Agricultural Transformation: Hidden Costs and the Road Ahead

Agricultural Transformation: Hidden Costs and the Road Ahead


The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently released a groundbreaking report exposing the concealed expenses of global agri-food systems, surpassing a staggering $10 trillion. These costs, constituting nearly 11% of the GDP in middle-income countries like India, contribute to higher poverty, environmental degradation, and health-related issues. The report advocates for a shift towards multi-cropping systems to protect farmers, enhance community nutrition, and positively impact ecological health.


GS-03 (Agriculture)

Mains Question:

Evaluate the hidden costs outlined in the FAO report and discuss the potential benefits of transitioning to diversified multi-cropping systems in India. (150 words)

Dimensions of the Article:

  • Impacts of Intensive Agriculture
  • Favored Crops and Procurement Policy
  • Global Influences on Local Agriculture
  • Role of Crop Diversification
  • Transitioning Farmers and Economic Models

Impacts of Intensive Agriculture:

  • The article delves into the far-reaching consequences of India’s intensive agricultural practices, particularly the paradigm of mono-cropping and chemical-intensive farming.
  • Over the past five decades, the nation has witnessed commendable strides in agricultural productivity through the mainstreaming of mono-cropping systems and the adoption of chemical-intensive farming techniques.
  • However, the unintended fallout has been significant. The Green Revolution, which initially focused on promoting high-yielding varieties of paddy and wheat, now constitutes more than 70% of India’s agricultural production.
  • This shift has not only compromised the rich tapestry of crop diversity but has also led to environmental harm, the erosion of indigenous knowledge systems, and a critical departure from diverse crop varieties such as pulses and millets towards monoculture plantations.
  • This transformation has implications not only for agricultural practices but also for the socio-economic fabric of the nation. The infusion of seeds from multinational corporations and the extensive use of fertilizers have undermined the concept of seed sovereignty, escalated farmer indebtedness, and resulted in a decline in the viability of agriculture as a livelihood. The average monthly household income of a farming household in India stands at a meager ₹10,816, reflecting the financial challenges faced by those engaged in agriculture.

Favored Crops and Procurement Policy:

  • The procurement policy under the National Food Security Act 2013, shedding light on its bias towards certain crops, particularly rice and wheat. While 65% of households in India are legally entitled to food at subsidized rates through the Public Distribution System and other welfare programs, the procurement policy disproportionately supports rice and wheat.
  • In 2019-2020, the Food Corporation of India (FCI) procured a massive quantity of wheat and rice compared to coarse grains like jowar, bajra, ragi, maize, and barley. This preference for specific crops has not only skewed the dietary landscape but also affected the ecological balance.
  • The area under cultivation of coarse grains has dwindled, while rice and wheat cultivation has expanded, contributing to ecological imbalances and excessive groundwater extraction.

Global Influences on Local Agriculture:

  • The interconnectedness of India’s agriculture with the global food system. The fluctuations in global soya prices and the surplus supply from Latin American countries have had direct repercussions on soy farmers and agro-companies in regions like Malwa.
  • Beyond contemporary examples, historical instances are cited, such as the influence of global trade relations during the pre-independence era. Tax systems were strategically introduced to facilitate the efficient collection of revenue for the export of primary raw materials like cotton, highlighting the enduring impact of global dynamics on local agricultural practices in the Global South.

Role of Crop Diversification:

  • It advocates for a paradigm shift in food regimes, emphasizing the need to transition from global to local value chains. Central to this transformation is the adoption of diversified multi-cropping systems rooted in agroecology. Local practices, like ‘akkadi saalu’ in Karnataka, exemplify the integration of legumes, pulses, oilseeds, trees, shrubs, and livestock in intercropping systems.
  • This approach not only facilitates commercial crop production but also ensures food and fodder production, along with essential ecosystem services like nitrogen fixation and pest control. Such diversified systems contribute not only to improved soil health but also foster biodiversity.

Transitioning Farmers and Economic Models:

  • The skepticism surrounding alternative farming systems and challenges the prevailing economic models. It underscores the hidden costs associated with current practices and argues for redirecting subsidies to incentivize farmers toward sustainable practices. Millets, with comparable yields to rice and wheat but superior nutritional benefits, are proposed as viable alternatives.
  • The transition is envisioned as a systematic process, moving from chemical-intensive practices to non-pesticide management and gradually adopting natural farming techniques. The economic models presented in the article suggest the potential for both short-term and long-term gains in ecological outcomes and sustained farm incomes.
  • In navigating the complexities of agricultural transformation, the focus remains on preserving natural capital while safeguarding the well-being of farmers and the environment. The call for collaboration among institutions, policymakers, and social groups becomes paramount to incentivize farmers, address challenges related to local seeds and market access, and ensure a smooth transition towards diversified cropping practices.

Way Forward:

  • The path forward involves a gradual transition from chemical-intensive practices to natural farming, promoting non-pesticide management, and incorporating livestock. Economic models illustrate the potential for improved ecological outcomes and sustained farm incomes.
  • However, challenges related to local seeds, market access, drudgery, and labor need addressing. Collaboration among institutions, policymakers, and social groups is vital to incentivize farmers towards diversified cropping and ensure a sustainable agricultural future. In navigating this transformation, the focus should be on preserving natural capital while securing the well-being of farmers and the environment.