‘Nutritional security is a key aspect of Sustainable Land Management, especially in rain-fed agriculture’

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October, 2019

‘Nutritional security is a key aspect of Sustainable Land Management, especially in rain-fed agriculture’

By Dr. Ashok Dalwai

(The author is Chief Executive Officer, National Rainfed Area Authority, (NRAA), Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, Government of India. The speech below was delivered on September 11, 2019 during the Side Event of the UNCCD COP 14 organized by WOTR titled “An economic perspective on sustainable land and watershed management to combat land degradation in India” on the subject of Opportunities for Scaling Up Land and Watershed Restoration to Roll Out Proven Approaches as Part of National Policy The author spoke from an outline, not from a script and the views are solely of the author)

I guess we are at a stage when we are discussing such a sensitive issue that in a way the cost-benefit analysis becomes irrelevant. Sometimes, when you are dying and when you are dying you can’t talk about what it’s gonna cost you to survive. We are in that situation. But simultaneously it does not mean, that we should not be worried about that, because there are limited resources at government levels, at individual levels and therefore prioritization always becomes important. To that extent in realizing the cost-benefit ratio becomes extremely important and it is always necessary that we try to maximize or optimize the outcomes of the investments that we make.

Ashok Dalwai photo-1
Dr. Ashok Dalwai, CEO of the National Rainfed Area Authority, Ministry of Agriculture (second from left), making a point during the Side-Event organized by WOTR. Seen from left: Dr. Zeenat Niazi, VP Development Alternatives; Dr. Marcella D’Souza, Director WOTR Centre for Resilience Studies (W-CReS) and Arjuna Srinidhi, Senior Researcher, W-CReS.

What I am going to discuss with you over the 10 mins that I have got. Is how do we approach this whole issue in a wholesome manner. Many times, our interventions are partial and therefore are not sustainable.

Sustainability of Interventions

What we should be really aiming at is sustainability. The interventions are always good, but then post-intervention, we always face a problem. Therefore the approach must be ecosystem-based which in simple language means that all factors that are necessary means to achieve success, in the long run, must be attempted at once. However its always a poverty trap either at the household level or at the government level since the poor souls do not have money to invest – they always do partial investments. Be it government or the individual household and therefore we are not able to achieve the long term sustainability.

The three issues that we have put up here – Drought Proofing, Desertification, and Land Degradation. They are all organically linked and they can only be distinguished in terms of intensity. Otherwise, they are all related and they are interdependent. In the context of India, I am sure in the context of most Asian and African nations where the majority of the people depend on agriculture for their livelihood. The issues are similar. The first thing to settle is should we be talking only about agriculture because if we talk about agriculture in relation to degradation, it will mean that agriculture alone is the culprit. While it is not so. Yes, agriculture is one of the important resource users, but certainly, agriculture alone is not the only user of resources. In fact, agriculture gets impinged because of the bad practices in other sectors of the economy, whether it is industries or services or the habitations they also impinged upon agriculture.

Three Tripods of Sustainability

Let’s, however, limit to agriculture because that in a way decides the primary survival of mankind. So in the context of India, Asia and Africa and many of the Latin American nations, there are three things that we must be looking at if we want to speak about ecosystem – one is the nutrition for the people, the second one is income for the farmers and the third one is ecology of the mother earth. And these three tripods are extremely important if we want to achieve sustainability. What we see in India, for example, over the last 50 years where agriculture has made a rapid pace of change, there also have been deleterious impacts of these things. If we look at the agriculture of India for example, it has converted India into the agriculture superpowers of the world. We produce 1. 3 billion tonnes of agriculture commodities which I think only a very few countries can boast of. We rank No. 1, 2 3 in the majority of the commodities. Has it done good to the people that is the question, we should ask and answer – yes it has done good, because people have enough to eat. India over the last 50 years has moved from food deficiency to food sufficiency, to food surplus today.

In that sense, it has done well. But what it has not done, it has left many people malnourished. There is undernourishment, there is a high degree of infant mortality rate, high degree and unacceptable level of maternal mortality rate and various other diseases related to malnourishment. That means Indian agriculture has not done well in true sense. And what has it done to the farmers, notwithstanding the high outcomes of agriculture, the majority of the farmers have been left poor and poverty is not always absolute; it is also relative.

