A groundbreaking report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), published earlier this month, has laid bare the staggering hidden costs of our global agrifood systems, surpassing an astonishing $10 trillion.
In middle-income countries like India, these costs constitute nearly 11% of the GDP, which manifests as higher poverty, environmental harm, and health-related impact (including undernourishment and unhealthy dietary patterns).
The report blames “unsustainable business-as-usual activities and practices” for these escalating costs, pointing to a need to transform agrifood systems. One way to do so is to shift to multi-cropping systems that have the potential to protect farmers’ well-being, improve nutritional outcomes for our communities, and positively impact ecological health.
What are the impacts of intensive agriculture?
Impressive improvements in agricultural productivity have been achieved in India over the last five decades by mainstreaming monocropping systems and chemical-intensive farming practices.
The infusion of seeds purchased from multinational corporations and fertilisers undermined seed sovereignty, dismantled Indigenous knowledge systems, and fuelled a shift from diverse crop varieties and staples such as pulses and millets to monoculture plantations. This trend also compromised the nutritional needs of households and resulted in adverse ecological consequences including soil fertility and excessive extraction of groundwater.
This privatisation and deregulation of agricultural inputs also increased indebtedness among agrarian households. In 2013, the debt to asset ratio of a farmer household in India was 630% higher than in 1992. Agriculture in India has been becoming increasingly unviable: the average monthly household income of a farming household sits at Rs 10,816.
Whom does the policy environment favour?
Under the National Food Security Act 2013, 65% of households (around 800 million people) in India are legally assured a right to food at subsidised rates through the Public Distribution System and welfare programmes such as the Integrated Child Development Services and the Mid-Day Meal Scheme.
To meet this requirement, the procurement of food crops is coordinated by the Food Corporation of India (FCI), which is required to maintain a central pool of buffer stock and to procure, store, transport, and maintain foodgrain stocks in the country. However, this procurement policy heavily favours rice and wheat. In 2019-2020, the FCI procured 341.32 lakh million tonnes (MT) of wheat and 514.27 lakh MT of rice. Whole wheat and rice also became export commodities.
In contrast, the Indian government approved the procurement of a total of 3.49.lakh MT of coarse grains such as jowar, bajra, ragi, maize, and barley by State governments for the central pool and local distribution, less than 1% of total foodgrain procurement. Not surprisingly, the area under cultivation of coarse grains dropped by 20% between 1966-1967 and 2017-2018, whereas the area under rice and wheat increased by nearly 20% and 56%, respectively. At the same time, other water-intensive cash crops like sugarcane and arecanut have also flourished under policies favouring investments in dams and canal irrigation (favouring sugarcane) and free electricity for borewells (favouring arecanut).
This trend threatens food security and the production of nutritional crops while the expansion of sugarcane cultivation affects biodiversity, increases the pressure on groundwater resources, and contributes to air and water pollution. Ironically, small and marginal farmers in India are among the most food and nutrition insecure.
The global food system structure has a direct impact on the last mile – on both farmers and soil. Between 2012 and 2016, large fluctuations in soya prices in the global market and a glut in supply from Latin American countries eroded income for soy farmers and agro-companies in Malwa.
Historically as well, global trade relations have influenced food production systems in the Global South. In the pre-independence era, tax systems were introduced to efficiently collect revenue for British-enforced exports of primary raw materials, such as cotton.
How can crop diversification help?
A systemic shift in food regimes, from local to global value chains, is essential. The starting point for addressing these complex systemic issues could arise from local efforts, such as the diversification of farms.
Diversified multi-cropping systems, rooted in agroecology principles, could be a viable solution to revitalise degraded land and soil. Practices known by various names locally, like ‘akkadi saalu’ in Karnataka, involve intercropping with a combination of legumes, pulses, oilseeds, trees, shrubs, and livestock. This approach enables cash provision from commercial crops, food and fodder production, and offers ecosystem services such as nitrogen fixation and pest traps, and supports the local biodiversity. These practices also collectively contribute to improving soil health.
Critics have often argued against alternative farming systems, suggesting they may lead to a decline in farmer income even if the environment improves. But the FAO report says that there are substantial “hidden costs” associated with the current systems and which need to be factored into long-term evaluations of income. Moreover, millets, whose yield per hectare is comparable to those of rice and wheat, are also more nutritious, grow in semi-arid conditions without burdening groundwater tables, require minimal input, and provide a diversified food basket.
While crop diversification will involve some loss of productivity using a narrow metric of kg/Ha, it would preserve natural capital and allow farmers to become nutritionally secure. By redirecting subsidies, currently accruing to corporations, we can pay farmers for their contribution to sustaining natural capital, instead of incentivising them to deplete it.
How can farmers transition?
We also acknowledge that it’s unrealistic to expect farmers to shift away from mono-cultivation of rice and wheat overnight. This transition needs to be systematic, allowing farmers to adjust gradually. For instance, moving from chemical-intensive practices to non-pesticide management, then adopting natural farming practices, can reduce input costs. Farmers can diversify income through value addition, incorporating livestock and poultry. Some of these practices could be experimented with partially on specific portions of their lands.
Among the various transition pathways, a visual representation of a diversified farm involves allocating 70% for commercial crops, 20% for food and fodder, and 10% for environmental services like oilseeds (acting as trap crops). Over time, the fraction of commercial crops could be lowered to 50% and border crops could be replaced with locally-suitable tree species for fruits and fodder. Integrating livestock rearing could further improve incomes.
Some preliminary economic modelling of these pathways indicates the potential to improve ecological outcomes for the landscape and sustain farm incomes in the short run (up to three years) and the long run (up to 25 years).
However, addressing challenges related to local seeds, institutional arrangements for market access, drudgery, and the need for farm labour is crucial when envisioning such a transition. Scaling up these practices requires collaboration among institutions, policymakers, and social groups to articulate economic incentives for farmers to shift from high-input monoculture to diversified cropping.
P. Srinivas Vasu, or ‘Soil Vasu’, is the founder of SOIL, a trust that works on rebuilding soil health and promoting sustainable agriculture. Karishma Shelar is a Senior Programme Manager at the Water, Environment, Land and Livelihoods (WELL) Labs, a research centre at the Institute for Financial Management and Research.
- A groundbreaking report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), published earlier this month, has laid bare the staggering hidden costs of our global agrifood systems, surpassing an astonishing $10 trillion.
- In middle-income countries like India, these costs constitute nearly 11% of the GDP, which manifests as higher poverty, environmental harm, and health-related impact (including undernourishment and unhealthy dietary patterns).
- A systemic shift in food regimes, from local to global value chains, is essential. The starting point for addressing these complex systemic issues could arise from local efforts, such as the diversification of farms.