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Social Biome: A Vision for a Regenerative Agri-economy

Redefining the socio-agricultural landscape through Climate-resilient Agriculture and transformational shifts in agrarian power dynamics

Photo of Pradhan Thandra
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Vihara Innovation Network

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small company (under 50 employees)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

https://www.vihara.asia/

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

New Delhi

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

India

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Bihar

What country is your selected Place located in?

India

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Vihara Innovation Network has an intimate and decade long relationship with the state of Bihar. Our organization’s raison d'être in fact has been ongoingly formed through our work in Bihar and close collaboration with its citizen communities. ‘Bihar’ comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Vihara’ (meaning a Buddhist contemplative garden), which inspired the renewed nomenclature of our organization. 

Over the last 12 years Vihara has worked closely with Bihar’s state government, global donors making major investments into development programs and implementation partners to co-develop innovative and impactful strategies for improved maternal and child health, nutrition, sexual and reproductive health, gender and education to name a few. It has also mentored and nurtured 63 innovation leaders from district level and built a local capacity for creative problem solving and peer learning. 

Some of the work that we have done in Bihar are:

 - Bihar Innovation Lab: The objective was to build high impact innovations maternal and child care and vaccine delivery, improve quality of care and coverage at the last mile. 

- Paanch Paar: In Bihar, Paanch Paar built a novel differential vulnerability framework for children under 5 and develop innovative solutions to identify vulnerable children and resolve the repeated cycle of illness towards pathways of resilience. 

- Couple Engage: The project aims to develop and test innovative, gender-equitable approaches on engaging men and the couple in family planning. 

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Geography 

The state of Bihar is situated in Eastern India, south of the Himalayas, and shares a border with Nepal and the states of Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and West Bengal. The Ganges divides the state into the northern and southern Gangetic plains. 

Climate

The climate is largely sub-tropical, with summer and winter temperature ranges being 23-38 C (April to July) and 0-10 C (November to February) respectively. The monsoons months are August to October and it receives between 1000 to 1500 mm rainfall annually. Flooding is a huge problem, with 76% of the population in the north Bihar living under the recurring threat of flood devastation.

Demography

It has the third largest population in India, with about 89% of the population living in rural areas. About half the population is below 25 years old, which is the highest in India. The dominant religion is Hinduism (83%), followed by Islam (17%). The primary languages are Hindi (including dialects Magahi, Bhojpuri), Maithili, Angika and Urdu.

People’s Aspirations

Most youngsters in Bihar aspire to become civil servants, especially working in the Indian Administrative Services, Indian Police Services and the Indian Foreign Services. There is a strong association of these offices to power and respect, something seen above and beyond what even a high-paying job could provide. 

Economy

Bihar is primarily an agrarian economy, with about 3/4 of its population engaged in agriculture and allied sectors. It is one of the highest producers of fruits (especially lychee, mangoes and foxnuts) and vegetables in India. It has three harvests in a year and produces rice as the dominant crop, with maize, wheat, barley, pulses and sugarcane as supplements. Though Bihar has made significant progress in mining, manufacturing and service sectors, it still remains one of the poorest states of India by per capita income.

Food

The staple foods are rice, lentils, unleavened bread, vegetable & meat curries. The flavours are distinctly spicy, and are seen as essentials to any meal. Consumption of milk and dairy products is very high. With urbanization, there has been a rising popularity for international cuisines like Chinese and Italian. 

History & Culture

Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment at Bodh Gaya in Bihar. It has deep roots in learning, having been home to ancient universities like Nalanda and Vikramshila. Bihar is well known for the Madhubani artform and Chhath Puja, a grand ritual that unfolds over four days in honour of the Sun God and his sister.

Governance

The state has had a history of poor governance especially between 1990 to 2004, when Bihar witnessed some of its darkest times. Rampant crime and corruption, persistent poverty, caste and religion-based political battles, abjectly deficient public health systems and infrastructure, pushed the state to the bottom of almost every performance index. Though there has been significant progress made in the past 15 years, there still remains a lot to be done to bring Bihar at par.

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

The environmental landscape of Bihar has undergone accelerated degradation. It has faced seasonal floods for generations, however their intensity and unpredictability has increased in the last 30 years due to climate change induced variables along with heavier rainfall and deforestation to make room for infrastructure projects. Groundwater has been contaminated, with districts possessing arsenic levels that are unsafe for human consumption. South Bihar is facing immense droughts. This has already impacted crop yields more than 10 districts. Bihar is expected to see temperature rises of 2C, an increased prevalence of drought in the South, and more intense and unpredictable flooding in the North. Given the high levels of rural poverty, the Government of India considers Bihar to hold the least capacity to adapt to climate change. 

Agriculture is constrained due to monocropping, landholding patterns and exploitative financial logic: Though the majority of the workforce is engaged in agriculture, it only contributes 18.3% to the state GDP and this figure is declining. 85% of its cropping area has increasingly been monocropped, dedicated to growing cereals like rice and wheat, even though rice yields in Bihar are comparatively lower than in other states. Before it even makes it to the market, approximately 1/4 of food goes to waste due to lack of cold storage. Land ownership is concentrated, with 91% of  farmers classified as small and marginal. These economic constraints have led to large scale seasonal migration of men as either agricultural laborers or as construction workers in major cities. Women usually find work as farm laborers where they are paid in-kind and are often required to take out loans creating a continued cycle of economic dependence which impacts the ability to access high quality nutritious food. 