Ashok Dalwai photo 2

If you look at the figures of 1983 and as compared to what has happened now, what we find is a relative term is that the farmers have lost out. When we make a comparison among three categories, the three classes of people – the industrial worker, the landless agriculture worker, and the farmer. In 1983, the farmer was No. 1 in terms of earning, then it was industrial labor and then the landless agriculture labor. But what has happened over these 40 years is that farmers have been pushed to number second rank that means the industrial labor earns more than the farmer.

So the finding is that the agriculture growth in India has not done well for the farmers. It has left them poorer. And third, what has happened to the ecology – there have been multiple negative impacts. The extent of land degradation has gone up; the extent of drought criticality has gone up, the extent of problem soils, when we talk about degradation, degradation could be about different nature. Either it is water stress, soil stress, etc. And when we see different nature of problems agriculture faces, Indian agriculture faces, we have a large extent of acidic soils, alkaline soils, turned barren and therefore productivity is not there. We have depleting water tables including in the high water table region in the Indo Gangetic plains sitting down and also the Deccan Plateau, whereas it is the rainfall is poor.

And then we have soils which have turned toxic- the biological activity has reduced organic carbon content has reduced – that means they have turned barren and of course there are also atmospheric pressures, pressures of the ocean, pressures of the river system including pollutions, etc. and all these have happened, all these three factors show that agriculture has not been practiced as an ecosystem. The problem in 1960 was food shortage and therefore we reacted by saying get new varieties which grow well in good response to good stimulants and good stimulants are agrochemicals and high usage of water. Which also meant that we go for mono-cropping. So India transitioned from an integrated multi-cropping system to mono-cropping across large tracks.

Mono cropping

A reaction doesn’t give you the luxury of thinking. Since we have to get food to our people, we reacted, we brought varieties from Mexico, from the Philippines and then as I said mono-cropping became the norm in irrigated areas. And because we are always concerned about the people, the consumer class. The price management in India has always been to the disadvantage of the farmers. Many a times people in villages sit under the banyan tree and say – “I could get 10 grams of gold if I sold half a quintal of paddy, but today I need to sell 10 quintals to get the same thing” – The simple economics in him is telling that the terms of trade have gone against the farmers. Because we were more keen to ensure that the people get their food in an affordable manner we ensure that the inflation in food management, price management, import-export duties, keeping always the people in mind. But it costs the farmer. The result today is farmers may not be interested in agriculture.

In 2004 – 05 we had a survey, where for the first time a question was asked to the people – “Would you like to continue in Agriculture?” 46 % said “No”. The new aspiration is they would like to get into Industrial services. There is also a positive aspiration. But simultaneously, it showed that farming is viable. If we want farmers to continue – that many farmers would like to continue with agriculture, let us say. Then we should we incentivizing them through net profits. So agriculture has to become a net profit generated. And third today what we are finding is that the marginal returns on investment decreasing. This means that to gain one incremental unit of output, I need to invest hire and hire on that – that’s not sustainable. And the reason is that the productivity of the soils has decreased. So we need therefore to renature the ecology, then only we can sustain productivity, we can sustain an income. Therefore the organic linkage among these three factors is very very important. Now, where are the opportunities? If we address all these by analysis, we should be able to reconcile the apparently contradictory outcomes of each of these things.

Food and Nutrition Security

Let us take, for example, agriculture for people that means nutrition. We have always been talking about food security and now we have been talking about food and nutrition security. According to me we should only be talking about nutrition security. Because nutrition by any scientific definition includes micro and macronutrients. Macronutrients includes carbohydrate. They include protein and fats. Micronutrients include vitamins, minerals. So why do we have to talk about food nutrition when it normally implies carbohydrates. Carbohydrates alone do not matter. Most developing countries talk about their poverty in terms of kilocalories. It’s time to get over that and talk about nutrition because nutrition alone ensures a healthy life, nutrition alone ensures a dignified human life.

Then it prevents expenditure on medication. More than 50 percent of the diseases are water-related that are related to air. So a poor man is spending a large part of his unaffordable incomes on medication. It is therefore important that we strengthen the system by focusing on nutrition and where does nutrition comes from – Nutrition comes from cereals, pulses, oilseeds, fruits,  vegetables, livestock, dairy, milk,  fish, etc. But look at Indian situation and I am sure it applies to many countries that today 42 percent of the gross cultivated area is just under three crops – paddy, wheat, and maize. And if we convert that value into the GDP value of Agriculture, it only accounts for 19 percent. So 42 percent of the gross cultivated area is equivalent to 19 percent of the income.

