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Can India improve food security whilst reducing environmental impact of agriculture?

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The agricultural sector in India is dominated by smallholder farmers (Sourcing from small holder farmers) often operating in disadvantaged circumstances. Various types of businesses and organisations offer support to these farmers, helping them to ensure food security domestically and to meet the regulatory requirements to sell their produce to the export market. However, environmental sustainability of production sometimes lags behind. Both NGOs and some agri-food businesses in India are setting ambitious agendas to address some of these issues in a holistic way. This article outlines how some of their projects are helping to strengthen agricultural supply chains, improve livelihoods and reduce the environmental impact of production.

Can India improve food security whilst reducing environmental impact of agriculture?

The challenges faced by agricultural supply chains in India

  1. Climate change

A changing climate is affecting agricultural production worldwide. Farmers in India are concerned about the unpredictability of the weather, which in recent years has had a major impact on their crops. For example, grape farmers in Maharashtra are suffering yield losses of around 40% this year due to powdery mildew and bunch rot caused by particularly early rains.  Some vegetable farmers have lost their entire crop due to waterlogging caused by prolonged rainfall. Water scarcity and a depleting water table is a major issue for farmers in other parts of the country. The poor accuracy of weather forecasts, particularly before September when they are only about 40-50% accurate, make it difficult for the farmer to plan ahead and protect their crops.

  1. Scale of production

Small and marginal farmers with less than two hectares of land account for 86% of all farmers in India (Indian Agriculture Census 2015-16).  Smallholder farmers are typically operating with little in the way of technical assistance, have poor access to inputs, limited resources and few links with buyers.  Without knowledge of regional production/areas planted to particular crops, farmers are not able to anticipate crop prices so struggle to make good business decisions when choosing crops.  The limited choice of buyers and lack of processing outlets for raw materials means farmers have little scope to diversify into alternative crops as there is no guarantee of finding a buyer. Rather than taking risks by adding new crops into the rotation, farmers tend to stick with crops with known buyers. 

  1. Regulatory hurdles

Maximum residue levels (MRLs) are required for crops, with particularly stringent requirements for crops bound for export markets, and these requirements can vary substantially between markets (e.g. EU vs. US).  Some crop protection products in use in India are banned in export markets, creating challenges for farmers in controlling certain pests and diseases.  Since crops are co-mingled prior to MRL testing, it is impossible to identify the farms that are non-compliant (those using banned products or exceeding MRL’s), which can lead to financial losses for the distributor.  Testing for MRLs in India is not considered to be well standardised so samples are often sent to Europe, adding cost and extending the time required. High levels of non-compliance with MRLs also adds administrative and operational burden for buyers operating in India.

  1. Knock-on effects of policy

With 1.3 billion people and a prevalence of undernourishment of 14.5% (FAOSTAT, 2018), the government’s key priority is on food and resource security, with less of a focus on environmental protection.  This can lead to unforeseen impacts.  For example, in 2010, the government initiated a policy in Punjab region to delay transplanting of rice for one month (from May to June) to reduce water demand from flood irrigation, since monsoon rains replenish the aquifers.  This results in a later harvest (late October).  Farmers then opt to burn stubble following harvest to speed up preparations for the next crop due to the shortened planting window.  Prevailing wind blows smoke from stubble burning in key agricultural areas to major cities, contributing to extreme pollution events as seen in New Delhi in recent weeks.  The government’s aim to protect water resources has thus had an unfavourable effect on air quality, highlighting the importance of developing holistic agri-environmental policies.

Environmental impact of production

Agricultural policies in India have focused on improving food security by increasing productivity, and have paid less attention to ensuring efficient resource use and protecting ecosystems.  Most smallholder farmers lack access to on-farm advice with regard to best practice for fertiliser and crop protection product use.  Inappropriate use of chemicals and nutrients has led to increased soil, water and air pollution impacting ecosystems and people. 

Smallholdings in India which previously were mixed farms (including some livestock production) have become focused on a more limited range of activities.  The reduction in livestock production on small farms means farmers rely more heavily on bought in artificial fertiliser.  In addition to adding to costs, farmers have lost the benefits to soil provided by organic manures.  Farmers struggle with declining soil health and nutrient losses to water caused by inappropriate input applications and by more erratic and potentially prolonged heavy rainfall.  Whilst everyone agrees that food production is the first priority, these losses from agricultural land are creating major environmental problems.

Water availability is an issue affecting everyone in India, with baseline water stress extremely high.  India ranks 13th highest in the world for overall water stress. (World Resources Institute, 2019).  Inefficient crop production, particularly in rice paddies, also contributes significant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions into the agriculture sector.

Improved management of the environmental impact of food production needs to be raised higher up the agenda for government, NGOs and business to avoid future reductions in productivity. Focusing more attention on sustainable use of resources will lead to a more secure food supply going forward.

How the NGOs, FPOs & businesses are finding solutions to environmental challenges

Reducing GHG emissions

Organisations such as the Sustainable Rice Platform, plus collaborative projects such as one currently being run by Olam, Bayer and Yara, are working with farmers to find innovative ways to measure and monitor GHG emissions with a view to encouraging new practices to bring emissions down.

Water use efficiency

Solidaridad have a major project in Maharashtra on water use efficiency in cotton production, where they are assessing the feasibility for water-saving infrastructure such as rainwater harvesting and farm ponds. ‘Water entrepreneurs’ are also providing a mobile source of irrigation to farmers to improve the efficiency of water use and reduce costs. One of the leading Indian rice exporters, LT Foods, is working with farmers to advise them on water conservation, for example by alternate wetting and drying of their rice crop rather than flood irrigation.

Reducing pesticide losses to wetlands

The World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF) in India are carrying out ambitious projects to reduce the environmental impacts of agricultural production in three target areas, including the wetlands in Gujarat. They are working with cotton farmers to reduce the runoff and leaching of pesticides from the cotton fields to the sensitive wetland ecosystem.

Reducing waste

Farm Producer Organisations such as Sahyadri Farms are working at scale in Maharashtra with fruit and vegetable growers to provide new outlets for a range of crops, including all quality levels. This has opened new processing outlets to farmers and is helping to reduce on-farm and post-harvest waste.

How ADAS is supporting Indian business and NGOs

ADAS has recently begun a project with a major NGO to help assess and manage the risk to migratory birds in a sensitive wetland area from pesticides associated with cotton production.

Other areas in which ADAS could offer specialist consultancy to Indian agricultural organisations include:

  • Mapping supply chains and identifying procurement and reputational risks
  • Using farmer decision support tools to drive improvements in productivity, resource efficiency, reduction in carbon, water use and waste
  • Methodologies for measuring, monitoring and reducing agrichemical runoff
  • Using industry standards to prove the quality and sustainability of Indian agricultural products to gain access to export markets
  • Using data from remote sensing to obtain metrics relating to crop performance and environmental impact on a wide scale.

Find out more

For further information, please contact Leslie Berger or Lucy Wilson.

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