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The Potential Impact of Zero Budget Natural Farming in India on Food Availability, Poverty Alleviation and Soil Degradation

Project Description

Background - 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 fertilizers, 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 labor.
Methodology and training – The work will be focused 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 student will be responsible for design of field trials and pot experiments, and for determining the mode of data collection, data analysis and interpretation. The student will also be expected to conceptualize and develop integrated process-based models to describe the systems studied.

Funding Notes

The studentship is funded under the James Hutton Institute/University Joint PhD programme, in this case with the University of Aberdeen. Applicants should have a first-class honours degree in a relevant subject or a 2.1 honours degree plus Masters (or equivalent).Shortlisted candidates will be interviewed in Jan/Feb 2020. A more detailed plan of the studentship is available to candidates upon application. Funding is available for European applications, but Worldwide applicants who possess suitable self-funding are also invited to apply.


[1] Ritchie et al.(2018)PLoS.ONE.13(3);e0193766. [2] APZBNF 2018 [3] Smith et al.(2019)Env.Res.Lett.14;085004

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