Contrast this to 12 percent of Horticulture area in India it converts into 24 percent in the agricultural GDP share or milk for example, which are small women farmer produce in this country has put India in the number one with 167 million tonnes of milk and that converts into 10 percent in the GDP of agriculture. So what does this mean? That means our land-use system has to be more efficient. It has to be diverted into producing more nutritious food, it has to be diverted to produce more value incomes for the farmers. So when we graduate from pure cereals to more of these nutrition containing food items which also means from paddy and wheat into millets because they are more climate-resilient and they are more nutritious.

So this means that we are hitting two birds with one shot. We are ensuring nutrition to the public at large and simultaneously we gaining hire income for farmers and then we are also ensuring crop aligning with the agroecology of the situation. And second when it comes to income, obviously as I said if we are going to shift towards that we will come to that. Now when we talk about farmers, one thing we should always keep in mind that these days we started talking about mindful production and mindful consumption, etc. which basically means sustainability. Both the producer and the consumer has to remember one thing – please check the food loss. Food loss and food wastage are two issues but lead to the same outcome, the decomposition and the release of greenhouse gases.

If food loss and food waste in the world were to be calculated, it would amount to putting up to third highest producer of greenhouse gases. After China and the USA the Greenhouse gas emission as a result of food loss and waste would put it at third as a country and India comes only after that. In India alone for example, hundred thousand rupees of food is lost only because of poor agri logistics and we are not in breach to the place where it can be sold, where it can be eaten. So what it means that we must first look at containing the food lost on the account of agri logistics, poor agri logistic. As I was saying food lost is a technological issue. Which means that we don’t know how to store, how to transfer. But food wastage is an ethical issue. People take and don’t eat. In fact, western society wastes more food vis-a-vis the poorer countries. But poorer countries loose more food vis – a- vis the western countries. So both are at fault and both need to be corrected. So when we do that, what we ensure is the ecological charge on the planet is reduced.

Recharging resources

After all, we are using resources, to recharge something. If we are not going to eat it, then why produce it in the first place. So FAO, for example, told the world over the ratio of loss the range is over 5 percent to 40 percent depending upon the nature of the perishability of the commodity. If even it is 20 percent produced on earth and we are able to contain that loss, we don’t have to invest in that resource of production of extra commodities. So containing loss is very important to ensure that ecology is sustainable. And as far as ecological sustainability is concern we need to now look at the science that can produce that kind of technological practice. So far the world has depended on mono-cropping and mono systems because it is merchandisable. Since we wanted to reduce the droughty and improve fuel efficiency, we have looked at applications of new technology which can make it easier to plant and harvest and the world has been moving towards that including our country, moving towards that system. But then can we now ensure some kind of practices to enable and optimizable mechanism and instill integrated farming.

In integrated farming, the risk mitigation is there because you are not putting all the things in one basket. But the challenge is management and marketing. As it is in India for example, the majority of the fields are small and marginal that makes aggregation of the lots and transaction to market level very difficult, because the scales of the economy do not matter. When you further fragmentize that integrated farming, with more than one crop, more than one activity, that aggregation of the lot and the management of that becomes much more difficult. We, therefore, need to bring in management practices, that will tell us yes technologically integrated farming is necessary, but simultaneously for the efficiency of returns to the farmer will have to have that kind of management practice. Therefore the policymakers have to bring in these optimal combinations. Now so far as India is concerned, even after you utilize all the utilizable water, for example, we have around 4,200 billion cubic liters of utilizable water, even after we utilize all the harvestable water, we still will have more than 50 percent of our area would be dependent on rain-fed.

Ashok Dalwai photo 3

So land management should actually focus on rain-fed agriculture and rain-fed agriculture requires a new technology basket, it requires a new management practice, new policy support. Let say price support. If India has price support for wheat and paddy and therefore incentivizing the farmers to produce more and more paddy. The same support should come from millet, pulses, oilseeds and other crops that grow in rain-fed system. That means the policy system is extremely important alongside technology. Technology is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition. When technology and policy go together, farmers are adequately incentivized to adopt what we want. Many times we say farmers are not adopting. Farmers are rational economical animal. He is not a dud as many of us think no matter he is educated or not educated. But he is adopting, because we have not offered it as an appropriate package. So I think that the policy level to that level has to change. We therefore now need to focus on rain fed agriculture and when we talk of rain-fed agriculture, the first thing that comes to our mind is that dryland areas. Yes, dryland areas are more critical, but simultaneously, we need to think in Indian ecology, the rain falls will vary from 300 mm to 2500 mm per annum. And all these areas are rain-fed areas only because of there is no dependable source of water. This means that the technology for a 2500mm rainfall area, the rain-fed system has to be different.

