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Potential yield challenges to scaling-up of zero-budget natural farming in India

Rice paddy harvest in India (Bishnu Sarangi/Pixabay)
"There are conflicting opinions about how zero-budget natural farming should be developed for widespread use, and this report provides scientific evidence on the potential for scale-up"

A new report co-authored by a James Hutton Institute scientist and published in Nature Sustainability examines the potential impacts on food production of zero-budget natural farming, a farming system that is sweeping India.

Zero-budget natural farming differs from traditional organic farming in that it does not attempt to provide the nutrients needed for crop growth using animal manures, but instead aims to change the functioning of the soil–crop system so that nutrients are made available to crops without the need for external inputs.

With very few direct scientific measurements available in systems using zero-budget natural farming, this study is the first to provide a detailed assessment of the impacts of the farming system on the nitrogen available and soil conditions for crop growth.

Under business-as-usual, by 2050, 60% of India’s population, equivalent to more than 10% of the people on Earth, are predicted to experience severe deficiencies in calories, digestible protein and fat. To meet increased demands for food on a shrinking area of agricultural land, efficiency of crop production must increase, but climate change, soil degradation and depopulation present further challenges to increasing the efficiency of Indian agriculture.

Soil degradation is associated with excessive reliance on synthetic fertilisers and low returns of organic matter to the soil. However, there is insufficient animal manure available in India for traditional organic farming to be used by all to grow crops and restore soils.

Promoters of zero-budget natural farming claim that the soil already contains all the nutrients needed for plant growth and that the action of microbial cultures added to the soil releases these nutrients from the soil itself. However, if nitrogen was only provided by stimulating release from the topsoil, there would be an associated loss of organic matter, and all organic matter would be lost from the topsoil within 20 years. This would result in a sharp decline in crop production and make soils less resilient to droughts.

Study co-author Dr Jagadeesh Yeluripati, from the James Hutton Institute's Information and Computational Sciences department, said: “Zero-budget natural farming started as a grassroots movement, aiming to provide multiple benefits, both to the environment and to farmers. However, there are conflicting opinions about how it should be developed for widespread use. This report provides scientific evidence on the potential for scale-up.”

The report’s lead author, Professor Jo Smith, from the University of Aberdeen, added: “We show that, contrary to the fears of many scientists, this system could support improved food production for low input farmers. In addition, because inputs of crop residues are high, soils are unlikely to degrade.

“However, the maximum potential nitrogen supply is only likely to be 52–80% of the average fertilizer application rate. This means that yield penalties are likely in higher input systems, so widespread conversion of farms from all sectors to zero-budget natural farming is not recommended.”

The research was carried out by a team led by the University of Aberdeen and including the James Hutton Institute, with funding from UK research councils, the Scottish Government, the European Union and the Wellcome Trust.

Paper: Smith, J., Yeluripati, J., Smith, P. et al. Potential yield challenges to scale-up of zero budget natural farming. Nat Sustain (2020) doi:10.1038/s41893-019-0469-x.

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Printed from /news/potential-yield-challenges-scaling-zero-budget-natural-farming-india on 29/11/23 09:34:00 PM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.