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Time to think of a sustainable food and land use system for India to mitigate climate risks and support ecological and human well-being

We are living in a world that needs to prepare for the impact of 1.50 warming of the planet. The climate risks to food security, livelihoods, water supply, human well-being are projected to increase with rise in temperature. The impact of 1.50 warming will be differentiated for regions as well as population groups (IPCC 2018). As we push our planetary boundaries, India faces the challenge of supporting 1.3 billion population on 2.4 percent of the total world’s land. Paying attention to food and land use issues is critical for India, given the global impact of India’s footprint on climate. India, for instance, is the largest importer of palm oil in the world (CRISIL 2018). Agriculture comprises 16 percent of India’s emissions excluding land use land use change and forestry (LULUCF). Additionally, LULUCF is a net sink removing 12 percent of total GHG emissions (MoEFCC 2018). Any strategy that India adopts to reduce climate risk need to focus on sustainable land management, regenerative agricultural practices and improving land productivity to promote economic development and reduce poverty.

Why food and land use lens?

Seventy percent of the rural households in India depend on land for sustenance. Agriculture being the largest source of livelihood in the country (FAO 2018a). 86 percent of land owners in India are small and marginal farmers with less than 2 hectares land holdings (Agriculture Census 2014). This target group and women, children, and elderly would be at higher risk with climate change. The climate risks would also be significantly higher for 275 million people in India, predominantly poor and tribal population, who depend on forests for their sustenance (MoEF 2015, FRI 2017). Non-timber forest produce (NTFPs) provide 50 percent of the household income for one-third of India's rural population, an income equivalent of USD 2.7 billion per year (Institute of Forest Genetics and Tree Breeding 2012). Thus, viewing food and land use issues in tandem is crucial.

Planning for sustainable land use and management – need of the hour given the inter-linked challenges that India faces

The risks from climate change in India are compounded by inter-linked challenges. Agrarian crisis with news on farmer protests and suicides dominate quotidian headlines. There is evidence of increasing water scarcity with depleting ground water table and unsustainable agricultural practices and inequity in agricultural water use among crops (NITI Aayog 2018, EPW 2018, Sharma et al. 2018).

On 66 percent of total cropped area in India, rain-fed agriculture is practiced which contributes to 60 percent of value of agricultural GDP of India. However, bias in public investment on agriculture is towards irrigated areas, for instance, government spending on procuring wheat and rice through minimum support price, subsidized pricing of water, power, fertilizers, inter alia (The Hindu 2019, MoSPI 2018, Sharma et al. 2018, FRI 2017). This bias in public investment has led to misalignment of cropping pattern vis-à-vis available resources for irrigation. Wheat, rice and sugarcane are being grown in areas with low water availability (Sharma et al. 2018). India produced a record 284.83 million tons of food grains in 2017-18. However, farmer incomes have remained stagnant. Agriculture supports half of the work force in the country, however, it contributes to less than 17 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) (PIB 2018, Planning Commission 2011). A food and land use lens could enable sustainable planning and equip stakeholders to deal with these interlinked challenges and structural issues to showcase a path forward for transformative solutions.

Need for developing sustainable food systems

Despite high levels of production in the country, India ranks 103 in the 2018 Global Hunger Index (GHI), out of 119 countries. As per the GHI (2018), 15 percent of the population in India continues to be under-nourished. More granular number from 2011-12 data of National Sample Survey (NSS) 68th round indicate that 39 percent of India’s population is under-nourished (Rawal, Bansal, and Bansal 2019). Hence, on one hand decision makers are dealing with malnutrition, hunger, and anemia. On the other hand, they need to plan/manage for increasing cases of obesity, diet related disorders, especially in urban areas. Thus, the policy makers in India need to plan for these inter-linked but contradictory challenges. Focus of Indian agriculture since the green revolution has been on food security. However, with risks associated with climate change rising, focus needs to shift to nutritional security.

