The Food Systems Perspective: Science, Technology, and Innovation (STI) for India’s Agricultural Transformation

Climate change impacts on agriculture and vice versa are well established. Research suggests that even if emissions from all other sectors are completely halted, food systems emissions alone will make it difficult to reach the 1.5 or 2 degrees targets by 2100. Considering how interconnected the agriculture sector is with other sectors (water, energy, environment, health, etc.); socio-economic and political structures, changes, and challenges; and more significant issues like climate emergency, globalization, trade, and international relations, etc., it needs a broader and more in-depth understanding of actions and implications. But unfortunately, there is still a considerable shortage of data, research, and perspectives, especially from LMICs (low- and middle-income economies). In the face of increased challenges to and from agriculture in India, especially concerning climate change, that means two things – i. need for food systems outlook instead of agricultural systems outlook, and ii. understanding the implications from an Indian perspective. 

The Challenges

Currently, India produces enough food to feed the entire population, and still, hunger and malnourishment are on the rise. India ranked 101 among 116 countries in the Global Hunger Index in 2021.  Less than 10% of India’s agricultural produce is processed, and the annual wastage stands at about Rs. 4000 billion. Unsustainable groundwater use for agriculture is becoming increasingly problematic for the country, sometimes aggravated by policies like irrigation and electricity subsidies. And then there is climate change, which will exacerbate every other problem. The impact of climate change on India’s agriculture is progressing faster than its adaptation capacity, which means further threats to food security. But it is also, directly and indirectly, affecting factors that aid the ability to respond to these shocks, and food security and stability of the food systems

The Priorities

Food systems thinking goes beyond the production system and includes transport, processing, packaging, storage, retail, dietary choices and consumption, and food loss and waste. It recognizes the role and impact of agriculture in a larger context. The global call for food systems transformation for a cleaner and greener future implies an equitable, affordable, healthy, and resilient system. Systems perspective always has had its challenges in understanding, planning, and implementation. But especially in a sector that impacts so many and will continue to do so, these changes will be inevitable.

India’s agriculture sector needs to embrace science, technology, and innovation (STI) in all its effort for development. Research gaps on agriculture’s relationship with other sectors, agriculture-nutrition linkage, One Health and food systems, dietary choices and consumption practices, sustainable intensification, biotechnology, and challenges from climate crisis needs urgent attention.  

Digital technology and ICTs have done wonders in taking agriculture forward, but it also adds to inequity. It’s necessary to understand the unique opportunity technology provides and the importance of responsible innovation before jumping to techno-solutionism. Solutions that address the problems and not amplify them are the need of the hour. 

Innovation – especially accessible, low-cost innovation – will be crucial for sustainable intensification, reducing wastage and food loss, improvements in processing and storage technologies, and so on. We also need to understand that innovation goes beyond technology and extends to institutions, governance, stakeholders, and relationships. Especially from a food systems perspective, locally relevant “socio-technical innovation bundles” and “coupled innovations” that consider the context will be critical. In all that, we mustn’t forget, “Competence building is the other side of innovation”. 

Large scale, need-based competence building plans are required for all agricultural stakeholders. An enhanced understanding of basic research and multi-sectoral collaboration will be crucial at the scientific level. Critical analysis of pathways to increase the extension system’s competence is required to go beyond the routine activities and understand reforms needed at education, research, and field extension levels. Competence development in policy advocacy will be essential for all, especially for the field level extension staff and farmer representatives. Technology literacy will be indispensable at all levels. Science communication skills for researchers and extension personnel will be crucial for enhancing scientific temper and bringing about awareness and behavioural changes.

Policy Support

Farsighted policies rooted in practical needs are essential to create institutions and infrastructures for food system transformation and prepare for a harsher future. They are necessary to design actions, lay out implementation plans, and direct resources towards those actions. While India has some very well documented, evidence-based policies, implementation has been less than encouraging. Evidence-based policies with multi-sectoral coherence will be crucial to tackle the looming water crisis, divert resources towards climate-smart practices, strike a balance between adaptation and mitigation plans, promote climate-smart dietary practices, encourage nutrition-sensitive agriculture, invest more in locally relevant R&D, and incentivize science communication. India already has large scale input subsidies in place. It should continue to be on the policy agenda for increased market price support, safeguard farmers against vulnerabilities and shocks, increase their income, and recognize the sector’s uncertainties and risks. Policies need to lay out clear implementation strategies for the inclusion of women and youth and make equity one of the core priorities. Policymaking is an inclusive job, and the participation of all stakeholders from across the food systems and specifically farmer representatives cannot be emphasized enough. Finally, they need an inbuilt feedback mechanism and inclusive monitoring and evaluation plan for regular assessment and course correction.

The Bottom Line

Food systems outlook is necessary to see the bigger picture. Food systems transformation is essential for healthier people and the planet. But deep-rooted habits won’t change in a day. It will need a deeper understanding of the local context’s pathways, financial support, and collective will to change. To make them possible, massive capacity development efforts backed by evidence-based policy support will be critical. The restructuring will require steady changes, the right intent, responsible investment, and competent human resources. A transdisciplinary approach and multi-sectoral collaborations will be the key to coherent planning and implementation. 

But in a rush to transform the food systems, we cannot afford to repeat past mistakes. India’s agriculture and food systems are still dominated by some of the most underprivileged, malnourished, poverty-ridden populations. The pathways to move forward should be balanced based on understanding the local context and trade-off between people’s economic well being and environmental sustainability.  Inclusivity needs to be at the heart of it all.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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