For the cold desert of Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh has to be different, for the arid regions of Rajasthan, it has to be different. For the semi-arid region of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana, it has to be different. So we need to have more agroecology specific technology packages and simultaneously, we policy support, to enable the farmer to adopt and scale adapt. We now have to focus more importantly on soil and water. We very importantly talked about the importance of soil. It takes nature 1000 years to create 1 inch of top soil; doesn’t take one second to be eroded if we don’t manage it properly. Soil is very important, unfortunately in India today has lost hat soil. What we thought for earlier that soils in India were Nitrogen-deficient only in 1951, today we are deficient in Nitrogen, Phosphate and Potassium.

Many soils are deficient in micronutrients, lot of soils are deficient in secondary nutrients and Sulphur. We now need to rebuild all these things. No matter how much nutrients we add, unless we take care of the organic carbon, unless we take care of the physiochemical property like pH and EC, we will not be able to build the structure and fertility of the soil. So one of the important policies of soil management has to be a balanced approach of agrochemical less or organic carbo. Organic carbon is very important, so how do you ensure that. But I think I would like to prove to you a bit by saying – may a time we put the entire blame on agrochemicals, but it is not true. In fact, if we want to bring agrochemical in a balanced manner, it will increase the vegetative output for that vegetative land and add biomass. Because if you want to talk about alternate technologies, organic farming for example or conservation of agriculture – natural farming for example.

Where is the biomass. We need to generate more biomass to put back into the soil. So if we need to generate biomass, we need to provoke it, generate it somehow. So what is important and what is India doing, therefore, is balanced nutrient management, based on soil health card. That means it is a soil sample, tested in the laboratories for twelve parameters, so that evidence-based management happens – there is a long way to go, but we have started there. We have given cards to the people, but people should know how to use it. So what is really important is that we have to apply science in a balanced manner and science according to me has answers to every problem.

There is no limit to the outcomes of science. But what kind of science should we adopt. The national agricultural Research system in India for example or anywhere else I think so, they are all not for deliveries. The agriculture research system is for science per say, there is no point of science for science per say. There has to science for deliver. Which means that we should be able to understand what the requirements for today are, what ecology requires, what does soil require, what does the farmer require, what is the requirement of the consumers and work backwards on what kind of science and technology need to generate. So the entire agriculture research system quoted by the basic science, has looked at science of delivery and not just science for producing papers for various impact ratings and adding to the quantitative number of papers that scientist and academics produce. It may be important, but not all that important when there are such critical problems that we are facing. So science for delivery is very important and that need a re look in particular, because we talk of cost benefit analysis after all the resources are limited and there is not enough money for research and development. For example, we spent 2 percent of our GDP on agriculture and it is not enough. We always compare ourselves with China, that they are doing a 4 per cent, 5 percent, why can’t we do and other competing reason.

If other resources are being put in agriculture research that must be prioritize for the problem solutions. Not for producing papers. So science for producing delivery should be the approach then we shall be able to find problems to these eminent problems. So let me end up by saying that problems are challenging, but its possible and all of these, the bridging the gap between science and the people ultimately depends upon to what extent are you involved in the community. We have seen very good watersheds in our country, they have become globally famous. But if you have a look at them now there is nothing to see. As a student, I saw one watershed in Bijapur district of Karnataka, one of the best watershed, got a National award, then we heard of Ralegan Siddhi, we hear of Sukhomajri, let us go and see what has it been now? which only means that unless people own it up and they have a stake in its maintenance, we will not be able to sustain.

Best Cost-Benefit Analysis

The best cost-benefit analysis is to what happens to it after 10 years and so forth after withdrawal from there and that is more important. So CB ratio must be calculated not at the end of the treatment phase, but what it is going to do after 5 years and 10 years. It drives home the point that community participation is extremely important and different strata of that community; landed class, landed less class, those related to agriculture, not related to agriculture., the different interest of all these stakeholders must be taken into account and build into the watershed management. Then alone it is possible for us to actually ensure its sustenance and move toward solutions.

 

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