Global population is projected for a rise from the present tally of about 7.1 billion to over 9 billion around 2050. This translates into an annual demand of over one billion extra tonnes of extra cereals and 200 million tonnes of livestock products, which means more aggressive agricultural expansion. Is this a problem? There are two ways to view it: we will need to produce more food and more importantly, produce more nutritious food. The latter has lately been a key challenge in the global food sector: eradicate hunger with high-quality food (Sustainable Development Goal 2). It comes from the realisation that almost 1 billion people worldwide are still undernourished, mostly in Asia (578 million) and Sub-Saharan Africa (239 million).
For the developing countries, as it seems, even if agricultural production doubles by 2050, one person in twenty still will be undernourished. This is a crisis as population growth have already cut down per capita land holding. It is not like, food production rate is not increasing. It is, but not at the rate that demand (population) is rising. This is sort of a Malthusian trap: population growth generally follows a geometric series (2, 4, 8...) while that of food production takes an arithmetic path (1, 2, 3….). And then dimensions of land-water availability (for agricultural production) is apparently finite. Seems like, there will a need of additional 70 per cent food production by 2050 whereas the croplands may expand by merely 12 per cent around that time. Such estimations spark off a massive demand-supply imbalance for future. What's more, due to population growth, overall food consumption has increased in recent times but per capita consumption has dropped which means necessary nutrition has to come from whatever bare minimum the poor, in the developing nations, can procure for consumption on daily basis.
This is a challenge for India where population curve is riding the lightning. For nutrition levels to improve and food-security to rise, agricultural production has to outpace population growth (demand). Due to finite resource support, it will require measured intensification. How to achieve such a feat, especially when climatic forces have started spinning the wheel in reverse? Recent droughts have ravaged the agrarian economy, making land-water resources largely unsustainable in several states. There is bulging competition between food and other sectors over right to resources. In addition, questions of energy (electricity to run pumps and farming equipment) have entered the equation which makes sustainable production an expensive proposition.
The result has been no less than dismal. Besides, we have failed to meet the UN's Millennium Development Goal for hunger. According to the Global Hunger Index (GHI) of 2016, we currently fall in the 'serious' category. This is crucial. GHI is not merely a measure of food availability/accessibility. Developed by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), GHI is a comprehensive metric to assess the performance of the entire food sector, taking into account four key facets of diet: (1) undernourishment, and (2) wasting, (3) stunting, and (4) child mortality. Higher GHI score indicates a higher likelihood of hunger, malnutrition and all associated hazards.
In 2016 India scored 28.5 on the GHI scale, which ranks us with most of Africa, where food scarcity has been an eternal challenge to development. But even within this 'serious' category, numerically, we 'outsmart' several African nations; for example Tanzania (GHI: 28.4), Mali (28.1), Rwanda (27.4), Congo (26.6), Uganda (26.4), Swaziland (24.2) etc. where violence, crime, armed conflict, and mass migration have become annual events, affecting every imaginable aspect of economy that shares link with the food-water sector. Of course, a point of pride there is, India triumphantly outshines Pakistan (GHI: 33.4) and Afghanistan (34.8) in South-East Asia. But at the same time, it is also true that several neighboring states, like Bangladesh (GHI: 27.1), Sri Lanka (25.5), Myanmar (22), Nepal (21.9), Cambodia (21.7) etc. beat India by a rope-length. And of course, no comparison with China at all (GHI: 7.7). Neither with Fiji (8.5), Malaysia (9.7), Mongolia (13.8), Thailand (11.8). In fact, all these brothers are in a whole different league, falling in the "Low to Moderate" GHI-category. Surprisingly, several of these little economies, if not all, have GDPs way below India.
So, are we not making any progress at all? Sure we are. There has been significant progress between 2000 and now: dropping from the GHI 'alarming' status (GHI range of 34.5-49.9; India had a GHI score of 38.2 in 2008) to the 'serious' in 2016. But even then, not much room for complacence. Latest National Family Health Survey of 2015-16 (NFHS-4), reveals that about 38.7 per cent children-under-five are stunted (measure for height-against-age) while about 21 per cent are wasted (weight-against-height). About 36 per cent of children-under-five are underweight for age. Only about 9.6 per cent children presently receives 'adequate' diet (8.8 per cent for rural).
Mortality rate for children-under-five amounts to 50 per cent (56 per cent for rural) while total infant mortality around 41 per cent (46 per cent for rural). Interestingly, about 51 per cent and 47 per cent of the stunted and underweight children, respectively, never attended school. So besides diet, no education either for our young sufferers! No wonder, still over 15 per cent of the population is undernourished. How are we to handle these?
State authorities have to step up and connect with the privet sector, farming communities as well, and be proactive in developing/advancing region-specific sustainable land-water management practices. There cannot be a one-size-fits-all remedy. Interventions have to be spatially-optimised to acknowledge local challenges (climate change risks) and deficits. Climate change has turned traditional views of sustainable livelihood - this has to be recognised and accommodated within each state agricultural plan. And first and foremost, our farmers should be made aware of climate change (that it is not just weather fluctuations, which is still very much the belief in the countryside) and trained with appropriate resilient cropping systems. More mechanised farming and drought-tolerant adaptations. Better water conservation tactics and retaining land productivity. At the same time making sure that production doesn't leave much ecological footprint (depletion/degradation).
But the real challenge is not just mastering the technical know-hows. It is time we realised the importance of 'softer' aspects too: policy constraints over farming and the farmers. Especially upon marginal farmers, sharecroppers and small land-holders. In this regard, UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) lists out few potential options such as, (1) removal of distortions in the incentives framework, (2) improvement of land tenure and ensuring easy access to resources, (3) robust/collaborative land-water institutions, (4) efficient support services (knowledge exchange, adaptive research and credit system), (5) better and more secure access to markets, and (6) restrain volatility in prices. But above all, any scheme for sustainable land-water management will absolutely require right political wills, brave enough to bring in revolutionary financial and institutional reforms (disregarding ballot-effects) in order to promote 'responsible' agricultural practices. Do we have that?
(Dr. Sriroop Chaudhuri and Dr. Mimi Roy are faculty of environmental studies and co-Director, Center for Environment, Sustainability and Human Development at the OP Jindal Global University Sonipat, Haryana. The views expressed are strictly personal.)