Creating a win-win world where agricultural systems thrive on self- generated inputs and the food systems have zero negative externalities
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
My vision can be scalable across India but I would first validate the tool using data from few agriculturally important districts of Maharashtra like Palghar, Thane, Nashik in Maharashtra. Concerning my relationship with this place, I am a Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay in Mumbai located in the state of Maharashtra and have lived in this city for 20 years. I have been working on Green Accounting, Economics of ecosystems and Biodiversity and Valuation of ecosystems for more than two decades. My vision to see zero externality food systems has been as a result of my involvement for over a decade as one of the Coordinators for the most influential project “The economics of ecosystems and biodiversity” and as Coordinating lead author for “The economics of ecosystems and biodiversity for agriculture food systems”. The key take home messages from these two projects has been that “We cannot transform the world without recognizing, demonstrating and capturing the benefits provided by the ecosystems” and the transformative food system requires empowering different stakeholders who can take conscious decisions based on comprehensive information. We have been urging for making a change in the mindset of all stakeholders since long, and I felt I need to come up with an actionable tool for all the key stakeholders.
Unlike developed countries, in India most of the farmers are small and marginal and are not highly educated. There are several missing links between policies, the food producer, distribution channels and the consumer. Food system transformation requires a coordinated approach and cannot be piece meal. We need a systemic approach which identifies all possible benefits and costs of any action by any stakeholder. Being placed in Mumbai in premier technology institution, I have the advantage of connecting the technology, the farmers and the policy together and thus I feel can make a difference.
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.
Figure 1. Map of Maharashtra. Districts considered - Thane, Nasik and Palghar (the three surrounding districts of Mumbai)
I selected the state of Maharashtra not only because I live here but also because of the diversity that the state presents. The state is on the West coast of India and has a long coast line of 720 km. This is an important Indian state as it has highest GDP, is third largest in terms of area and second largest in terms of population. The state is financially and industrially very important but is predominantly agrarian. Thus this becomes an ideal case for developing the tool because I can capture all the backward and forward linkages. The climate in the state is very conducive to growing crops. The state spans an area of 307,713 sq. km and has a population of 112,372,972 (according to Census 2011) and has 35 districts. Approximately 45% of the population are urban. The state is geographically divided into two parts by Sahyadri hilly ranges in Konkan costal plains and Deccan Plateau. The state receives varying rainfall. The state grows several important food crops as well cash crops along with horticulture crops. The state is predominantly rain-fed, with only 18% of the area under agriculture being irrigated and has 24 percent of the drought prone area of the country. The state has several agro-processing industries as well.
The tool I wish to develop will be based on field data from four districts in Maharashtra – Palghar, Thane, Raigad and Nashik districts, very important farming districts, equidistant from the financial capital of Mumbai. Nashik district is located in north-west part of Maharashtra and is adjacent to Thane district closer to Mumbai. Mumbai is also the largest consumer of agricultural products from Nashik. 40% of the cultivated area is irrigated of which 75% is through ground water. Nashik district has very fertile soils which include shallow red soils, medium red/black soils as well as deep black soil. Major crops are bajra, maize, onion, paddy and wheat. Amongst horticulture crops grapes, pomegranate and tomato are popular. Palghar is the newly carved 36th district and is very diverse topographically. The district though only 60 kms away from Mumbai is predominantly dominated by scheduled tribes. Here the main occupation of the people is farming, primarily raid-fed and hence crops are grown only in one season. Both Nashik and Palghar has a wide variation in rainfall, irrigation and conducive environment for agriculture and horticulture and promotes rich cropping patterns across district. Thane district has a geographical area of 9,558 sq. kms and is relatively more urban(77% urbanites). The district is predominantly rainfed and receives highest rainfall with very little variation in annual rainfall. The largest crop in the whole district of Thane is Paddy with 69.5% of gross cropped area followed by Ragi and millets. Chikoo, Mango and coconut are the popular horticultural crops in the district. Raigad has long coastline and is important rice bowl and has mango and cashew nut plantations. The district is important for fisheries and also experiences good rainfall.
