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Agriculture must be made sustainable now

By: Pankaj Khandelwal

The agriculture sector in India stands at the crossroads of transformation. The green revolution – characterised by intensive modern farming techniques, high yielding variety (HYV) seeds and fertilisers, remains the most distinctive phase in the Indian agriculture sector.

However, with rising consciousness for food safety and sustainable farming in India and around the world, it is imperative to reimagine the future course of India’s agri sector.

Agriculture is often attributed as the backbone of the Indian economy as 42% of the workforce depends on the agricultural sector to earn their livelihood. It contributes 19.9% to the GDP, indicating its significance to the country’s economy.

Farming, being one of the world’s oldest and labour-intensive industries, necessitates resilience and innovation not only to boost productivity but also to ensure the sector’s overall sustainability. Undoubtedly, COVID-19 has additionally intensified the need for agri-sector reforms.

Horticulture, which is the prominent segment of agriculture, has witnessed steady growth over the last decade. It contributes to 30% of agriculture GDP and will continue to grow further.

Horticulture has consistently been a significant priority in India’s overall agri-policy framework. Consequently, total horticulture production in 2020-21 is estimated to be 327 million tons, an increase of about 6 million tons over that in 2019-20 overtaking cereal production by a fair margin.

However, the adverse impact of climate change creates a disproportionate impact on this critical sector. The past few years have witnessed unprecedented natural crises – be it drought, pandemic, cyclones, heavy rains, or floods.

The climate changes lead to unpredictable weather which makes production more difficult. This leads to higher use of pesticides and chemicals and therefore further causes environmental degradation thus creating a vicious downward cycle.

At the same time, consumers and markets are becoming even more conscious about food safety, safe and hygienic food handling, and the use of sustainable farming methods.

For example, food traceability is gaining rapid momentum. Such technological sophistication enables consumers to learn more about where, when, and who grew the crop, as well as providing footprint data of the crop’s journey from pre-harvest to market shelf.

This allows consumers to differentiate “safe food” from “unknown fruit” – thus creating a market opportunity that is critical to ensure that farmers can get remunerative returns/premiums for adopting and following sustainable practices.

The supply chains between the farmer and consumer play the most critical role in linking the consumer need for “safe and sustainable food” with farmers’ ability and desire to produce such food.

It is also possibly the only way to break the vicious cycle and start a virtuous cycle. Not only is the transparency of production system critical to earning consumer trust, reduction in wastages in supply chain is the easiest (with modern technology) and creates maximum impact (we will need to produce 25% less).

Thus, integrated value chains from farmers to consumers is the answer to resolving one of the biggest challenges that mankind faces today.

The positive impact created by these integrated value chains is already visible. For example, the banana value chain improvements over the last decade have shown us the way.

India is the largest producer of bananas in the world with over 25% share in global production and had no share in global trade a decade back.

This was due to poor farm-level production systems, poor quality standards and lack of infrastructure. Sustained efforts in building this value chain have seen exports grow to over 300,000 tons annually making it India’s largest fruit export by volume.

This required large scale farmer training to adopt a modern package of practices, implement a 100% drip irrigation system for water conservation, productivity improvement by 30% and meet global food safety and quality standards.

Creation of infrastructure, end-to-end traceability and packaging innovations increased shelf life by over 50%. Consequently, this led to wastages reducing to below 2% by organisations beating any world benchmark. And all this has been achieved by increasing farmers’ income by up to 100%.

The technologies and innovation required to create sustainable food production and consumption will continue to improve as more and more agri-tech startups and innovative organisations are coming up.

The good news is that we already have solutions that will significantly improve production systems that are sustainable for people and planet.

Drip irrigation systems leading to water conservation; safer chemicals, precision agriculture, increased use of organic fertilisers and modern package of practices leading to safe food; innovative packaging, cold chain infrastructure, traceability systems and improved transportation leading to negligible wastages are all here and now.

Additionally, the changes in consumer preferences lead to demand generation and remuneration for sustainable practices.

The need is to create suitable agri-reforms and incentive systems for farmers to adopt sustainable practices, promote organisations that can create large scale impact (not just isolated packets of excellence) educate consumers and farmers and reorient the agriculture sector from a production-driven to demand-driven, sustainable farming methodology on a large scale.

The prospects for the promotion of sustainable agriculture practices are now becoming favourable in India.
Modern agri-tech firms can be instrumental in empowering farmers, promote sustainable agricultural practices, reduce crop wastages, deepen domestic and international market linkages along with improving farmer income.

Tech-driven farm interventions; enhanced climate forecast capabilities will aid in reducing crop loss and mitigate the challenges posed by climate change.

Additionally, our commitment to regulate and enhance agricultural output, maximise farmer income, and raise awareness about food safety on a wider scale will ensure the sector’s overall sustainability in the long run.

(The author is Chairman and Managing Director, INI Farms.)


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