That India faces the daunting challenge of feeding its large and growing population with rising purchasing power amid current low level of per capita food availability has by now become a clichéd statement.

With a population of over 120 crores (1.2 billion) expanding at about 1.5 per cent a year and, thereby, adding roughly 1.8 crore (18 million) mouths to be fed year after year, the demand for food can only keep rising. Even as food and nutrition security remains under stress, it is imperative that the poor are lifted out of their poverty soon. The vantage position of agriculture to deliver ‘growth with equity’ is by now well recognised.

At the same time, demands on resources are set to propel higher, driven by demographic pressure and emerging constraints in the availability of natural resources such as water and land. So, can we have a ‘Green economy’ that pursues growth while also promoting sustainable development through more efficient use of resources?

In a recent policy brief titled ‘Ensuring Food and Nutrition Security in a Green Economy ’, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), has pointed out that the objective of a green economy is to simultaneously work toward economic development, environmental protection and greater social welfare.

In particular, it can be achieved by reducing reliance on fossil fuel and non-renewable resources. Like many emerging economies, India is already facing the serious challenge of satisfying the basic needs of people - provision of adequate and nutritious food, water, energy and housing at affordable prices.

Food prices rise

While population growth and rising incomes drive demand for food higher, rapidly changing food habits especially among the burgeoning middleclass are set to transform the composition of the traditional food basket. Importantly, with supply growth trailing demand growth and production costs escalating, food prices will rise significantly. This is sure to have adverse consequences for the poor, whose food and nutrition intake already stands diluted. With higher incomes, the emerging middleclass can afford to consume more fruits and vegetables, and more meat which requires much more water and land to produce.

Food safety risks

In addition, as people demand more perishable and processed foods, food safety risks along the supply chain increase. These risks may also increase with more intensive crop and livestock farming through contamination with chemicals or pathogens, the IFPRI report pointed out. Interestingly, while intensifying food production can boost the country’s food security and serve the poor, it can also cause land degradation, water pollution, depletion of water resources, and new pest problems.

mono-cropping impact

Under Indian conditions, the frontline States of Punjab and Haryana are classic examples of how grain mono-cropping over long years has resulted in soil degradation and alarming decline in water table. Indeed, experts assert, an ecological disaster is waiting to happen. The unintended consequences highlight the need for adequate agricultural extension, effective regulation, careful pricing policies, the correction of inappropriate incentives, and policy responses that make intensive agriculture compatible with sustainable management of natural resources and the environment, the policy brief has asserted.

This is significant for India in that our farm policies must discourage sustained mono-cropping of grains and encourage crop rotation, enforce water use efficiency by pricing it appropriately and more efficient nutrient use as also have a more rational, well-dispersed national procurement policy for fine cereals.

Pro-poor, agriculture

Experts argue that agriculture in a green economy has immense potential to address the unsustainable use of natural resources for food production; and a strategy to develop a green economy can support poverty reduction as well as food and nutrition security, if it is both pro-poor and pro-agriculture because, in low-income countries, the agriculture sector employs almost two-thirds of the labour force and generates about a third of the gross domestic product. As for India, nearly 55 per cent of the population is said to be dependent directly or indirectly on agriculture and allied activities for a living and the contribution of this sector to GDP is about 16 per cent.

Smallholders represent the bulk of the poor and half of the world’s hungry; they also depend on natural resources and ecosystem service for their livelihoods; and so a sustainable management through a green economy is bound to directly benefit them, experts point out. According to IFPRI, an integrated approach to economic development, sustainable use of natural resources and food production will avoid solutions with adverse consequences for any one sector.

Triple-win situations

In agriculture, such ‘triple-win’ situations can be achieved through practices that reduce negative environmental effects while increasing productivity and smallholder income. Important technologies include plant breeding and slow-release fertilisers that increase nutrient-use efficiency, integrated soil fertility management, precision agriculture, integrated pest management, and further expansion of alternative wet and dry irrigation for rice production (particularly in Asia). For a green economy, there are additional factors to be considered. To fully reflect the value of natural resources and set appropriate incentives, the full cost of environmental degradation as well as all benefits of ecosystem services should be taken into account by decision makers. New indicators to evaluate cross-sectoral impacts - food and nutrition, agriculture and natural resources - are necessary. Multiple stakeholders, especially smallholders, consultations are critical. The transition to a green economy is an opportunity to reconcile economic needs with environmental concerns while promoting food and nutrition security for poor and vulnerable people in one coherent policy framework. By giving agriculture a central role in the green economy and managing this transition effectively, the nation can accelerate its efforts directed at hunger eradication and lifting people out of poverty.

(This article was published on June 17, 2012)
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