Use of chemical pesticides in India, including those that are banned in other countries, has been a matter of concern and a raging topic of discussion in the country. Addressing the issue, the Andhra Pradesh government has adopted a chemical-free approach with the concept of zero budget natural farming and is now scaling it up to an unprecedented level to cover the entire state by 2024.

The push for zero budget natural farming by the Andhra Pradesh government has inspired Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh to adopt it as well. Additionally, international agencies like the United Nations Environment and others have expressed interest in supporting the natural farming practice in Andhra Pradesh. Zero budget natural farming is a farming practice or set of methods which involve natural farming without chemicals and no spending on purchased inputs.

According to India’s agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh, replying to a question in the Parliament in August, “the main aim of Zero Budget Natural Farming is the elimination of chemical pesticides and promotion of good agronomic practices. It also can sustain agricultural production through an eco-friendly process in tune with nature to produce chemical-free agricultural produce. Soil fertility and soil organic matter is restored by pursuing zero budget natural farming. Less water is required under zero budget natural farming and it is a climate-friendly system of agriculture.”

While zero budget natural farming is being scaled up by Andhra Pradesh and is practised in several other states, it first evolved in Karnataka out of a collaboration between agriculturalist Subhash Palekar, who put together the zero budget natural farming practices for the state farmers association Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha.

Andhra Pradesh is now taking zero budget natural farming to the next level by facilitating the transition of six million farms/farmers cultivating eight million hectares of land from conventional synthetic chemical agriculture to zero budget natural farming by 2024, making Andhra Pradesh India’s first 100% natural farming state.

Farmers taking the harvest out of the field. Photo credit: Achuthan KV/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY 4.0]

Expensive affair

It is estimated that the Andhra Pradesh government will require about Rs 150 billion (Rs. 15,000 crore) over the next few years to achieve their goal of making a complete switch to natural farming in the state by 2024.

The importance of the programme has already invited international attention and a series of partnerships. In June 2018, the Andhra government officially launched the initiative even though it has been going on for several years. The event was attended by UN Environment’s Executive Director Erik Solheim who stated that this is an unprecedented transformation towards sustainable agriculture on a massive scale and the “kind of bold change we need to see to protect the climate, biodiversity and food security.”

“We’re pinning a great deal on the Zero Budget Natural Farming programme, which I hope will inspire the widespread adoption of a natural farming scheme. It’s a better deal for farmers, consumers, and the planet,” he said at the launch event.

According to officials in the Andhra Pradesh government, Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu’s idea is to showcase the state as the hub of the natural farming in India. At present, about 160,000 farmers are practising zero budget natural farming in Andhra Pradesh.

The government’s efforts are yielding results as well with a lot of interest from several national and international organisations. Apart from the UN Environment, the Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiative announced a grant of Rs billion (Rs 100 crore) in support of the scheme and the NITI Aayog and international banking group BNP Paribas have also shown interest. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN is also giving Andhra Pradesh approximately Rs 10 million ($150,000) for capacity building for the purpose of zero budget natural farming.

B Rajasekhar, special chief secretary (agriculture) to Andhra Pradesh government, in a conversation with Mongabay-India, explained that the idea was initiated by the government in 2014 to achieve pesticide-free farming and address problems like agriculture becoming unremunerative for small and marginal farmers.

“Around 1.6 lakh (160,000) farmers are already practising it and by the end of the year we want to bring about five lakh (500,000) farmers under it and by 2024 we want to expand to the entire state,” said Rajasekhar. Zero budget natural farming is what our forefathers used to do before the advent of fertilisers and pesticides. We have estimated that to scale it upto entire state we will require Rs 15,000 crore in next few years. We are trying to mobilise that.”

A farmer working in her field. Photo credit: Bernard Gagnon /Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY 3.0]

One of the organisations that is playing a key role in mobilising that fund is the Sustainable India Finance Facility – a partnership facilitated by the United Nations Environment, the World Agroforestry Centre and BNP Paribas – which aims to facilitate long-term investments to reverse the continued depletion of agricultural systems, fisheries, forests, renewable energy and wildlife.

On September 25, in an address at a conference on “Financing sustainable agriculture: Global challenges and opportunities” at the United Nations headquarters in New York, Naidu highlighted his state’s achievements with Zero budget natural farming.

Ripple effect

The massive push by the Andhra Pradesh government is already having a ripple effect as international agencies are showing a serious interest in zero budget natural farming. They see it as climate resilient agricultural practice.

“NITI Aayog is taking the interest,” stressed Rajasekhar. “Karnataka has announced the adoption of zero budget natural farming. It is already having the effect that was intended in initial years.”

In July, Karnataka announced the allocation of Rs 50 crore (Rs 500 million) for the adoption of zero budget natural farming. In the same month, NITI Aayog held a meeting to discuss the promotion of zero budget natural farming.

In August, Himachal Pradesh Governor Acharya Dev Vrat urged the farming community to adopt zero budget natural farming while stating that it would be helpful in changing the present system of chemical farming. Earlier this year, the Himachal Pradesh government allocated around Rs 250 million for natural farming in the state.

Indian government’s Minister of State in the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, Parshottam Rupala, recently told parliament that the “Indian Council of Agricultural Research under Network Project on Organic Farming and All India Coordinated Research Projects on integrated farming systems has initiated an experiment on ‘Evaluation of Zero Budget Farming Practices in Basmati Rice-Wheat System’ study the zero budget farming practices on productivity, economics and soil health including soil organic carbon and soil fertility.”

In past few years, pesticides and their usage has come under serious scanner in India. Photo credit: Pradnyaalimakar/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY 4.0]

Meanwhile, the Andhra Pradesh Government in its push for zero budget natural farming is also ensuring that the programme is driven by the conviction in the idea of those involved. It is a kind of pre-qualification for anyone wanting to be involved in zero budget natural farming with those reaping the benefits of zero budget natural farming, becoming its flag bearers and spreading the change among neighbouring farmers.

Experts believe the step also makes sense for the Indian agriculture sector which is in a bad shape at the moment. The current conditions are not favourable for farmers in general and even more severe for small farmers, as huge input costs are required for seeds and other inputs such as pesticides. What adds to their woes are factors like high-interest rates for credit, a poor price for crops and rising costs of fossil fuel. To add to it, pesticides are themselves under the scanner for their serious impact on food, water and human health? Their effect on human health is also a matter of concern and cases on the issue are being brought to the Supreme Court of India. Recently, the Supreme Court started hearing a plea that sought a ban on nearly 85 pesticides used in agriculture across India on the grounds that they pose a health hazard.

Kavitha Kuruganti of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture emphasised that focus on natural farming and action against pesticides are complementary. “These efforts are most effective together. It needs to be supported with actual knowledge building from farmers to farmers. It is exactly the kind of model that the AP govt has adopted where farmers are spreading knowledge about zero budget natural farming to fellow farmers. A farmer will only shift to natural farming when he or she will see a fellow farmer doing it successfully,” said Kuruganti.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.