A Cycle of Intergenerational Malnutrition: Bihar has the highest percentage of stunted children under the age of 5, affecting nearly half of the state’s children. While multiple children in Bihar survive, they are afflicted with wasting, stunting, anemia, caught in repeated cycles of illness and fail to grow to their full potential. It also has high rates of childhood anaemia and approximately 60% of women, aged 15-49 are anaemic. Obesity rates have doubled between the years 2001 and 2010, with approximately 12% of the overall population in Bihar classified as obese.  

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Instead of promoting degraded soil environments, Bihar will develop living ecosystems through the adoption of regenerative agriculture practices with a systems orientation, such as permaculture, agroforestry, and aquaponics. Companion crops will be interspersedly planted between trees to ensure that yields are naturally nutrient dense. These crops will be grown using local seed varieties and cultivars developed and banked by farmer collaboratives. The interspersed crops are nourished with microbial treatments and new nourishment formulations made from bio-products, manifold times more effective than current chemical fertilizers, thereby increasing their adaptability to heat shifts and other abiotic stresses. At the same time, the trees create semi-canopies that increase shade and partially offset the the impact of high temperatures. Agroforestry will help to stem the intensity of floods by reducing soil erosion. Water from floods will be harnessed to create aquaponic systems.  

These new forms of agriculture address economic challenges by creating new product and service streams and who;e new markets, that enhance the employment opportunities of the people of Bihar, resulting in reduced out-migration. The strengthened workforce further increases economic output, creating an accelerating cycle of growth. The influx of investments thus received, is used to develop the requisite infrastructure, especially storage and processing.

The vision proposes agrarian cooperative bodies as potential solutions to enable distribution of concentrated resources and decision making power. In cases of land ownership, systemic agreements for mutual benefits could be proposed by the state and land owners, where the state pays for renting the land, and then sub-leasing it to cooperatives at subsidised rates, that are eventually recovered through taxation on increased economic outputs.

Cooperative financial institutions have been proposed as ways to provide financial capital to agrarians, helped by policy stimuli in the form of relaxed taxation of promoted agri-sectors, and incentives for savings.

One of the severest challenges is malnutrition, owing largely to people’s inability to purchase nutritious foods, due to their financial condition, and their starch-heavy diets. The shift to agroforestry enabled diversity of produce from monocropping would result in an increased variety of foods available. This can be helped by policy interventions that stipulate incentivised quotas among agrarians to cultivate nutritious food alongside cash-crops. 

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

We envision a food system where the dominant industrialized methods of food production in Bihar undergoes a paradigm shift towards regenerative agricultural practices. Agroforestry becomes the dominant method of food production, and is complemented with a rise in urban food cultivation. The annual cycles of flooding are harnessed to create a network of freshwater reservoirs, that serve as the basis of aquaponics.

A new innovation ecosystem emerges between cultivators, the state and tech companies (the agri-innovation trifecta), and through a combination of traditional knowledge derived from time tested indigenous farming practices and cutting edge research, drives the proliferation of climate adaptive agricultural technologies and practices. The state transitions from the role of a controller to one of facilitators, creating a shift in traditional power dynamics. With such decentralized means of production, citizens gain ownership and enhanced control over the health of their land and environment.  

Consumers’ quests for more fresh, nutrient dense, healthy, organic, and functional foods drive food cultivation. Consumers digitally trace the nutritional profiles of their foods allowing for choices specific to their health requirements. Digital marketplaces and modular hubs break corporate monopolies over distribution and eliminate middle-men. Metrics like customer sentiment and willingness to purchase are applied to dynamically price products, resulting in an entirely new way of determining and exchanging value.

With concurrent shift away from dated models of cultivation, ownership and distribution, along with the merger of old traditions with new technologies, the populase of Bihar displaces the historic power imbalance that has plagued the province for decades.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Over several decades of the past century, Bihar has found itself to have become progressively immiserated, suffering from famines and floods, poor administration, a breakdown of law and order, capital flight and a generalized lack of hope, leading to out-migration to other parts of India and the world. The vision for Bihar in 2050 is to be an agrarian economic powerhouse led by regenerative farming practices. As opposed to adopting private conglomerates-led, highly centralized modes of industrial agriculture in pursuit of rapid economic gain, Bihar chooses a decentralized, sustainable, community-oriented approach towards agriculture. It leverages a combination of traditional knowledge derived from indigenous farming practices, and combines it with state-funded cutting-edge research, to develop state of the art climate-resilient and climate-adaptive practices. Affordable access to advanced technologies like artificial intelligence, real-time monitoring through IoT, and automated cultivation and harvesting systems, allows for scaling production at non-degenerative rates.

