The South Asian population has been growing at the rate of 1.5 per cent per annum, and agricultural production at 2.5 per cent per annum has been keeping pace with the demographic trends, thereby creating the necessary provision for food. Yet, the inherent problems of distribution have loomed large for South Asia.

India’s National Food Security Act, 2013, emphasises defining certain target groups and highlights the importance of distribution. Agricultural policies in South Asia, including that of India, have always been vocal about production, marketing, pricing and, to an extent, about natural resource use, and the use of agricultural inputs.

Food-ecosystem linkage

However, in policy implementation, the inextricable linkage between ecosystems and food is often ignored. There is practically no recognition of the fact that, of the entire range of services provided by the ecosystem, food provisioning — either by natural operation or through human intervention — holds utmost importance.

Critical ecosystem services facilitate agricultural production, create income-generating opportunities, and provide energy for cooking.

The production aspect of food is explained by the fundamental dependence of agricultural systems on ecological processes. On the other hand, household-level access to income is facilitated by the production of agricultural goods and raw materials that can be sold. From the utilisation perspective, ecosystem services create provision of safe drinking water and food; provide fuels and energy for hygienic heating, cooking, and storage of food; the materials for sanitation and health care; and the micronutrients necessary for an adequate diet.

ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE Often, what is perceived as “damage” from a myopic economic perspective turns out to be a boon from the social-ecosystemic perspective and vice-versa. The Bihar floodplain in the Ganges sub-basin of India is a case in point. Apparently perceived as “flood damage”, the floodwater, upon receding, leaves behind rich silt and micronutrients that have helped in the natural creation of the most fertile agricultural land — also known as “rice bowl” of South Asia.

The opposite is also prevalent in the same basin. Further downstream, the Farakka barrage, constructed in 1975 to resuscitate the Calcutta port, has been witnessing ecosystem damages due to stream-flow depletion caused by its natural course. This has, in turn, affected the mangrove forests, fisheries production, fish catch (quantity and quality), and eventually the fishing community.

The traditional engineering paradigm has conveniently been oblivious of these ecosystems-food-livelihood linkages in the planning process. There are many such examples in South Asia. These ecosystem concerns have hardly featured even in the context of the grand plan of river interlinking, or while converting forest land for agriculture or other purposes.

Agricultural expansions during the last century have caused widespread changes in land cover, watercourses, and aquifers; thereby degrading the ecosystems and restricting their ability to support some services, including food provisioning. Some examples of this are the various major river basins such as the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) basin, Cauvery basin, Krishna basin, and so on.

Flawed approach The management policy of many agro-ecosystems has essentially been based on the premise that they are delinked from the broader landscape. Crossing ecological thresholds leads to a regime change in the ecosystem and its concomitant services. Apart from reducing the ecosystem resilience, this restricts the sustainability of food provisioning.

Threats to the ecological foundation of agriculture arise from resources that are supposedly becoming scarce over time. The drivers of this process are competition over land and water, traditional resource-consuming agricultural practices, deforestation, and unsustainable pesticide use (that reduces the long-term soil productivity, and also contaminates groundwater), and climate change.

The critical knowledge gap here pertains to the relations between water and food. Food security has so far been thought of as a positive and linear function of water availability. While most experiments on the subject in the US and the EU have refuted the direct proportionality between water and food availability, such a knowledge base is yet to emerge in South Asia. The US, the country which started the global trend of building large dams, began decommissioning dams that have caused egregious ecological impacts; thereby affecting livelihoods and the provisioning services of the ecosystem. Nearly 500 dams in the US and elsewhere have already been removed, with an aim to restore the ecosystem.

Towards sustainability By 2050, food demand in South Asia is going to double. There is no doubt that in many cases, bringing land and water resources under the fold of agriculture will not be a viable option. With ecological thresholds being exceeded, food provisioning services of the ecosystem are being seriously affected; thereby, posing a threat to the nature’s capacity to provide food for rural households.

South Asian river basins like the GBM present the most interesting paradox of the development theory — ample water, ample poverty. As has been proposed by Jayanta Bandyopadhyay and Nilanjan Ghosh in an article in Economic and Political Weekly in 2009, the prime reason for this paradox is a sheer de-recognition of the ecosystems-livelihoods linkage.

There is no doubt that increased water and land productivity (and not increased use) has to be the core of the solution. On the other hand, from a very regional food security perspective, trade in “virtual water” (or agricultural imports) can indeed play a crucial role. For serving the long-term needs of food security, a more holistic perspective is needed. This will entail an integrated approach for managing land and water resources and ecosystems, in order to support long-term food production.

There is a need to develop less-resource intensive practices (for example, system of rice intensification) for producing crops that have traditionally been high-resource-consuming. Moreover, policy documents need to look at water and land as an integral part of the global eco-hydrological cycle, and not as a stock of material resource to be used for the satisfaction of human requirements.

(The author is Chief Economist of MCX and Acting President of the Indian Society for Ecological Economics.)

social-fb COMMENT NOW