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Sustainable Agriculture and The Next Green Revolution

Despite the rapid growth in the non-agriculture sectors, the development of agriculture space is the centerpiece of the India

‘Green Revolution,’ India’s quantum jump in its agricultural production in the 60s to make it self-reliant in food grain. It was a proud moment for independent India to break the ship-to-mouth shackle of its independence on imported food. And lead the way to self-sufficiency in domestic food availability and enabling food security.

Further, India also managed to reverse the situation to export food grains and earn enough foreign exchange (1).

Agricultural research was among the leading drivers for India in achieving a green revolution. It led to the development of modern technologies such as high-yielding crop varieties, extending irrigation, agrochemicals, fertilizers, mechanization and policy support, credit, and marketing support.

The development also led to a spurt in agro-based industries and labor utilization because of the increased cropping intensity and cropping systems.

The initial implementation phase of modern agricultural technologies was limited to wheat, rice, compared to other primary staple food crop of India in different states, including Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra,

It further contributed significantly to a perpetual higher agricultural production and surging buffer stocks. Associated land consolidation, especially in Haryana and Punjab, made its way for far mechanization and factorization. It also encouraged policy support via public distribution procurement with assured prices.

With assured marketing and prices, and higher production, farmers could achieve higher income and embrace modern technology. The yield increase rate and returns for each of the technology components were very high up to optimal input use because of the positive interaction effects of genotype, irrigation, and fertilizers. Moreover, even the social equity for supporting the have-nots via public distribution system had improved the disadvantaged population’s livelihood.

The Indian Agricultural Sector

Agriculture is an integral part of the country’s growth story. It employs over 58% of the Indian population and contributed more than 18% of its GDP (2). India’s agriculture space is responsible for both food and nutritional security and is vital to alleviating poverty and lessening inequality.

In the initial quarter of the financial year 2020, agriculture was the only sector that indicated growth, 3.4%, when the economy was contracted overall by a massive 23.4% amid the coronavirus pandemic (3).

Simultaneously, agriculture contributes 16% of India’s total greenhouse gas emissions, second only to the energy sector (4).

If India aims to transition into a green economy and achieve its SDGs, sustainable development goals, it will need to focus on the agricultural space. The sector has yet to prove a catalyst for the country to achieve a stander of inclusive green growth.

The ongoing farmers’ protest in the Indian capital has made it clear that among the imperatives in India’s agricultural sector is addressing its income support concerns.

Protecting farmers are rejecting the new farm bills primarily amid the fears that their much-needed income said in the form of MSP, minimum support price, would be rendered obsolete (5).

Therefore, it is vital to building a pathway towards climate-smart agricultural practices that are feasible and accessible to India’s small and medium farmers and produces a stable income stream. Notably, a transition to climate-smart agricultures needs to combine the requirement for stabilized farmers’ incomes with the shift towards less climate-exhaustive and greener practices.

Going Back in Time

The present unsustainable patterns of cultivation in India are the legacy of the government’s procurement policy. It laid the Green Revolution foundation in a food-scarce India in the early 1960s, when it experienced an exponential surge in its dependence on the United States for wheat seeds.

At that time, the Indian government had established FDI, the Food Corporation of India, to procure food grains at MSP from farmers and supply them via the PDS, Public Distribution System to the consumers, while also keeping a buffer stock. It became India’s way to achieve self-sufficiency and food security.

And since Haryana and Punjab were primarily focused on wheat and rice, they quickly turned into the green revolution home (6).

To make dry regions conducive to rice cultivation, India made extensive investments in irrigation, assured procurement, subsidized inputs availability, and well-functioning mandis in all these states. It incentivized farmers to cultivate rice, and eventually, India increased its rice production manifold (7).

India’s Green Revolution and Associated Complications

The Green Revolution has resulted in a record grain output of 131 million tons in the fiscal year 1979. The yield per farmland unit was improved by over 30% between 1947 and 1979. During the revolution period, the crop area under HYV, wide yielding varieties, surged from 7% to 22% of the total cultivated area, over 70% of the wheat crop area, more than 35% of the rice crop area, and 20% of the millet and corn crop area.

However, the immense success of the green revolution also given birth to long-term sustainability issues.

One can also assess the same with sufficient time-lapse, especially with increased awareness of different sustainability dimensions beyond mere crop yield and economics. The dilemma of advantage restricted to few regions, crops and ecologies was the primary concern.

The procurement system, which allowed farmers to do away with price risk and offered income support, also facilitated the rice cultivation in unsuitable areas because of the climate-blind incentives.

In time, rice production increased many-fold and helped the country gain self-sufficiency. But the absence of sustainability checks and the continous adoption of intensive rice cultivation and procurement system incentives added to India’s climate woes.

And since one needs a hefty amount of water for rice cultivation available in these states without monitoring with free electricity to pump water, India’s biggest rice producers, Haryana, Punjab, and western parts of Uttar Pradesh, are experiencing extreme groundwater depletion (8). Notably, these areas are among the world’s top water-risk zones for agriculture production (9).

