, multi and polycropping
are building on-farm biodiversity, though more work
is needed in order to systematically assess the
inﬂuence of ZBNF on non-cultivated biodiversity
both on and around farms.
Finally, redesign is a predominantly social and insti-
tutional challenge. It involves new relationships within
and between actors, all working collectively across
scales. ZBNF has clearly involved the building of
both social and human capital. Its spread has been
enabled through collaborative action across land-
scapes, peer-to-peer learning as well as collaborations
between experts and ‘expert practitioners’. Khadse
et al. (2017) describe how ZBNF in Karnataka has suc-
cessfully adopted a social movement dynamic that has
facilitated its spread. Within Andhra Pradesh, the state
roll out of ZBNF has of course proceeded through the
functioning of a formal public sector institution –the
RySS, working in partnership with farmers via a
dense extension and farmer support networks. There
is thus a clear diﬀerence between the narrow techno-
centrism that characterizes the formal extension
systems of which Palekar is so critical, and the more
participatory, farmer-led and farmer-focused forms
which have driven the spread of ZBNF –both within
grassroots social movements and within the more
formal roll out in Andhra Pradesh. This hybrid model
has helped farmers to go beyond simple yield
increases, to additive and multiplicative improve-
ments across the farm (Box 2).
8. Lessons for wider transitions to
The spread of ZBNF presents a relatively infrequent
example of a policy-led transition to sustainable agri-
culture being implemented at scale in India. In this
ﬁnal section, we discuss a few important lessons pre-
sented by the Andhra Pradesh experience and
outline a number of emerging questions requiring
The ﬁrst lesson centres on the role of clear policy
directives, accompanied by adequate ﬁnancing and
institutional support. Policy support is vital for
scaling sustainable agriculture (Garibaldi et al., 2019;
Mier y Terán Giménez Cacho et al., 2018; Pretty & Bhar-
ucha, 2014), and a number of notable redesign initiat-
ives that have achieved scale have done so as a result
of explicit policy shifts. The regreening of the Sahel, for
example, has been achieved by changing national tree
ownership regulations that allowed the spread of
agroforestry at scale (Godfray et al., 2010). Public
policy support has also been vital to the development
of social capital supporting sustainable agriculture
(e.g. Australian Landcare, community forest manage-
ment in India, Nepal and Vietnam, Mexican irrigation
user groups, and farmer ﬁeld schools in across Asia
and Africa) (Pretty et al., 2018).
Key to the sustained scaling of ZBNF in Andhra
Pradesh has been the layering of initiatives, allowing
for momentum and experience to build. Previous pro-
grammes on community supported sustainable agri-
culture have put in place an institutional architecture
on which the ZBNF programme is able to capitalize.
The RySS has been nominated as the single agency
responsible for all aspects of the roll-out of ZBNF
and its work is supported by funding from the
central and state government, as well as funding of
around Rs. 100 crore (just over US$14 million) from
private philanthropy (the Aziz Premji Foundation) for
The second key lesson has been the emphasis on
farmer-focused, participatory extension, building
human capital (farmer learning) and two types of
social capital –links between farmers (bonding
capital) and between farmers and ‘experts’in the agri-
cultural research and innovation ecosystem (linking
capital). Here too, previous work has been vital. The
community-supported sustainable agriculture pro-
gramme initiated by SERP has been capitalized on,
and the RySS now coordinates a dense network of
farmer-led and farmer-focused groups extending to
the level of individual households. Farmers are able
to gain information, peer-support and ‘troubleshoot-
ing’from a range of facilitators (some of them fellow
farmers). This level of engagement sets ZBNF ‘exten-
sion’apart from conventional state-led extension
models in India and, we suggest, is likely to be a key
driver of sustained spread over time. It also provides
a key lesson for farmer-focused development initiat-
ives elsewhere in India, where the widespread
neglect of dryland smallholders in formal skills pro-
vision, public agricultural extension and state liveli-
hood support (Gajjar, Singh, & Deshpande, 2019) has
been a key driver of continued vulnerability.
16 Z. P. BHARUCHA ET AL.
At present, public modes of knowledge delivery
match neither the scale nor the complexity of the
social-ecological challenges facing smallholders, par-
ticularly in dryland systems. Extension services
remain ﬁxed in a ‘transfer of technology’model, are
not well matched to local social-ecological contexts,
and do not necessarily target socially or economically
marginalized farmers. They are also understaﬀed, with
an estimated 100,000 extension agents in post (of the
1.3–1.5 million required) (Glendening, Babu, & Asenso-
Okyere, 2010). Where extension services are available,
farmers lack the opportunity for follow-up, and infor-
mation may be provided to farmers who are either
from privileged groups or those who are easiest to
reach (Cole & Fernando, 2012). Partly as a result, just
5.7% of Indian farmers report receiving information
from a public extension agent (Glendening et al.,
Yet, there is also a more cautionary lesson. Ambi-
tious policy initiatives at state level need to proactively
engage with gaps in knowledge provision and
exchange. In Sikkim, farmers who transitioned away
from synthetic inputs were not provided with
enough guidance on how to deal with crop pests,
and struggled to cope with decreased yields across a
variety of crops (Pandey & Sengupta, 2018). These
farmers call for more and better formal support and
training, and also restructured regulation and
markets that allow for proﬁtable sales (Taneja, 2017).
