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How to make food and agriculture sustainable

In the coming 30 years, agriculture will face an unprecedented confluence of pressures, including an increase in global population, intensifying competition for increasingly scarce land, water and energy resources, and a serious threat of climate change. To provide for a population projected to reach 9.3 billion by 2050 and support changing dietary patterns, estimates are that food production will need to increase from the current 8.4 billion tonnes to almost 13.5 billion tonnes a year.

Achieving the needed level of production from an already depleted natural resource base will be impossible unless we transition to sustainable food and agricultural systems that would ensure world food security, provide economic and social opportunities, and protect the ecosystem services on which our future depends.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations has facilitated the development of a common approach to Sustainable Food and Agriculture (SFA), which will also contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). As India’s Union Budget 2018 places a renewed and much welcome emphasis on agriculture, six principles can guide the collective process of transition to greater sustainability.

Improving efficiency of resources used: While the Green Revolution focused on increasing production and food security, it largely ignored the efficiency of resources other than land—including inputs such as fertiliser and water. Intensive agriculture in Punjab has resulted in over use of nitrogen and widespread micro-nutrient deficiency (including zinc, manganese and iron). Overexploitation of the available groundwater resources for agriculture is another alarming concern. In the past four decades, large parts of India—especially Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu—have witnessed groundwater depletion at hair-raising rates. About 30% of the 5,723 administrative blocks in the country report groundwater dropping below sustainable levels.

Sustainable technologies such as the System of Rice Intensification can bring down water usage. A shift in policy for agricultural production system to match the agro-ecological resource endowments is critical for sustainability. Production systems should be supported to refocus on locally appropriate options—high suicide-prone cotton-growing areas might be more suited for dry land agriculture than input-intensive farming, where both costs and risks are high. This would mean diversifying agriculture, and promoting less water-intensive crops like pulses and millets. Similarly, rice production can be shifted to other states that are relatively more endowed with water.

Initiatives such as Zero Budget Natural Farming in Andhra Pradesh and other states of western and southern India, with low external input and production costs, appear promising to restore ecosystem health and diversified livelihoods of smallholder farmers.

Direct action to conserve, protect and enhance natural resources: Studies evince that, each year, the world’s tropical forests remove 4.8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or about 18% of annual emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Increased reforestation and reduced deforestation are, therefore, imperative to climate change mitigation and adaptation. It will also lead to improved soil formation, biodiversity, water purification and pollination.

Soils hosts at least one quarter of the world’s biodiversity, and are key in the carbon cycle. They help mitigate and adapt to climate change. Greater emphasis on nurturing the soils rather than plants will provide higher benefits on sustaining yields, improving ecosystem health and sequestering carbon. Transforming India’s agricultural sector to achieve national and global environmental benefits and conserve critical biodiversity and forest landscapes will also be critical towards agricultural sustainability.

Sustainable agriculture to protect and improve rural livelihoods and social well-being: Agriculture, along with its allied sectors, is the largest source of livelihood in India. About 82% of the country’s farmers are small and marginal, having holdings less than one hectare.

High dependency on external inputs, crop failures, inadequate storage and market linkages, and market price fluctuations often drive farmers into a spiral of debt. Diversifying livelihoods and nutrition for poor households through the introduction of small ruminants, backyard poultry and vegetable homesteads present good opportunities. Self-help groups, farmer producer organisations and women’s organisations need to be a strong focus. In the transition towards more sustainable food systems, functional community organisations and institutional innovations will be as important as technological innovation.

Enhanced resilience of people, communities and ecosystems for sustainable agriculture: Climate change will not only affect food production, but also the availability of food and the stability of supplies. Climate-resilient agriculture has the potential to not only guarantee food security, but also reduce mankind’s emissions of global warming gases and help build resilience to the effects of climate change.

In order to build climate-resilient communities, substantial investments are needed in farmer education to support a transition from an input-intensive to a knowledge-intensive agriculture. Participatory farmer education approaches such as Farmer Field Schools help rural communities better understand the processes of agro-ecosystems which underpin sustainable agricultural, enabling them to innovate and experiment with sustainable and climate resilient practices and take protective measures at the community level.

Promote responsible and effective governance mechanisms: Food and agriculture systems must be based on an enabling environment—policies, laws and institutions—which promotes effective and fair governance, i.e. ensures accountability, equity, transparency and the rule of law, and strikes the right balance between private and public sector interests. The underpinning processes must be participatory involving all key stakeholders, promoting people’s ownership of natural resources through appropriate rights, recognition and allocation policies, along with their full participation in decision-making. This will contribute to the efficient use, conservation and protection of natural resources. Additionally, agricultural research, development and extension services need to move away from a top-down approach of ‘technology transfer’ to mutual learning and innovation approach that co-constructs solutions with farmers, civil society and the private sector.

Food waste and promoting sustainable consumption patterns: It is estimated that saving one-fourth of the food currently lost or wasted globally would be enough to feed 870 million hungry people in the world, of which the highest number (194.6 million) are in India. To reduce food wastage, especially in countries such as India, would require greater investments in improving post-production infrastructure, which includes storage space in rural areas, and improved harvesting techniques and transportation.

With a growing population, declining per-capita land availability, a sharp decline in marginal productivity of farm inputs and what has been termed a ‘jobless growth’ in the secondary and tertiary sector, the historical structural transition pathway of developed countries appears increasingly elusive for India. This requires a review of our assumptions about India’s current model of growth and development, which centres on increasing land and labour productivity in agriculture, intensive use of water resources and chemical inputs. An alternative paradigm would be to increase investments in rural areas in diverse and locally specific agro-ecosystems based on intensive ecological interactions between soils, water, plants, animals and trees, and moving farmers from grain mono-cultures to poly-cropping, horticulture or animal husbandry. Such diverse systems are likely to be more productive, labour intensive and provide enhanced ecosystem services and, therefore, much more sustainable.

This can be supported by rural economic activity in the secondary and tertiary sectors generating value addition through local processing, small-scale production of sustainable inputs, fast-growing domestic and local markets. Myriads of initiatives by citizens, farmers, governments or entrepreneurs around the world and India show us that this is already happening.

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