Resetting Indian food systems is not easy, but it’s not impossible either
By Arabinda K Padhee
It does not need much evidence to suggest that India’s current agricultural development model (in many parts of the country) must shift to environmentally sustainable food production systems. Depleting or degrading natural resources like soil, water, biodiversity, etc, in agricultural landscapes are a major concern. Variable weather and extremes in changing climate exacerbate the situation. The malnutrition burden of India continues to be another daunting challenge; besides undernutrition, obesity and overweight are also policy concerns. The trend of shifting dietary patterns with rising levels of household incomes, as the population increases, is a dimension that should be kept in mind while designing interventions. At such an inflection point, the transition towards sustainable, nutritious, resilient and inclusive food systems seems to be a policy imperative for the government.
While subsidies or policy support to protect vulnerabilities of farming communities, particularly smallholder farmers, must continue, the ‘legacy incentives’ that reinforce unsustainable practices must be realigned or repurposed. Subsidies on irrigation water and power, for example, have led to overexploitation of groundwater. Fertiliser subsidies, particularly urea, have led to imbalanced application of nutrients in the crop cycle, besides degrading the soil. Safety net programmes like minimum support price (MSP) and procurement operations have boosted India’s food production since the onset of the Green Revolution. But they have come with a lot of negative environmental and social externalities. It is no secret that the policy regime has been immensely biased in favour of ‘two big staples’ (rice and wheat), at the opportunity cost of many nutritious and climate-resilient crops. The iniquitous distribution of these benefits (amongst states and farmer groups—large versus small/marginal) also calls for an integrated policy.
Two main policy pathways that will make the transformation of sustainable food systems possible are outlined. Subcomponents within these two broad themes, however, need to be designed and implemented, suiting specific contexts in a vast country like India.
Crop diversification: To tackle the twin challenges of climate change and malnutrition, diversifying existing cropping systems (predominated by rice and wheat) to more nutritious and environment-friendly crops has often been advocated. But such a transition involves muddling through a volatile political economy, besides the role (and duty) of the government in protecting the income base of farmers. Research has shown the potential benefits of crop diversification to sorghum and millets, particularly in those tracts where rice yields are low. Promotion of natural and organic farming practices by a few states aligns to diversification priorities. Haryana recently announced a financial incentive of Rs 7,000 per acre to those farmers who would be diversifying from the water-guzzling paddy to millets, pulses, vegetables, maize, cotton, etc. This could be termed as a welcome initiative for the interregnum, till farmers stabilise harvests with the new crop portfolio that is expected to give them an income not less than the previous cropping pattern. Policy focus on crop diversification also demands a robust value chain with components like processing facilities closer to the farm gate; and collectivising small farms to offset scale disadvantages through cooperatives, FPOs, etc. Digital agriculture tools will play a major role with increasing participation of the private sector.
Investments in research and innovation will play a key role in achieving the goal of sustainable and nutritious food systems by way of development of suitable crop varieties with desired traits like yield, climate-resilience and nutritional qualities. Breeding biofortified crop varieties is a pathway that offers a sustainable and cost-effective approach to address deficiencies in vitamin A, iron, zinc, etc. To popularise crop varieties that suit specific agro-ecologies, the seed systems—through both public and private channels of quality seeds delivery—must be strengthened.
Consumer behaviour: For crop diversification (from main staples to other nutritious and climate-resilient crops) to succeed, healthy and diversified diets need to be incorporated and promoted in the menu of Indian consumers. There is already an increasing consumer interest in ‘nutritious’ foods. Post-Covid-19, this positive trend for healthier foods is expected to further rise.
Schemes such as the Public Distribution System (PDS), Mid-Day Meal (MDM) and Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) could be the best delivery channels to leverage healthier and nutritious food products to reach a wide spectrum of the vulnerable population. Initiatives in some states to establish nutrition gardens in schools, Anganwadi centres, individual households, etc, are expected to enhance dietary diversity to combat malnutrition. Recent evidences on relevant aspects of dietary guidelines (simple, front-of-the-box labelling, etc) would also influence consumer behaviour and should be widely adopted.
Reduction of food waste must be internalised by everyone; this will reduce GHG emissions from the sector.
To make these interventions successful, awareness campaigns and consumer education is needed, even though these alone may not be sufficient. Factors like culture, taste, affordability, lifestyle, convenience, etc, would also play a role. Empowering and involving women, individually and in groups, with suitable policies, can lead to positive outcomes.
Sustainable food systems are possible only when relevant ministries and stakeholders work together. The role of local self-governments (panchayats and urban bodies) will also be crucial in converging community actions.
The UN Food Systems Summit (later this year) provides a big opportunity for India to take the lead in making food systems sustainable. Agriculture being a State subject, implementation of specific initiatives by state governments will be crucial. Addressing such a complex problem in a diverse country like India is not going to be easy, but it’s not impossible. An integrated and stable policy framework with adequate and consistent budgetary support will be essential to make the food production and consumption sustainable.
The author is country director, India, at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), New Delhi. Views are personal