Sustainable Agriculture: What we know and how to scale up
Green Revolution-led agriculture in a climate-changing world
Arguably, the Green Revolution remains the most defining phase of Indian agriculture in the last century. An input-intensive and technology-focused approach helped India avert potential famines and meet its food security needs by reducing food imports. While the Green Revolution has ensured India’s self-sufficiency for our cereal needs and has touched most Indian farmers, its long-term impacts are now visibly evident. Be it degrading topsoil, declining groundwater levels, contaminating water bodies, and reducing biodiversity. Crop yields are unable to sustain themselves without increased fertiliser use. Fragmented land holdings and associated low farm incomes are pushing many smallholders towards non-farm economic activities. Maturing climate change science is making it evident that input-intensive agriculture is both a contributor and a victim of climate change.
Sustainable agriculture: a promising way-forward?
In the face of increasing extreme climate events—acute and frequent droughts, floods, desert locust attacks—examples of resilience are emerging from the ground, highlighting sustainable agriculture’s potential. For instance, in Andhra Pradesh, during the Pethai and Titli cyclones of 2018, the crops cultivated through natural farming showed greater resilience to heavy winds than conventional crops. While such examples are emerging, the overall understanding of the state of sustainable agriculture at a pan-India level is missing.
For example, what sustainable agricultural practices are prevailing across India? Where are they being practised? How many farmers have adopted them? Which organisations are promoting such practices? What impact has such practices had on farm incomes, environment and social outcomes? If impact evidence is not available, then what are the gaps in our current knowledge?
This study attempts to answer such questions to help policymakers, administrators, and philanthropic organisations, among others, to make evidence-backed decisions to scale-up sustainable agriculture practices in India as appropriate.
Sustainable agriculture: terminologies and the agroecology lens
It is important to understand what ‘sustainable agriculture’ is before identifying specific sustainable agricultural practices. As a concept, sustainable agriculture is dynamic with wide variations in its definition and practice. In our efforts to reconcile the concept, we encountered almost 70 definitions of the term.
With increasing extreme climate events, examples of crop resilience are emerging from the ground, highlighting sustainable agriculture’s potential concepts of sustainable agriculture. Let us consider the Google search trends of the last 15 years. Organic farming is the most popular term, followed by sustainable agriculture, agro-ecology, natural farming, and then regenerative agriculture.
Among various definitions, we selected agro-ecology as a lens of investigation in our study, as it adequately captures all the three dimensions of sustainability—economic, environmental, and social. Broadly, it refers to less resource-intensive farming solutions, provides more diversity in crops and livestock, and allows farmers to adapt to local circumstances.
State of sustainable agriculture in India
In all, we identified 30 sustainable agriculture practices (SAPs) prevalent in India. Some are focused only on one aspect of agriculture (we call them practices). In contrast, others are more holistic concerning the overall agriculture or most aspects of it (we call them systems). We collectively refer to them as sustainable agriculture practices and systems (SAPSs). Many practices have overlaps among themselves, and some individual practices are also advocated under a few systems.
We find that sustainable agriculture is far from mainstream in India. Barring a couple of exceptions, most SAPSs have less than five million (or four per cent) farmers practising them. For many, the practising farmers are less than one per cent of the total Indian farmers. We summarise the current status of the adoption of these practices in Table ES2.
Crop rotation, one of the elementary SAPSs, is the most popular across the country, covering about 30 million hectares and ~15 million farmers. Practices like agroforestry and rainwater harvesting, which got significant attention in national programmes, also have higher coverage. While agroforestry covers a large area, the practice is mainly popular among large cultivators. Documented information around the prevalence of mulching is very limited; however, one stakeholder suggested that it covers an area of about 20 million ha.
The area under precision farming may seem large (nine million ha); however, it primarily consists of the area under micro-irrigation, an aspect of precision farming. Over the years, the National Mission on Micro Irrigation has significantly promoted micro-irrigation in the country. Integrated Pest Management has a low coverage of five million ha, despite being promoted for decades. Intercropping is more common in the country’s southern and western regions and covers nearly one million ha. However, the estimate does not include intercropping areas in horticultural crops due to the lack of reliable estimates.
Despite government policy support, organic farming currently covers only two per cent of the country’s total net sown area (140 million ha). India has about two million certified organic producers, but reliable information about uncertified organic farmers is not available. Biodynamic agriculture, a variant of organic farming, has an estimated coverage of 0.1 million ha (where biodynamic inputs are explicitly used along with organic farming practices). Natural farming has witnessed a faster rate of adoption in the last two to three years. Close to one million farmers practise natural farming, mostly in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Himachal Pradesh. The associated area is about 0.7 million ha as it has been mainly popular among small and marginal farmers so far. The popularity of the system of rice intensification (SRI) has also rapidly increased in the last five years, with an estimated area of around 3 million ha across the country. The area under partial conservation agriculture (CA) is estimated to be around 2 milllion ha, mostly in a few states in the Indo-Gangetic Plains (IGPs).