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
The current challenges are many and would depend on who in the food system chain we are referring to. If we aim at primary producer (farmer), the challenge is that in India, most of the farmers are small and marginal and not very highly educated. They are subsistence farmers who manage to survive and are highly vulnerable to climate change, monsoon failure, declining soil fertility and increased attacks by pests. Their challenge is to use combination of seeds, fertilizers, chemicals, water and technology that can maximize the production at minimum cost and get good price for the product they sell. In fact I was stuck during my field visit that farmers view farming as unremunerative profession and several farmers are moving away from farming as labour in brick kilns or other industries as they give more stable income. I thought this is a real challenge for the Indian economy. How to feed growing population when farmer does not want to till the land? How can policy makers ensure food security while minimizing ecosystem damages? Stringent regulations to minimize environmental damage reduce farmers income. Maharashtra is a state where the farmers suicides have been maximum in India. In between the farmers to the consumers there are other actors in the value chain which can increase the price of food. But if the farms are moving away from the consumers as cities expand, the real challenge is to transport the food from the farm to the consumer without much post harvest loss and at minimum cost. This might be challenging for consumers to eat right food at affordable price and at the same time consume a diet which is local, free of chemicals and healthy. The other important aspect is eating nutritious food. The food that we grow is depleted of the nutrients. So the overall challenge for the system is to ensure that all the stakeholders get a win-win opportunity where the economy, environment, culture, society and nutrition dwell together. These stakeholders do not operate independently and work as a system. All of them needs to be connected and take informed decisions.
If we do not act, we may face similar but tougher challenges in future though technological breakthroughs are envisaged. If the farmer pursues farming as a profession which he/she would not want his generation to take up, there would be dearth of farmers in India. The agricultural labour costs would go further up as is already happening in India right now. The technology would emerge but then this technology should be acceptable and affordable for the farmer. Due to expanding population and many mouths to feed, the agricultural land productivity would decline posing a real challenge for food security. In addition, I envisage a real threat posed by climate change on farming systems due to lack of water in future. Lack of water would also mean shift to crops which are more drought resistant impacting the cultural values as well as the nutrition. Unless we act, it impacts economic development further exacerbating economic and social inequalities.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
We made great strides in achieving food security due to green revolution after 1970s. However, it is very unlikely that we will be able to reap the fruits forever. Excessive reliance on chemical inputs, excessive withdrawal of ground water and climate change has made agriculture unsustainable and food systems unhealthy. But it has improved food security. The farmer cannot produce expensive food nor take more risks as they are already vulnerable to climate change and uncertain conditions. The consumer is not connected with the farmer and thus the farmer would not have consumer's health in mind. The current system measures performance of our eco-food-systems from biased lens of per hectare productivity, disregarding social and environmental costs that food systems create on society. But if we internalize these costs, the food may be expensive. Regenerative food systems is not only about farmers and their practices. It is about making all the stakeholders more conscious of their actions, thereby making right choices. Transforming food systems therefore requires closing this information gap, changing the mindset of the stakeholders across the value chain through providing information on both private and social costs as well as benefits of different sets of practices and connecting the producer and the consumer. We feel that this challenge can be addressed through developing a food system metric tool for communicating to different stakeholders taking systems perspective into account. The market prices of food do not reveal the truth – often we pay a hidden price for environmental degradation and food borne diseases through consumption of cheap food. The ready reckoner we envisage to develop would highlight all the economic, social, health, environmental and cultural impacts of their actions and choices to all the stakeholders. Through this we believe we would be able to restructure our existing food system keeping health as the main outcome and not the faulty compass of productivity. The information, would help conscious consumers demand more local food to their diets than adding food miles, respecting the traditions, eat healthy diets, conserve biodiversity and also be informed of sustainable food production practices.
The tool would help us travel across the value chain. The farmers analyse the impact of their input usage pattern, the policy maker would understand the consequences of various policies, highlight the bottlenecks, identify the institutional failures, the transaction costs and its impact on food and nutritional security. The retailers would be able to compute their foot print in carrying the food from farm to the point of sale. The consumers would also be able to make right food and nutritional choice given farmers constraints and the farmer makes use of this information subsequently and grow food given consumers preference.
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.
If we are able to address the challenges, the transformed food systems can help us reach our national commitments towards Sustainable Development goals. The farmer (producer) in the region becomes more environmentally conscious and can produce food using different production technologies and inputs. The ready reckoner enables them to make right decisions by showing the impacts of each of his actions along with the private and social benefits. Conscious farmers would use the best possible scenario based on their circumstances. The policy makers would understand the societal impact of their decisions along with the transaction costs and costs of bottle necks. Along with promoting a particular policy or technology, the policy maker should know the viability of the policy and the suggested technology. The tool would bring the farmer and the policy makers choices readily visible so as to assess the feasibility. The consumer too can choose what type of food to eat and the consequences of their decision. So I believe that food system transformation would happen quite organically if using a right metric as the stakeholders have a ready reckoner to take conscious decisions. We cannot bring the change through coercive measures but we can only inform the stakeholders and demonstrate to them what if scenarios.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
"If farm ecology and economics go wrong, nothing else will go right in agriculture. " (M. S. Swaminathan)
The above was the quote of father of green revolution in India. Green revolution has shifted the Indian farms from being more consumption oriented to market-oriented farms. Clearly, this had its deleterious impacts. Have we ever conceptualized that agriculture which is supposed to help nourish the humans to be the most destructive? Estimates of pollution generated by agriculture far exceed that of several extractive industries.