Moreover, considering the inherent unsuitability of rice cultivation areas, soil health is also depleting. In Haryana, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh, the soil’s organic matter is as low as 0.1%. Similarly, the rice fields flooding has led to waterlogging and salinity, and the uncontrolled use of subsidized fertilizers and pesticides has polluted the surface and ground waters (10).

The enthusiasm for being heavily dependent on quick response and high-grade fertilizers, pesticides, and other agrochemicals indiscriminately with dramatic reduction of organic manures has resulted in the loss of soil fertility, productivity, and increased salinity issues.

It has further caused the problems such as desertification, and declining soil resources use efficiency, a requirement for higher input use, eutrophication of river systems, groundwater, and lakes, and pest resistance. Moreover, over the years, the decline in crop quality and yield also highlights ill effects on GR technologies’ misuse.

The government’s efforts to create awareness among farmers on the limitations, side effects, and after-effects of agrochemicals’ indiscriminate use were neither severe nor practical. The requirement for reliable soil testing and advisories is high. However, the availability of cheaper fertilizers and irrigation water via government support has further encouraged the higher misuse.

It is also notable that India still depends mainly on monsoons and rainfed agriculture, wherein the HYVs, agrochemical, and other components in use are not feasible because of the associated risk and uncertainties of assured moisture. Regardless of the availabilities of effective dry farming technologies for soil and moisture conservation and rainwater harvesting. Over and above the climate change extremities and effects are further challenging agricultural sustainability.

The unsustainability of rice production in India’s dry region actively contributes to the adverse effects of climate change in the country regarding soil depletion, GHG emissions, and water scarcity. The direct impact of the climate crisis would seriously hinder rice production.

Rice farming in the rain-fed areas also faces flooding risks, while the semi-arid regions are under the threat of depleting water sources.

Moreover, degraded soil and uncertain climate also pose a risk for rice cultivation. According to FAO, Food and Agriculture Organization research, increased temperature is already negatively affecting yield in some parts of Asia (11). Similar patterns could negatively impact Indian farmers’ incomes and push several of them to poverty. As the climate crisis hinders crop cultivation, the substantial decline in food products can threaten India’s food and nutritional security.

For widespread adoption of sustainable agricultural practices, India needs to diversify its crops and cropping patterns that match the economic advantages.

The National Agricultural Policy, 2000 (12) offers a framework for planning and setting out the following broad plan to achieve:

  • a growth rate over 4% per anum in the agriculture sector
  • growth based on efficient use of resources while conserving the country’s soil, water, and biodiversity
  • Growth with equity is widespread across areas and farmers
  • A demand-driven development that caters to the domestic markets and maximizes the agricultural products’ exports benefits in the face of challenges surging from globalization and economic liberalization
  • A growth that is sustainable, environmentally technologically, and ecologically

Transitioning to Climate-smart Agriculture

A transformation to climate-smart agriculture would encourage a movement away from sole reliance on rice and towards more climate-friendly and feasible crops. First of these are pulses and millets, which formed a more significant portion of India’s agricultural production before the green revolution.

The share of pulse production to total food-grain production in the country stood at 16.55% in 1950-1951. It continued to surge till 1960-61. However, the share reversed after the green revolution and declined to a mere 6.5% by 2015-16. Similarly, the percentage of millets in total food-grain production across the country dropped from 22.17% in 1950-51 to 6.94% in 2011-12.

As the procurement system incentivized rice and wheat cultivation, low remuneration, lack of input subsidies, price incentives, and processing facilities led to a declining proportion of millets and pulses. Even the regions under production for pulses and millets dwindled significantly after the green revolution,

Today, for every 100-ton production of food grain in India, rice and wheat account for 91 tonnes, millets, sorghum, and other Nutri-cereals for 5.5 tonnes, and pulses 3.5 tonnes (13).

While pulses eventually paved their way in the procurement system, its market price has been below the MSP, and the procurement has also not met targets. While India has started to increase its pulse, the country ends up importing a significant portion of its requirements. Since the pulse surplus in the market, its price falls below MSP, which hurts the producers, discouraging them from cultivating more pulses.

Meanwhile, millets recently found their way into the procurement system after several farmers’ collectives and agricultural economists’ calls. But, as consumer preferences shifted to rice considering the large PDS in the country, demand for millets dropped, production declined, and so did prices (14).

However, both millets and pulses are climate-smart crops. Millets are exceptionally well for dry, harsh, and hot environments and need little water. Pulses also require significantly less water compared to rice and can grow in any season and climate.

Compared to rice, they also contribute less GHG emissions.

Additionally, cultivating both millets and pulses also retains sol health. A study highlighted that by replacing rice areas in each district with climate-smart crops, it would be possible for India to reduce its irrigation needs by 33%. The cultivation cost for pulses and millets is also significantly less than rice despite rice inputs and subsidies available for its cultivation (15).