Need for developing ecologically sustainable solutions that also reduce vulnerability of the local population

Nearly 30 percent (96.40 Mha) of India’s land is facing the threat of desertification (SAC ISRO 2016). Frequent droughts, small and fragmented landholdings, and declining productivity of land have resulted in high levels of poverty and indebtedness among Indian farmers and consequent farmer suicides. The impact of this are particularly harsh on women, who are not even recognized as farmers in India (DW 2018). The current agricultural practices and cropping pattern with focus on rice, wheat and sugarcane production are depleting groundwater table at an alarming scale, leading to poor soil quality, and reducing land productivity. As vulnerability in the agriculture sector rises, dependence on forests, especially for the forest dependent population increases. Additionally, competing demand for land for economic and developmental purpose is creating additional pressure on India’s existing natural forests and exacerbating climate risks.

Need for interdisciplinary transformative solutions

Policy makers, thus, face these interlinked challenges related to food and land use – shifting focus to nutritional security, arresting soil and land degradation, improving land productivity, promoting sustainable agriculture, and reducing the pressure on depleting aquifers, meeting demand for energy and lastly competing land use. There is an urgency to think of transformative strategies that increase India’s food systems resilience to changing climate. Mapping the dependence of people on land and forests, a vision for sustainable food systems could be developed. Forests and trees, for instance, also support nutritional well-being of the household, improve soil fertility, meet energy demand, provide medicine, inter alia (FAO 1991).

There is an urgent need to promote sustainable food and land use systems, as India’s future ecological and developmental well-being is at risk with climate change. Agriculture, forestry and other land use (AFOLU) related carbon dioxide removal strategies emerge as key mitigation strategy, which also provide co-benefits such as improved local food (nutritional) security, soil quality and biodiversity (IPCC 2018). Addressing agriculture and forests together in development policies could also support in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (FAO 2018b). In India, forests are a source of water, especially if the origin of water bodies is not glacial. There are 17156 sq. km of water bodies inside Indian forests (FSI 2017). Increasing tree cover and improving restoring forests is vital for augmenting hydrological cycle, increasing carbon storage and mitigating watershed risks that are exacerbated with climate change (Sun and Vose 2018). Using landscape approach, planting native trees on farm lands (agroforestry) and protecting or regenerating forests are recognized natural based solutions to address the risks of climate change.

National commitments and targets in place – need to develop an inclusive vision and roadmaps for achieving these targets

Land use is key to meet India’s international commitments and national priorities. For instance, to meet India’s forestry nationally determined contribution (NDC) of additional cumulative carbon sink of 2.5-3 GtCO2e by 2030 under the Paris climate agreement is needed (Climate Action Tracker 2015). Food and land use issues underpin several SDGs and their sub targets: SDG 1 (No poverty), SDG2 (Zero hunger), SDG3 (Good health and well-being), SDG6 (clean water and sanitation), SDG7 (Affordable and clean energy), SDG13 (Climate action), SDG15 (Life on land). To achieve these targets, roadmaps need to be developed that are inclusive, based on sound science and take into consideration environmental and developmental trade-offs associated with an action. Given, India has nearly 140 Mha of potential for forest protection and landscape restoration. Of this the potential for mosaic restoration/ primarily agroforestry is highest – 87 Mha (Chaturvedi et al. 2018).

Decision makers in India need to systematically think about food and land use to better protect our natural environment; provide nutritious and affordable food; strengthen resilience and enhance prosperity of people; and meet the SDGs and the Paris climate agreement. The combination of India’s rising population, rapid economic growth, and environmental vulnerability means that these challenges will become even more pronounced over the coming years. Stakeholders need to develop a vision for food and land use in India that can enable: i) development of sustainable food systems taking into consideration ecological sustainability; ii) supports sustainable land use management by communities; iii) promote restoration of landscapes for sustainable production and to maintain ecosystem services.

This article was originally written for Business India by Ruchika Singh, Director - Sustainable Landscapes And Restoration at WRI India.


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