Even today, combating hunger and malnutrition remains an existential necessity of human society.
According to a 2012 report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), one in every eight (approximately 870 million) people on Earth go to bed hungry each night. In 2011, the World Health Organisation (WHO) ranked hunger as the number one health risk on the planet, killing more people each year than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.
As world population edges closer to 9.1 billion by 2050, it is estimated that agricultural systems will need to increase food production by 70% to match growing demand for food. Although we have come a long way since global leaders promised to halve the number of the world’s undernourished at the World Food Summit, in 1996, global food security today stands at crossroads -– marked by the continuing prevalence of hunger and malnutrition, despite increasing yields and large surpluses in foodgrain production.
India is not new to hunger. Post-independence, in 1961, the nation stood poised on the brink of mass famines. To combat this, by mid-1960s, a new agricultural policy of intensification, predominated by use of chemical fertilizers, high-yield IR8 variety of rice and irrigation, was implemented, starting with the state of Punjab. To say that this ‘Green Revolution’ was successful is an understatement. According to official estimates, total foodgrain production in India in 2011-12 stood at 252.56 million tonnes; reaffirming India’s position as a self-sufficient nation in foodgrain. The question is: at what cost?
As a species, we are intrinsically linked to our ecosystems due to our capacity to impact its functioning and existence via our activities, while remaining extensively dependent on continuous provisioning of its goods and services from nature (from water regulation to food security, livelihood provisioning to better public health, flood control to climate regulation) for our survival. Studies have proved that ecosystem services are a major contributor to agricultural productivity; leading to increases in agricultural crop yield and thereby towards food security. But agriculture produces more than just crops. Agricultural practices have environmental impacts that affect a wide range of ecosystem services, including water quality, pollination, nutrient cycling, soil retention, carbon sequestration and biodiversity conservation. One of the lesser advertised, if not largely ignored, fact about India’s, and in particular Punjab’s, agricultural miracle is the severe negative impacts on the region’s ecology and on provisioning of biodiversity and ecosystem services (BES).
The three pillars of the agricultural revolution in India and Punjab -– high-yield crop intensification, subsidised access to electricity for drawing water for irrigation and increased chemical fertiliser use –- have culminated in several negative ecological externalities, such as depletion in underground water and negative impacts on soil fertility. These need to be probed, measured and valued in order to ensure future agricultural sustainability and food security. A United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) study titled “Capacity Building in National Planning for Food Security” does so precisely.
By analysing the trade-offs between productivity gains from agricultural practices implemented post-Green Revolution versus provisioning of ecosystems services such as water regulation and soil fertility in Punjab; the study indicates that while area under foodgrains cultivation has doubled in the past five decades (with area under rice increasing by 1,146%), total fertiliser consumption in the state has increased six times over and around 7% of total area in the state suffers from soil erosion of more than 10 tonnes per hectare. This is symbolic of a much deeper malaise of increasing nutrient imbalances and declining soil fertility, reflected by the consistent decline in compound annual growth rate of agricultural productivity in Punjab, which has fallen from 6.98% in 1960s to 0.25% in the 2000s. With productivity of rice and wheat projected to decline by 0.16% to 9.6% and 4.6% to 32% respectively, due to temperature increase of 0.5°C to 2°C as a result of climate change; ensuring agricultural sustainability is the key challenge.
Intensive production of rice-wheat monocultures has also led to higher incidence of pests and diseases within these two crops; further fuelled by a remunerative price regime and significant subsidies on fertilizers and pesticides. Resultant leaching leading to increase in chemical contamination of underground water reserves, coupled with increase in soil salinity, has impacted Punjab’s groundwater reserves. Currently only 46% remain suitable for agriculture.
Currently, Punjab exports over 3,554 cubic metres/ton of virtual water each year via foodgrains; despite experiencing a water deficit of up to 1.63 million hectare-metres.
With the share of area irrigated by canals declining from 45% in 1970-71 to 27% in 2010-11, there has been a corresponding increase in the share of area irrigated by tube wells; culminating in significant increase in the percentage of areas with water-table depths of more than 10m, 15m and 20m. Currently, over 11.5 lakh agricultural tube wells consume 10,000 million units of electricity worth Rs 4,700 crore every year in Punjab, free of charge.
Despite significant subsidies, the incidence of poverty among farmers in Punjab has increased from 8.65% in 1995-96 to 11.36% in 2005-06, raising questions on effectiveness of policy. There is an urgent need for policymakers to rethink current practices in order to curtail the impacts of the food-water-energy nexus affecting ecological sustainability. Breaking the rice-wheat cycle by diversifying farmland approaching ‘tipping points’ to other crops and implementing sustainable agricultural practices; establishing check on rapid decline in sub-soil water table by fast tracking consultation with stakeholders and implementing Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM) practices; and curbing mounting energy-subsidy bill by strengthening the accountability loop between farmers and administration for rationalisation and collection of irrigation service fee are the need of the hour.
Punjab today stands at a critical juncture, with ecological thresholds for soil fertility and water availability nearing their tipping points. There is still time – provided action is taken – to change current trends via use of sustainable practices, better technology and prudent policy; to mitigate losses in ecosystem services, volatility in foodgrain production and threats to food security.
It is necessary to remember that the root cause of hunger is the inability of the poor to gain access to resources they need to feed themselves – resources such as fuelwood for energy; fruit availed freely and abundantly from nature; availability of raw materials to build homes, craft a living and earn their daily bread; regular rainfall, fertile soil and healthy seed to reap bountiful crops; and fresh water to irrigate and drink. All availed by nature for free. Unless we rethink our historical disregard for cost to ecosystems, we shall continue to relinquish many of these -– starting with our soil and water.
The authors are associates at GIST Advisory, a specialist environmental consultancy firm
Views are personal