It was pleasing indeed to hear the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, making an impassioned appeal for the reduction in the use of chemicals in agriculture in Parliament. It is difficult to be delighted though because, as Mr Modi himself must realize, as do many who understand the complexities afflicting Indian agriculture, that it is easier to announce new approaches than to get the agriculture system to embrace the appeal.

Even so, it is possible to drive the change, which the Prime Minister so desires, provided he ensures that it is backed by political commitment down the line, supported by public policy and incentivized by allocation of funds, which alone could change the trajectory of the anti-agriculture movement. Only personal commitment from the top can play a critically decisive role. It is the role of the proselytizer who convinces people that the biggest threat to this country is climate change. Indeed, history bears evidence to the many civilizations that have disappeared and empires that have collapsed due to shifting rainfall patterns or prolonged droughts.

The run-up to the latest climate change summit saw the point repeatedly raised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the intergovernmental body of the United Nations, dedicated to providing the world with an objective, scientific view of climate change. Regrettably it needed a Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old activist from Sweden to shame the world’s leadership about its indifference to the risks posed by global warming.

In India too the numbers tell a tale of catastrophe. More than 100 million hectares in the country are in the process of seriously suffering degradation, desertification and salinization. India, situated in the tropics, has witnessed a manifold increase in extreme weather events since 1950 and will be grievously impacted by production variability. Soils are being lost up to 100 times faster than they can form and high temperatures increase the incidence of pests and diseases. All of this has devastating impact on the agricultural sector that represents 35 per cent of India’s Gross National Product (GNP) and is crucial for any plans for inclusive growth in the country.

The fact of the matter is that foodgrain production has quadrupled in the post-Independence era and is projected to continue but not if impacted adversely by climate change. This can affect crop yields (positively and negatively), determine the types of crops that can be grown in certain areas by impacting agricultural inputs such as water for irrigation or the amount of solar radiation available, for instance.

It can equally cause prevalence of pests or the disappearance of friendly bugs and here lies a major problem. Pests prompt use of chemicals and there has been an aggressive increase in fertilizer use in India, which cannot be combatted without the active participation of stakeholders. Such participation must be informed and be based on thorough knowledge of both local conditions and indigenous practices. Without such consciousness and determined efforts to address climate change, productivity will be impacted. This will mean major consequences vis-à-vis food security and may further threaten the livelihood activities on which much of the Indian population depends. It thus becomes imperative to invest billions in a decade-long awareness campaign to reduce wastage of food and change consumer behaviour in favour of alternative approaches. If not, climate change prophesies will come true.

These alternative approaches require a paradigm shift, based on principles of agroecology. This means weaning farmers by repurposing subsidies for ecosystem services and demands a combination of different crop planting practices, different forms of mechanization, aggregation and distribution of commodities. Any change is complex and more so in the fields of Indian agriculture that cannot be achieved with the traditionally myopic outlook of policymakers.

Their outlook discourages them from believing that change is necessary and is feasible. Even as a society, India is not yet ready to commit to lifestyle trade-offs. More significantly, commoditization of the food systems will impose stiff barriers in changing the status quo.

The bull run in commodity prices ended by 2013. Since then, food prices have generally remained subdued, instilling a sense of complacency amongst the public and those that influence policy. Consequently, there has been a steady but subtle shift in the narrative from agriculture to food, from yield to sustainability, from productivity to prosperity and from quantity to quality.
Policies are being formulated such that rather than support agriculture production, farmer livelihoods are targeted for support by schemes like PM-Kisan Samman Nidhi. This seems to be belying the expectations of both the farm sector and the farmer livelihoods. Making matters worse is that public funding for research and the subsequent deployment of funds for fundamental research and human resources has been reduced in real terms.

This is worrying as it comes at a time when scientists are warning of impending challenges in food availability arising from climate change. Knowledge and technology born from professional research hold the key to informed action at the grassroots if India has to be food secure. However, starved of funds, the exhausted public research system has taken to the easy path of maximizing farm yields by mono-cropping and use of chemicals, encouraging agricultural practices that emit human-induced greenhouse gases.

The hapless consequence is that millions of acres of a few cereal crops are planted. This is at variance with conserving biodiversity, which is essential for safeguarding the global commons. Worse, higher yielding seeds are quickly adopted by farmers — now over 80 per cent of most crop production comes from a handful of varieties in each crop type. Additionally, growing ecologically unsuitable crops in particular ecosystems is literally killing the planet. Policy makers, however, fail to grasp that food systems are breaching a breaking point of unsustainability and policies for food production do not reflect the exigency for change.

Blissfully ignorant of their own inadequacies, policymakers, nevertheless, make wild claims of achieving 20 per cent surplus production in two decades. India’s population will peak in 20 years and the recent surges in food surpluses are deceptive and too meagre to justify such smug satisfaction. Ironically, decision-makers are also targeting a 50 per cent increase in food production by 2050. Sadly, this has become the cornerstone of India’s national policy and the metric for measuring farmer prosperity.

To expect a system that nurtures the problem to transform itself is as ridiculous a notion “zero budget farming”, actively propagated by certain policy influencers for this country while they demonize “organic farming”. This is ill-conceived at best and retrograde at worst.

Also, irrespective of what poorly informed economists argue, farm-gate prices have to rise substantially to account for the real cost of growing food for farmers to change practices and for agriculture to sequester carbon.

Present day practices extract a heavy environmental footprint, completing a vicious circle that makes agriculture more problematic while agriculture itself also intensifies climate change, creating a compulsion for yields to be maximized. It is almost as if India is keen to make the grim prognostications around climate change impact come true.•