Andhra Pradesh’s initial success with ZBNF has
enthused policy makers in other states as well as at
national level. Going forward, it is important that
farmer-focussed ZBNF programmes are informed by
the institutional and organizational innovations
implemented by the RySS, which enables farmers to
work within a rich learning ecosystem, supported by
peers and more conventional experts.
This brings us to the third key lesson: the impor-
tance of farmer-led and farmer-focussed knowledge-
exchange. While RySS staﬀ‘teach’a formalized
version of ZBNF to farmers, it is clear that RySS aims
to give farmers scope to experiment with the
methods, adapt them and adopt ZBNF progressively
(the explicit provision for a three-year transition,
built into interim RySS targets, is one example). One
emerging tension is the need to communicate key
elements of ZBNF technique versus engaging farmers
with the more advanced or abstract principles animat-
ing ZBNF practice (Khadse & Rosset, 2019). On the one
hand, RySS has created a participatory learning eco-
system to facilitate collective learning through face-
to-face interaction with peers and other experts,
through exposure to video and other media, and
through direct engagement with Palekar’s training
camps. On the other hand, interviewees ‘reveal that
it is not possible to start with high complexity con-
cepts at the ﬁrst go’(Khadse & Rosset, 2019, p. 15).
Instead, farmers begin by using ZBNF as a form of
input substitution before moving on to more
advanced practices and engaging with the underlying
A key set of questions for further research centres
on the need to design evaluations that take into
account diverging levels of engagement and types
of adoption across diﬀerent farms. Evaluations of
agroecological ‘packages’involving multiple com-
ponents is diﬃcult, as these are often adapted to
suit the particular needs of farmers and communities
(Milder, Garbach, DeClerck, Driscoll, & Montenegro,
2012). Outcomes from standardized or simpliﬁed prac-
tices in ﬁeld trials may not therefore correspond with
outcomes from the methods used by farmers. In the
context of sustainable intensiﬁcation, evaluations
must also go beyond impacts on yields. Improvements
to environmental variables are even more challenging
to assess, as outcomes are highly sensitive to initial
conditions, as well as the parameters timescales and
any weightings used (Elliot, Firbank, Drake, Cao, &
Gooday, 2013). These considerations should inform
on-going evaluations of ZBNF, underway across India
via the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR),
with a view to informing further policy making at
national level (Tiwari, 2019). Beyond trials on research
stations, assessing outcomes for practicing farmers is
complicated by the fact that ZBNF –like other initiat-
ives –is ‘layered’on top of an existing array of prac-
tices and technologies. In Andhra Pradesh for
example, farmers may have previously experimented
with organic production, or may be using some
elements of the system of crop intensiﬁcation such
as wide spacing and a revised irrigation schedule.
These may have had impacts on soil health or biodi-
versity prior to the implementation of ZBNF, and this
will be diﬃcult to ‘separate out’in evaluations.
Aﬁnal set of questions around centres on the need
for longitudinal assessments. Redesign initiatives are
not static, as contexts continually change. Multidisci-
plinary longitudinal assessments are needed to
explore how practice and outcomes change over
time, either progressing towards greater sustainability
or reverting to older forms of management. Unin-
tended consequences may also unfold, particularly
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF AGRICULTURAL SUSTAINABILITY 17
over time, and especially if underlying norms and
values remain unchanged (e.g. see Bharucha, Smith,
& Pretty, 2014 on the long-term outcomes of decen-
tralized watershed management). Redesign inno-
vations speciﬁcally seek to re-vision the underlying
status quo, but beyond a certain scale, all innovations
must engage with existing power relations and incum-
bent actors who can thwart, dilute or co-opt them
(Brown, 2018). Alongside longitudinal assessments of
ZBNF outcomes for farmers and landscapes, there
will thus be a need to track how the underlying prin-
ciples of ZBNF are being implemented as the
package is formally adopted by state-led institutions
and is adopted by existing programmes.
The authors wish gratefully to acknowledge funding from Anglia
Ruskin University, which supported a Research Assistant position
for Sol Bermejo Mitjans at the Global Sustainability Institute. We
would like to thank Pavan Sukhdev for collegial support through-
out the project and colleagues at the RySS, particularly Vijay
Thallam, for providing the authors with data, sending infor-
mation on ZBNF and engaging constructively with the research
for this paper. We also thank two anonymous reviewers for
their advice and feedback on an earlier draft of the paper.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the authors.
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