In order to create a decentralized structure, agrarian cooperative bodies are formed, allowing for pooling of knowledge, resources, as well the development of community-owned seed banks. Monocropping has long been replaced by practices of agroforestry, which serves to increase both, the variety as well as the nutritional value of the food grown, along with an increased forest cover. As new markets emerge for the variety of produce, economic activity increases significantly, which the state leverages to provide employment opportunities to its citizens. A combination of unmanned aerial vehicles and digital platform technologies open up new supply chains, cutting the middle-man out entirely, resulting in affordable, direct access to nutritious food for consumers, and better financial conditions for food producers.

Thanks to an increased prevalence and awareness of the nutritional profiles of foods, consumers can now choose the food type based on their specific health requirements. Self-cultivation becomes a mainstream practice, and subcultures of small and mid-scale food producers emerge, who participate in a growing trend of community-trading of seeds and produce. This leads to a thriving agrarian culture sustained by demands, both domestic and international, for specialised, organically grown local produce, enabled by digital trade platforms.

Diets shift drastically away from being starch heavy to including a host of nutritious food, selected by the consumers, and delivered directly from the farm. Malnutrition and diseases arising from sedentary lifestyles go on a decline, leading to more prosperous citizens, which in turn enhances the productivity of the workforce.

The annual cycles of flooding have been harnessed to create a network of freshwater reservoirs, that serve as the basis of aquaponics, as well as a reserve for drinking water filtration systems, as a relief from contaminated ground water. Irrigation infrastructure channels the floodwaters to areas affected by droughts, while also preserving riverbanks. Energy, now wholly generated by renewable sources as a result of increased investment in the state from new economic pockets, powers the entire system sustainably.

Waste generated from farmlands finds application in developing organic fertilizers, and recyclable, bio-intelligent packaging (capable of informing about the freshness of the food it contains). The remnants are used in the development of bio-bricks, which replace the heavily polluting brick kilns of the state. Overall, produced crop waste has been drastically reduced as inventories are dynamically managed through smart algorithms, and cooperative owned storage facilities that are actively monitored through sensor-based technology.

The Vision is engrained in the concept of the Circular Economy, and actively pursues the narrative of empowering agrarian communities to effectively negotiate and navigate the complexities of power dynamics in the agricultural space. It champions the shift in the role of the state government from being the controllers of agricultural activity to that of a provider and regulator to community-led agri-tranformations.

Some key Aspects of the Vision:

Establishing Agroforestry as the Dominant Agricultural Method:

Regenerative farming practices, especially agro-forestry are an ideal fit for reinvigorating the agricultural economy in Bihar owing to the prominent prevalence of small land holding for cultivation. In order to successfully implement agroforestry as a mainstream practice, the state government frames a comprehensive institutional machinery geared towards implementation of the regenerative agricultural policy. The various stakeholders involved, including the State Agroforestry Board, knowledge and skilling partners, plants and resourced distributors, financial institutions, and demand-side stakeholders as well, are structurally orchestrated to make agroforestry the dominant contributor towards the state’s net agricultural output.

Seed Ownership

Empowering cultivators to have control over indigenous seed varieties through community-owned seed banks. Providing platforms for sharing of relevant knowledge for their cultivation, and opportunities for trading and wide-spread use.

Development of Agritech

Significant investments are made in agricultural technology (agritech) geared towards enhancing the productivity of agroforestry at all stages from land preparation to harvesting, and everything in between. The new innovation ecosystem, (agri-innovation trifecta) comprising of cultivators, the state government and technology companies work together to accelerate advances in agritech. These include applications of advances made across the fields of Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things and that other emerging technology that can tackle the complexities arising from the non-conventional industrialization challenges.

The Nalanda Centres for Climate-Adaptive & Climate-Resilient Agriculture

Historically, Bihar has been honoured with being home to some of the earliest major universities of the world like Nalanda and Vikramshila. In line with the agricultural revival of the state, the government establishes the foundations of an educational revival as well. R&D institutes are set up by the state in partnership with the private sector, working towards the development of an innovation ecosystem to enable agriculture to thrive in times of climate change, involving the industry, academia, agricultural workers, and other allied stakeholders. This helps in establishing the state of Bihar as a gigantic lab for testing and developing climate-adaptive and climate-resilient agricultural practices. Through proven excellence, Bihar becomes a model state, attracting investments that benefit it economically, while also restoring the identity of Bihar as a centre of excellence in learning.

Market-facing Policy Interventions

With new products being generated at a large scale through agroforestry, new markets are developed to consume them, providing new employment opportunities. Demand is carefully monitored through active regulatory bodies, to ensure fair-play in the emerging markets, and also inform the production side as to what is to be produced, and in what quantities.

Nutrition Security

Certain quotas for cultivating nutritive foods are maintained, which is rigorously maintained by the state through incentives, as part of an initiative to drastically alter the nutrition level of the state. State nutrition and health bodies, in conjunction with R&D centres, play a key role in defining what food is to be grown at what seasons to maximise nutrient capitalization.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Website

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Photo of Trupti Jain
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hi Pradhan: Good morning from Ahmedabad. your work is great. will love to exchange ideas.
www.naireetaservices.com , ph: +919825506900, wa: +919825506900, T: @BHUNGROOfb: BHUNGROO , e: biplab@naireetaservices.com  

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