The global food sector is undergoing paradigm shifts from production details to nutritional quality control, food storage, delivery, resource mobilisation, etc. It is encouraging to note that several (developing) nations have already invested heavily in devising or implementing agricultural research and extension programmes that range from modernising irrigation infrastructure to sustainable land-water management designs, upgrading food quality standards, etc.
A major boost in the production chain could be to now find advanced methods to intensify rain-fed agriculture that accounts for over 80% of global cultivable lands, supporting over 40% of the world’s population. Indulging in rain-fed systems also has added benefits of upgradation of water harvesting systems (for both irrigation and potable use) in view of climatic adversities.
These are all praiseworthy. But it is also true that farmers around the world are pressed hard against the wall due to a combination of interlinked adversities – volatile commodity prices, rising food demand/gap/price-drops, increasing agricultural input costs, lack of institutionalised credit systems for small-holders (a major debilitating issue in India leading to increasing debt burden on farmers), rising unemployment rates (non-farm, in particular), global economic recessions (late 90s and in 2008-09), and above all, climatic shifts.
The synergies between the above are pushing farmers into rampant uncertainties these days, making them increasingly vulnerable to the negative externalities of climate as well as human catastrophes, and eating away at the psychological framework. The recent rise in farmer suicides in India is but an extreme example of this vulnerability. These vulnerabilities shake down the production details at root.
Around 2050, we will need 70% more foodgrains than today globally to feed over two billion extra people, with cultivable area ‘allowed’ to expand by 12% at most. At the present rate of environmental damage, due to aggressive human expansions to profitably harvest natural resources, we will overrun the perimeters of sustainability.
This is where institutional roles might make some difference. Two major facets that deserve special emphasis in any national food policy framework in the days ahead are: inclusive growth and social protection, especially for small-holders who almost always take the maximum brunt of climate change and market fluctuations.
Inclusive growth provides opportunities for those with meagre assets and skills, and improves livelihoods and incomes of small-holders in the agriculture sector. It should be among the most sought-after interventions for fighting food insecurity, and a sustainable rate of return. Enhancing productivity of resources held by small-holders, fishing and forest communities, and making provisions for swift economic integration through well-functioning markets, are essential for inclusive growth.
In a complementary way, social protection weaves through issues of poverty, hunger and malnutrition with reasonable aims to reducing each. By increasing human capacities and promoting income security, it fosters local economic development and the ability of small-holders to secure decent employment (on or off-farm) and thus partake of economic growth.
There are many “win-win” situations linking family-farming and social protection. They include institutional purchases from local farmers to supplying school meals and government programmes, and cash transfers or cash-for-work programmes that allow communities to buy local produce. It is time to realise the pressing need for a well-constructed social protection programme that melds opportunities for economic diversification and effective government safety nets to offer farmers both financial and emotional stability.
A major problem in ensuring food security is that often, issues go unnoticed. For example, even a subtle change in dietary habits — say, a growing preference for meat — can impose severe constraints on production details. Meat means more livestock which, in turn, means more feedstock (fodder). Hence, a growing preference for meat plays a key role in regulating global food prices as much as contributing to negative externalities such as enhanced greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, farmland degradation and water resources depletion.
Interestingly, studies have demonstrated how reducing meat consumption could yield significant environmental and human health benefits, besides staying in line with intermediate crop-yield forecasts and would not require massive land-use change. For example, shifting to a global lower meat diet (defined as 30% of protein from animal products per day compared to 44% in high-meat diets) could free up one million square kilometres of cropland and 27 million square kilometres of pasture.
But such issues can only be resolved by resorting to the right institutional make-over. At times of intense cross-sectoral competition for land-water resources, this might be an added incentive for our authorities to ponder over institutional roles to ensure equitable and profitable sharing of resources between food and feed.
So, in effect, both technicalities (mechanisation) as well as institutional roles should be reckoned with equal weightage in national food policies, and appropriated based on local needs. The problem is, institutions may already be there but, for the developing world in particular, the appropriation part is still wishful thinking.
Agro-mechanisation alone can’t ensure quantity, quality, equity and stability. Institutional paradigms must be tailored for the right implementation of methods and address subtle differences in priorities by regions, keeping in view longer-term national development visions for food security.
This will impart ‘resilience’ to agro-infrastructure to withstand fluctuations in food stock-to-use ratios, market prices (volatility and economic recessions) and help vulnerable communities cope with negative externalities. Institutions have to be grounded in solid scientific understanding, be comprehensive, and most importantly, stripped of political vendetta.
(The writer is faculty, Environmental Studies at OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, and co-Director at Centre for Environment, Sustainability and Human Development)