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QUADRAT DTP: The potential impact of Zero Budget Natural Farming in India on food availability, poverty alleviation and soil degradation

Project Description

Under business-as-usual, by 2050, 60% of India’s population is likely to experience severe deficiencies in calories, digestible protein and fat [1]. Increased and more efficient food production is urgently needed, but high production costs, high interest rates, volatile market prices and rising costs of inputs are resulting in depopulation of rural areas. Zero budget natural farming (ZBNF) is a grassroots peasant movement in India that aims to improve viability of farming by reducing input costs, such as for purchased fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. In Andhra Pradesh, 523,000 farmers have already converted to ZBNF, accounting for 13% of the area under productive agriculture [2]. However, there is scientific debate over the sustainability of this popularist movement because it does not provide as inputs the nutrients needed to maintain long-term crop production. This could result in a catastrophic crash in food production over the next few years.


1. Quantify changes in yield, nutrient inputs and losses under strict ZBNF management systems;
2. Quantify potential of microbial fixation to provide the nitrogen needed in ZBNF systems;
3. Document practices used by ZBNF farmers;
4. Determine impacts of conversion to ZBNF on food production, income and labour.

Methodology and training:

The work will be focussed in five contrasting villages in Andhra Pradesh where ZBNF systems are already widely practiced.

1. Field trials - Despite using exceptionally low input of nutrients, ZBNF farmers claim increased yields. Replicated, randomised field trials will be established on farmers’ fields to directly compare against conventional practices the yields obtained using ZBNF after different years since conversion. Crop-yields, and inputs/losses of nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) and carbon will be quantified.
2. Pot experiments - A possible source of nitrogen in ZBNF systems is nitrogen-fixation by non-symbiotic bacteria added to the soil in an inoculum. The number of nitrogen-fixers will be characterised in the soil inoculum, ZBNF soils and conventional soils. Nitrogen fixed by non-symbiotic and symbiotic bacteria will be determined using labelled-nitrogen pot experiments.
3. Modelling - The results of field and pot experiments will be used to evaluate simulations of changes in soil organic matter and nutrients provided by the ORATOR model [3].
4. Survey - Although strict ZBNF systems do not rely on nitrogen from manure, anecdotal evidence suggests farmers apply organic manures or use mob-grazing to increase nitrogen in soils. A survey will be used to characterise actual practices used in ZBNF compared to conventional farmers.
5. Systems analysis - The results from the survey will be used together with ORATOR to determine the impact of ZBNF on food production, income and labour in typical systems across India. The long-term implications of different states converting to ZBNF will be examined.


The project will produce a number of peer-reviewed articles discussing in ZBNF systems:

1. Yields and nutrient use;
2. Nitrogen-fixation;
3. Simulations of impact on soil organic matter and nutrient dynamics;
4. Farmer practices;
5. Systems analysis of implications for food production, farm income and labour.


Candidates should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum of a 2.1 Honours degree in a relevant subject. Applicants with a minimum of a 2.2 Honours degree may be considered providing they have a Distinction at Master’s level.


• Apply for Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Biological Sciences
• State name of the lead supervisor as ‘Name of Proposed Supervisor’ on application
• State ‘QUADRAT DTP’ as Intended Source of Funding
• Select the ‘Visit Website’ to apply now

Funding Notes

This project is funded by the NERC QUADRAT-DTP and is available to UK/EU nationals who meet the UKRI eligibility criteria. Please visit View Website for more information.

The studentship provides funding for tuition fees, stipend and a research training and support grant subject to eligibility.

How good is research at Aberdeen University in Agriculture, Veterinary and Food Science?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 20.40

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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