[Editorial] Ploughing a new channel for India’s food systems

food system

Context

In an effort to spur national and regional action to deliver the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through transforming food systems, the UN Food Systems Summit called for action by governments in five areas.

  • Nourish all people.
  • Boost nature-based solutions.
  • Advance equitable livelihoods.
  • Decent work and empowered communities.
  • Build resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stresses; and accelerate the means of implementation.

What the editorial is about?

  • To deliver the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through transforming food systems in the Indian context would involve enhancing interfaces between the spheres of science, society and policy, focusing on sustainability, resource efficiency and circularity.

Most probable and repeated topics of upsc prelims

A mix of science and policy

  • An active science-society-policy interface negated the prevailing negative atmosphere of the 1960s when the inability to feed a growing population.
  • India’s Green Revolution in the 1960s, enabling food security and addressing widespread hunger and poverty, was achieved not only through science and technology and the development of improved high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat but also through policy measures and the development of the institutional structure.
  • It included a vast agricultural research and technology transfer system at the national, regional, State and local levels.
  • The Training & Visit (T&V) system introduced in the 1970s with World Bank assistance was key to the science-society interface as it established a cadre of agriculture extension specialists at the local level.

The need for a second Green Revolution

  • Although India is now self-sufficient in food grains production in the macro sense, it has about a quarter of the world’s food-insecure people, a pointer to the amount of food necessary to allow all income groups to reach the caloric target (2,400 kcal in rural and 2,100 kcal in the urban set-up).
  • Nutrition indicators have marginally improved over the years.
  • However, macro-and micronutrient malnutrition is widespread, with 18.7% of women and 16.2% of men unable to access enough food to meet basic nutritional needs, and over 32% of children below five years still underweight as per the recently released fifth National Family Health Survey (2019-2021) phase 2 compendium.
  • India is ranked 101 out of 116 countries in the Global Hunger Index, 2021.
  • Widespread concerns about poverty, malnutrition and the need for a second Green Revolution are being made in tandem.
  • The country faces the dual challenge of achieving nutrition security, as well as addressing declining land productivity, land degradation and loss of ecological services with change in land use.

Need for ‘transition’

  • The siloed approach of ‘agriculture’ serving ‘food security’ needs must give way to ‘food systems’ for ‘sustainability’ and ‘better nutrition’ and embrace the range of activities and actors involved in food production, aggregation, processing, distribution and consumption embedded in their socio-economic and physical context.
  • An important takeaway from the Green Revolution era is that for science to be relevant to societal outcomes, it has to be planned and executed within the theory of change.
  • The necessary behavioural changes in adopting the improved seeds and practices brought about by the T&V system in the 1960s enabled science to steer the process of change.
  • In the context of the intensifying economic, environmental and climate challenges and crisis, the need of the hour is a good theory of transition encompassing the spatial, social and scientific dimensions, supported by policy incentives and mechanisms for achieving a sustainable, resilient and food secure agriculture.
  • A theory of change ought to bring the focus back on sustainability, resource efficiency and circularity as the central pillars towards transforming food systems.

Enhancing sustainability

  • An agro-climatic approach to agricultural development is important for sustainability and better nutrition.
  • Harnessing the spatial diversity of agricultural production systems adopting the principles of sustainability, resource efficiency and circularity could correct the limitations and unintended consequences of the Green Revolution.
  • The limitations and unintended consequences of the Green Revolution include the loss of indigenous landraces, soil nutrients depletion, groundwater stress, excessive use of agrochemicals and its residual presence in foods and environment, the income gap between large, marginal and small farmers, and the gap between irrigated and rain-fed areas.
  • The focus should be on improving farmers’ competitiveness, supporting business growth in the rural economy, and incentivizing farmers to improve the environment.
  • It is assumed that a meticulous review of agro-climatic zones could make smallholder farming a profitable business, enhancing agricultural efficiency and socio-economic development, as well as sustainability.

Way Forward

  • Strengthening and shortening food supply chains, reinforcing regional food systems, food processing, agricultural resilience and sustainability in a climate-changing world will require prioritizing research and investments along these lines.
  • A stress status of the natural resource base — soil and water in different agro-climatic zones — will help understand the micro as well as meso-level interventions needed with regard to technologies, extension activities and policies.
  • Infrastructure and institutions supporting producers, Agri-preneurs and Agri micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in their production value chain are central to the transition.

Keeping policy in mind

  • The transition should be aligned to the national and State policy priorities such as the National Policy guidelines 2012 of the Ministry of Agriculture for the promotion of farmer producer organizations, and the National Resource Efficiency Policy of 2019 of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.
  • It would encourage a resource-efficient and circular economy for production, processing and storage techniques of food products through renewable energy solutions, reduction of supply chains and inputs (materials, water, and energy).
  • It would also ensure the efficient use of by-products, thereby creating value while using fewer inputs and generating less waste for long term and large-scale impact.

Evidence generation

  • Evidence has to be generated not only on the effects of food systems on economic, environmental and social outcomes and their co-benefits and trade-offs but also on understanding the levers of change and how to operate them.

Conclusion

  • Clearly, science, society and policy have a lot to gain from an effective interface encompassing the range of actors and institutions in the food value chain and a multidisciplinary and holistic approach, along with a greater emphasis on policy design, management and behavioural change.
  • The siloed approach of ‘agriculture’ serving ‘food security’ needs to give way to a science-society-policy interface.
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