Thus our experience in India for four decades does illustrate that we need another revolution and we need to transform our food systems so that we would not threaten our own life and increase the burden of diseases caused due to poor diet, thereby compromising all the SDGs.
We may have the option to go back to our basics or get more innovative using all the latest environment friendly technologies developed to make farms more efficient and productive. Both may be a possibility and both of them have their pros and cons. How do we decide?
Going back to basics require farming by natural means. Experiences in India from the state of Andhra Pradesh (Zero budget natural farming) show that the yields have increased and the costs lowered but then there are also couple of counter arguments saying that over time the yields have declined and the natural farming cannot have enough to feed the world. There has been an argument that in the Indian state of Sikkim the yields have declined after the shift to organic farming.
The technological alternative is more expensive and has been accepted worldwide. These technologies are proven to reduce the stress of shortages of labor in agriculture. There are technologies in agriculture which use drip irrigation system, precision farming, smart drip, use of drones, solar powered cold storages, smart sensor based irrigation systems, information and communication technologies, unmanned aerial vehicle systems etc to improve the efficiency but are they viable on small farms which is the typical Indian scenario? When farmers struggle with infrastructural problems and when their immediate challenge is to reach the food harvested to the markets, can they even break even on small farms? Definitely for technology to be viable there must be some minimum size. Assuming the farmer adopts, then would there be acceptance from the consumers given the high cost of farming?
How do we judge what is best for the society in both these instances as well as the status quo (of following the existing practice)? Do we have a holistic system which takes into account the complex interactions between eco-agri-food complexes? We need a standardized approach to compare different farming systems and technologies. To address these complex interactions, we need systems thinking, which focuses on the identification of interrelationships between components, identify the synergies and the interventions which would impact the most.
Today's food systems are extremely complex unlike the traditional systems The food system we have is a complex interplay of production systems, social systems of those involved in producing and transforming foods into food, fuel and fibre, economic systems – the prices, institutions, infrastructure, policies that shape what is being delivered to the consumers who have their preferences. Moreover, these are dynamic systems shaped by technologies, information, divergent views and culture which in turn impact the health through the food and nutrition these foods provide.
All of these interactive systems generate significant externalities that either benefit or impose costs on the society. Thus conventional tools cannot capture these complexes as they merely compare net returns from farming but do not go beyond it. The ready reckoner tool that is proposed here uses the TEEBAgrifood framework that uses systems perspective to analyse the interactions between the food systems and human capital, social capital, produced capital and natural capital within the value chain, starting from the farm to the household consumption. The framework makes the invisibles (the externalities) visible. Thus using this framework the society can take into account the impacts of activities which were earlier ignored.
Thus the system tool helps in looking at the sustainability of farming system taking into account all the positive and negative impacts generated at various stages. The framework enables us to assess the risks and opportunities from food systems that would otherwise not have been possible to measure. This perspective can also identify all possible trade-offs between different practices, which otherwise is not possible with the conventional metrics. The proposed tool is a holistic system that integrates all the components together to give a complete picture of our food systems,
For example, the application of TEEBAgrifood framework for the case of Punjab rice wheat harvesting system showed that it is socially profitable to use happy seeder technology rather than burn the paddy stubble, which leads to the compounding air pollution problem in Delhi with people suffering from respiratory disorders. Similarly, comparing organic vs inorganic farming showed the organic farming is profitable in case all the subsidies of inorganic farming are phased out and the organic paddy is sold at a premium price.
Thus I would like to see that in 2050 people take conscious decisions taking into consideration:
1. all the complexities of agricultural food systems, rather than focussing on short-sighted measures like per farm productivity,
2. focus on holistic indicators looking into all four components of well-being - health, social and cultural capital, natural capital and produced capital,
3. Strive to ensure that farms thrive on the own generated inputs
4. The food systems are more responsible with minimal externalities
5. Achieve health and nutritional well-being for all the sections of the society
6. Ideally going back to the Basics using the latest technology to produce food for healthy people than to produce food to breed sickness
I would envision that these are possible through system tools so that right choices and decisions are made for better healthy and sustainable planet.