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Potential yield challenges to scale-up of zero budget natural farming


Under current trends, 60% of India’s population (>10% of people on Earth) will experience severe food deficiencies by 2050. Increased production is urgently needed, but high costs and volatile prices are driving farmers into debt. Zero budget natural farming (ZBNF) is a grassroots movement that aims to improve farm viability by reducing costs. In Andhra Pradesh alone, 523,000 farmers have converted 13% of productive agricultural area to ZBNF. However, sustainability of ZBNF is questioned because external nutrient inputs are limited, which could cause a crash in food production. Here, we show that ZBNF is likely to reduce soil degradation and could provide yield benefits for low-input farmers. Nitrogen fixation, either by free-living nitrogen fixers in soil or symbiotic nitrogen fixers in legumes, is likely to provide the major portion of nitrogen available to crops. However, even with maximum potential nitrogen fixation and release, only 52–80% of the national average nitrogen applied as fertilizer is expected to be supplied. Therefore, in higher-input systems, yield penalties are likely. Since biological fixation from the atmosphere is possible only with nitrogen, ZBNF could limit the supply of other nutrients. Further research is needed in higher-input systems to ensure that mass conversion to ZBNF does not limit India’s capacity to feed itself.

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Fig. 1: Estimated maximum and minimum supply of nitrogen from ZBNF systems compared with the national average fertilizer application rate.

Data availability

No datasets were generated or analysed during the current study. This is an analysis of existing data. All data were collated from literature sources as cited.

Code availability

The ORATOR model has been described and published previously (see Supplementary Information) and will be made available from the corresponding author on request.


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We thank V. Kumar, Z. Hussain and R. Nalavade of RySS for information, support while visiting sites and discussions. Funding for this work was provided by the Newton Bhabha Virtual Centre on Nitrogen Efficiency in Whole Cropping Systems (NEWS) project no. NEC 05724, the DFID-NERC El Niño programme in project NE P004830, ‘Building Resilience in Ethiopia’s Awassa Region to Drought’ (BREAD), the ESRC NEXUS programme in project IEAS/POO2501/1, ‘Improving Organic Resource Use in Rural Ethiopia’ (IPORE), and the GCRF South Asian Nitrogen Hub (NE/S009019/1). J.Y. was supported by the Scottish Government’s Rural and Environment Research and Analysis Directorate under the current Strategic Research Programme (2016–2021): Research Deliverable 1.1.3: Soils and Greenhouse Gas Emissions. The input of P.S. contributes to the UKRI-funded projects DEVIL (NE/M021327/1), Soils-R-GRREAT (NE/P019455/1) and N-Circle (BB/N013484/1), the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme projects CIRCASA (grant agreement no. 774378) and UNISECO (grant agreement no. 773901), and the Wellcome Trust-funded project Sustainable and Healthy Food Systems (SHEFS).

Author information




J.S. was primarily responsible for the conception and design of the work, the acquisition, analysis and interpretation of data and the drafting of the manuscript. J.Y., P.S. and D.R.N. contributed towards the conception and design of the work and revision of the manuscript. D.R.N. also contributed to the creation of software used in the work.

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Correspondence to Jo Smith.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary notes 1–8, Tables 1–9, Figs. 1 and 2 and refs. 1–147.

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Smith, J., Yeluripati, J., Smith, P. et al. Potential yield challenges to scale-up of zero budget natural farming. Nat Sustain 3, 247–252 (2020).

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