15th October, 2020

Food and Sustainability in India

These are notes from "Module 3: Food and Sustainability" of APU's Online Course - Sustainability in the Indian Context

Why is food important for sustainabililty? Food is very important for human life. Agriculture feeds most of human life and is a major cause for global emmissions of greenhouse gases.

Finitude and Food

Post Independance, India couldn't produce enough food for itself and became dependant on US-imported wheat in the mid 60s. This resulted in increased US control on Indian economic and international policies. To get out of this problem, the indian government started investing in a set of interventions which is now called Green Revolution

Post Green Revolution

The Green Revolution temporarily addressed the problem of Finitude in the 1960-70s but has revealed several flaws since then, particularly with respect to fragility.

Finitude itself was addressed only temporarily. Despite the green revolution and subsequent advances in agriculture, India still imports 25% of pulses (from Myanmar, canada, tanzania), oilseeds, etc. India is self-sufficient only wrt cereals.

Fairness and Food

India has high rates of undernutrition despite high food production and economic growth in recent years. Economic growth benefits the rich disproportionately.

The fact that we are self sufficient wrt food as a country doesnt mean everyone has access to the food as well. 2 million in India do not have access to 3 steady meals a day throughout the year.

If we use UNFAO's criteria, 40% on India is estimated to be getting sub-optimal nutrition and calories. This measurement is not necessarily relevant to india's context because it doesnt take local requirements, culture and food habits into account.

India's Public Distribution System is an important tool which tries to address the fairness in distribution of nutrition.

Undernutrition is a serious problem

In children, undernutrition leads to stunting, wasting and underweight, anaemic children. This can result to underdevelopment of mental and physical capacities and Increased economic and social fragility.

There are many reasons for this. Some of these are highlighted below:

  • Farmers have become net buyers of food
    • Farming households face the same problem of nutrition as other households. They are now net buyers of food. There might be many reasons for this. They may be buying things to get more diversity or They might be growing commercial crops. However, even grain growing farmers buy grains off the market
  • Reduction of access to Commons Land has reduced foraging ability
    • This reduces diversity of food consumed
  • Availability of nutritious food is also a problem
    • Many rural marketplaces dont have nutritious food on sale leading to a vicious cycle of undernutrition
  • Discarding of traditional coarse cereals (like millets) to a more standardized foods
    • This happened because of various reasons like Availability, Prices, Stigma associating food to caste, Cultural Norms and beliefs. Government policies, Ease of use/cooking

Food and Fragility

Our current system of agriculture has put a lot of stress of many fragile systems. Water Systems and Soil fertility are two of these systems under stress.

Agriculture and Water Systems

More than half of India faces groundwater depletion based water stressors. India uses 90% of withdrawn groundwater for irrigation when compared to US (36%), china (65%) and other countries. This is water which is not replenished into the land by the annual rainfall and so groundwater is now depleted in large areas and is becoming harder and harder to access in others.

In India, we also use much more water for cultivation of specific crops compared to global averages. Even within india, the water use for different crops varies between areas - wheat crops grown in punjab need less water than the same crop in Karnataka. Lots of factors affect water usage and use of climate appropriate crops is essential

Water shortage leads to higher cost of cultivation and reduced profitability of agriculture. Now, water has to be bought at higher price or deeper borewells have to be dug. Shortage of water increases uncertainity about agricultural output. This uncertainity increases social fragility and worsens argrarian distress.

Many farmers, unable to reliably earn from their land have been forced to migrate or switch to other professions to earn money. This also is a cause for farmer suicides.

Agriculture and Fertilizer Use

India uses more fertilizers/hectare than US (and other developed countries). Whereas studies have shown that beyond a threshold, higher application of inputs dont increase output. Why does this practice continue?

These fertilizers leach into groundwater and often turn up in drinking water of the populace. Many farmers use fertilizers without protection and has lead to high prevalence of cancer and related diseases.

The current state of Indian farming practices are input intensive and ecologically harmful. This has caused an impact on both Social Fragility and Ecological Fragility.

Crop yields are affected by many factors, not just the inputs. Soil quality, agro-climatic zone, seasonal issues etc effect crop yields. A general observation is that India has generally lower yields of the same crop.

Organic Farming is an alternative to Industrial farming which might have better outcomes for sustainability.

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