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Agri – Food system in India UPSC NOTE

 Report from the UN – FAO say?

  • A report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), has laid bare the staggering hidden costs of our global agri-food systems, surpassing an astonishing $10 trillion.

  • In middle-income countries like India, these costs constitute nearly 11% of the GDP.

  •  This manifests as higher poverty, environmental harm, and health-related impacts, including undernourishment and unhealthy dietary patterns. 

  • The report blames “unsustainable business-as-usual activities and practices” for these escalating costs.

 

  • This pointing to a need to transform agri-food 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 mono-cropping systems and chemical-intensive farming practices.

  • The Green Revolution focused on the marketing of high-yielding varieties of paddy and wheat on agricultural lands.

  • These high yielding crops constitute more than 70% of India’s agricultural production

  • The infusion of seeds purchased from multinational corporations and fertilizers 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 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’s household in India was 630% higher than in 1992

  • Agriculture in India has increasingly become unviable: the average monthly household income of a farming household sits at ₹10,816.

Which are the crops being favoured?

  • 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. 


  • To meet this requirement, the procurement of food crops is coordinated by the Food Corporation of India (FCI).

  • There is a requirment to maintain a central pool of buffer stock and to procure, transport, and store foodgrain stocks in the country. 

  • 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. 


  • The Indian government approved the procurement of a total of only 3.49 lakh MT of coarse grains such as jowar, bajra, ragi, maize, and barley by State governments for the central pool.

  •  For local distribution, which is less than 1% of total foodgrain procurement. 

  • The area under cultivation of coarse grains dropped by 20% between 1966-1967 and 2017-2018.

  • The area under rice and wheat increased by nearly 20% and 56% respectively.

  • Other water-intensive cash crops like sugarcane and areca nut have also flourished under policies favouring investments. 

  • This trend threatens food security and the production of nutritional crops. 

  • The expansion of sugarcane cultivation affects biodiversity, increases the pressure on groundwater resources, and contributes to air and water pollution. 

  • And ironically, small and marginal farmers in India are among the most food and nutrition insecure.

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. 

  • They 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 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

How can farmers transition?

  • It is 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..

  • 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.

  • 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.


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