And since the Indian government is aware of these potential benefits, it focuses on promoting pulses and millets’ production. Their initiatives range from renaming millets to Nutri-cereals, increasing their MSPs, and their inclusion in the National Food Security Mission.

Indian PM Narendra Modi has also called for promoting millets’ production and consumption; he has declared 2023 as the ‘International Year of Millets.’ (16) Despite the increased attention towards the revival of pulses and millet production, there has been only a modest improvement considering the absence of proper adaptation mechanisms.

Attributes for a Successful Transition

Indian farmers are inclined to produce rise because of an assured demand at a remunerative value. Meanwhile, the lack of similar demand for millets and pulses has forced a drop in their production over the years. Hence, income support and demand are vital to facilitate the production of any desirable climate-smart crop.

In the lack of income support systems, farmers would be at the mercy of season chances, worsen by climate change, which would, in turn, result in unstable incomes.

So far, the assured demand for rice had been a motivator for its cultivation. But in its absence, farmers would be left without any market signals to indicate what they need to cultivate.

Consequently, the over-production of one particular crop would lead to its overflow in the market, leaving farmers with little market access, low prices, and extra inventory.

Similar problems also exist in other food crops such as vegetables, whose prices and stock fluctuate overwhelmingly at times, harming small farmers the most (17).

Moreover, the absence of accessible and feasible processing and storage facilities implies that in most situations, either the processing cost of some food grains or farmers ends up destroying the produce that does not sell. Both cases end up hurting farmers.

Moreover, even the availability of subsidized inputs for one set of food grains over the other that further encourages the former’s production.

Here, we have put together four pillars that would allow a shift to climate-smart sustainable agriculture.

It starts with sustainable agricultural planning. As we noted in the case of rice, the availability of free electricity to pump water in Haryana and Punjab incentivized farmers to cultivate paddy in these regions. However, the same area, considering their suitability grow millets were offered with easy and feasible access to processing facilities, subsidized inputs, and allowing transition machinery for millet production, it would motivate them to grow millets in the area,

Hence, an agriculture policy that integrated sustainable practices by offering inputs at a subsidized rate incentivized the crop’s production best suited for the region would help in a more climate-friendly transition.

However, climate-appropriate Agri planning requires proper infrastructure supplements to transport market signals that allow farmers to produce as per the market demand. As we talked earlier, it would ensure that the market would not overflow with one particular food grain, and there are no drastic falls in prices.

Moreover, we need to create and expand an enabling movement to cover even the smallest farmers. It includes better market access, feasible storage, and processing facilities. The Indian government would also need to offer some sort of income support to farmers to ensure stable incomers even amid seasonal changes.

The Way Ahead

While we are clear that unsustainable incentives towards rice production were because of the procurement system, which is also vastly unequal in its reach, it is a robust tool to drive the transformation towards climate-smart crops.

It would be better for India to switch to green agricultural practices with assured demand, steady income support, and procure infrastructure in the short term. The mechanism would further ensure that the transition would need a minimal cost for farmers. Additionally, in the short run, the Indian government might also meet the procurement targets for millets and pulses, which would cause a storage cost reduction for overflowing rice.

It is also true that India can only retain the procurement cost for so long. There is a need for India to switch to a more robust alternative. Hence, while sustaining the procurement policy is an ideal short-term strategy, India needs to establish deeper networks, better market access, storage, infrastructure, and processing facilities.

It would form the pillar for a more inclusive and efficient contract-farming architecture that would help farmers cultivate according to market demand. In the long term, as deeper networks are created, the Indian government could switch to contract farming proposals for their mid-day meals and PDS schemes. It would work in a way that would be similar to the procurement system but would help create support for contract framing.

However, it still leaves farmers’ income support to stabilize their income in the long run. We believe that a DIS, Direct income support per hectare system, currently in place in Karnataka, and Telangana is among the best suitable for stabilizing farming incomes in the country at a low cost (18).

The ongoing massive farmers’ protests are a wake-up call that any reforms that do not include substantial income support to farmers are only likely to meet resistance (19). Hence, it is vital to initiate a new Green Revolution wherein a transformation towards climate-smart agriculture would incorporate sustainable agriculture planning, offer market signaling, income support, and build an enabling environment via processing and storage facilities provisions and better market access.

Author’s Note

Even though India has become a surplus agri-producer, the sector is still unsustainable with misdirected subsidies, logistics shortfalls, storage shortfalls, food wastage, archaic farming practices, inadequate finance access, inequity in the value chain, water depletion, land degradation challenges (20). India needs to combine the principles of sustainable growth, green financing, innovative technologies, a progressive regulatory system and leverage corporate social responsibility to overcome these hurdles.

We can automatically reduce input costs in agricultural production when there is an increased awareness about their value and price. Improved productivity and lower cost would enable the government to spend less on subsidies and focus more on developing the overall ecosystem.

Related industries like food processing, biofuels, horticulture would also generate more returns.

With the square vision and all-inclusive execution, sustainable agriculture has the potential to proclaim the next Indian green revolution.