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Fighting hunger means fighting climate change

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If India is to meet the Zero Hunger Sustainable Development Goal, it has to shed climate-harming agri-policies, argue Brunel Business School's Dr Manoj Dora and Arabinda Padhee at The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-arid Tropics...

Food is a common thread linking all 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and critical to achieve overall goals within the timeframe. India, with one-sixth of humanity, will have to play a critical role to achieve the targets. NITI Aayog recently released the SDG India Index 2020-21, highlighting the national and states’ progress on SDGs. Some of the significant statistics specific to the SDG-2, the goal on zero-hunger include, 34.7% children aged under five in India are stunted; 40.5% children between 6-59 months are anaemic; 50.3% of pregnant women between 15-49 years are anaemic; children aged 0-4 years are underweight.

India shares a quarter of the global hunger burden. Four out of 10 children in India are not meeting their full human potential because of chronic undernutrition or stunting. NFHS-5 shows many states have not fared well on nutrition indicators. In addition to the malnutrition challenges, India’s food system faces negative consequences of the Green Revolution technologies. Equity considerations in a country dominated by smallholders also hold much significance.

We suggest the following crucial pathways in meeting the targets under SDG-2 (Zero Hunger), while addressing the threats of climate change and malnutrition.

Positive contribution of agriculture to nutrition is now empirically established. Crop diversification to climate-resilient and yet remunerative, especially in those areas where the existing practices are ecologically unsustainable (mostly due to subsidies on inputs like power/irrigation), is often suggested as an alternative option. Incentivising farmers during the transition along with a robust value chain can facilitate the diversification process.

While Indian agriculture is increasingly getting adversely impacted by the vicissitudes of climate change, it also is a significant contributor to GHG emissions. As per third Biennial Update Report submitted by Government of India to UNFCCC, agriculture sector contributes 14% of the total emissions. Some of the climate-smart interventions like conservation agriculture, organic farming and agro-ecological approaches can effectively address the environmental concerns while ensuring food security and nutrition. The natural farming practices are the commonest example, which have since been tried and scaled up in parts of India (Andhra Pradesh) that effectively bring synergy towards ecosystem services and biodiversity conservation. Crop-residue burning has become a huge problem in parts of the country. This is mainly propelled by monoculture and a package of subsidies that perpetuate ecologically unsustainable farm practices. Conservation agriculture offers solutions to such pernicious problems with good agronomy and soil management such as zero-tillage or no-till farming, crop rotation, in-situ crop harvest residue management/mulching, etc, and industrial uses like baling and bio-fuel production.

Excessive use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers pollutes the environment. Organic farming that involves crop cultivation in natural ways obviates this problem. Use of botanical pesticides, green-manuring, biological pest control, etc. are nature-friendly and such practices lead to eco-conservation. The organic movement, fortunately, is catching up in Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, and a few other states.

Modifying consumer behaviour forms an essential ingredient to transform Indian food systems and correlate positively with crop and diet diversity. Breeding of desired staple crops that are rich in essential micronutrients like Iron, Zinc, etc., should be a top priority for the agriculture research system. To make all this happen, the government must ramp up its investments in agri research and innovation. POSHAN Abhiyaan, India’s national nutrition mission, can play an effective role in addressing the issues of persistent malnutrition by bringing all relevant ministries and stakeholders together.

According to FAO estimates, 40% of the food produced in India is either lost or wasted in every stage of supply chain from harvesting, processing, packaging, and transporting to the end stage of consumption. As per another estimate, winning the fight against food loss and waste can save India $61 billion in 2050 through increased industry profitability and reduced food insecurity, as well as reduced GHG emissions, water usage, and environmental degradation; and play a vital role in securing the long-term food supply.

The linear model of “take, make, dispose” is not economically or ecologically sustainable. Shifting towards a circular economy can enable India progress towards the SDGs including halving food waste by 2030 and improving resource efficiency. In addition to the benefits a circular model can have in reducing food waste and enabling a shift towards zero hunger, businesses and government must recognise the potential of the circular economy to drive business competitiveness, sustainable economic growth and job creation through waste to value initiatives. Through circular economy principles, India can transform the way the economy uses resources through reusing, recycling, redistributing food.

There is no denying the fact that India’s success is essential to achieve the planetary goal of Zero Hunger. There is a need for transformation towards sustainable, nutritious and resilient food systems to achieve the goal of zero hunger.

This blog was first published by Financial Express