Impact literature on India’s sustainable agriculture
From the systematic review of literature, we find that agroforestry, CA, and SRI are the most popular among researchers assessing the impact of SAPSs on various outcomes (Figure ES2). In contrast, the impact evidence around permaculture and floating farming in the Indian context is almost non-existent. The impact evidence of biodynamic agriculture is also very limited currently. Regarding different areas of outcomes, most of the SAPSs have many publications focusing on environmental indicators followed by economic and social ones. However, organic farming, natural farming, and integrated farming systems have many publications focused on economic outcomes.
• The literature critically lacks long-term impact assessments of SAPSs across all three sustainability dimensions. Short-term (0.5 – 3 years long) assessments mainly dominate the literature. These are not helpful to understand the long-term impacts of transitioning to SAPSs. Few practices, such as CA, have long-term impact studies, primarily focused on environmental outcomes in Indo-Gangetic plains.
• Impact studies are mostly limited to plot-level trials, while assessments at a landscape/regional/agroecological-zone level are mostly missing, except for agroforestry. We find that the cost of long-term and larger studies is the biggest reason for these research gaps.
• Most publications evaluate a SAPSs impact on only a single dimension of interest (such as water, soil, gender, or yields).
• Yields, income, soil health, and water find the most interest as a subject area among researchers across all the three sustainability dimensions. Impacts of SAPSs on biodiversity, ecosystem services, health, and gender are least researched.
Conventional approaches to measuring farm productivity are often not adequate for SAPSs. For yields, the studies tend to compare a single crop yield between sustainable and conventional practices. Crop-diversification through inter-cropping or multi-cropping is common under various SAPSs, and the productivity discussions in literature often ignore outcomes across other crops. Similarly, various SAPSs commonly promote livestock integration, but the evidence capturing total farm productivity, including livestock output, is limited.
Sustainable agriculture’s impact evidence in India
• Income: The evidence around SAPSs’ impact on farmers’ incomes remains insufficient, both in terms of geographical coverage as well as the number of long-term assessments. Notwithstanding this critical limitation, the literature indicates the potential of a few SAPSs to enhance income through a reduction in production costs (CA, natural farming), diversification of agricultural production (IFS, intercropping), and premium prices (organic produce).
• Yields: Notwithstanding the conceptual limitations to adequately estimate farm productivity, we find some emerging patterns for yields under a few SAPSs. For organic farming, at least in the short-term (2-3 years), yields are lower than conventional farming. Beyond this period, some studies show equal and even higher yields for some crops, particularly once the soil form and structure evolve after a few years of applying biological inputs. The short-duration studies of natural farming indicate no statistically significant changes in yields for most crops. For SRI, yield impacts are well documented, showing a statistically significant increase in various paddy varieties. Resource-conserving practices, such as vermicomposting, agroforestry, and crop diversification, have positively impacted yields. However, the lack of studies documenting the long-term impacts of SAPSs on yields makes it difficult to generalise results.
• Water-use: Several studies in literature capture the impact of various SAPSs on water-use efficiency. In particular, SRI, CA, precision farming, rainwater harvesting, contour farming, cover crops, mulching, crop rotation, and agroforestry have positively impacted water conservation. Rainwater harvesting and SRI appeal to smallholder farmers because of their ease of adoption. Pre-monsoon dry sowing in natural farming is considered a break- through in the drought-prone regions of Andhra Pradesh, warranting further assessments.
• GHG emissions: Among SAPSs, agroforestry, SRI, and CA have the most evidence for climate mitigation. Evidence associated with agroforestry’s carbon-sequestering abilities (above and below ground) is well established. A growing body of evidence suggests that the SRI promotes aerobic soil conditions reducing methane emissions. However, intermittent irrigation, an intrinsic component of SRI, can increase nitrous oxide emissions. Overall, long-term carbon sequestration impacts of the SAPSs need evaluation in India.
• Biodiversity: Several SAPSs like agroforestry, IFS, permaculture, natural farming, organic farming, conservation agriculture, and crop diversification strategies (rotation, intercropping, mixed) tend to increase the spatial, vertical, and temporal diversity of species at a farm (and landscape) level. While research articles mention the impact on biodiversity, studies offering substantive empirical evidence are missing.
Health: We only find anecdotal evidence mentioning positive health impacts of various SAPSs, mainly through dietary diversity and less exposure to harmful chemicals such as pesticides. Empirical studies comparing SAPSs with conventional agriculture for health outcomes are missing.
Gender: Women contribute more than 70% of the labour force in Indian agriculture. However, research studies focusing on gender outcomes of SAPSs are minimal. A few practices like vermicomposting, organic farming, IFS, and rainwater harvesting define women’s roles, but the evidence on women’s impact is missing. We need further research to understand the impact of various SAPSs on women’s workloads, income, empowerment, and employment.
Policy ecosystem for sustainable agriculture in India
Since 2014-15, India has had a National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA) to promote sustainable agriculture. It consists of several programmes focusing on agroforestry, rainfed areas, water and soil health management, climate impacts, and adaptation. Beyond NMSA, the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana promotes the adoption of precision farming techniques such as micro-irrigation, and the Integrated Watershed Management Programme supports rainwater harvesting.
However, merely 0.8% of the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare (MoAFW) budget is allocated to NMSA. Beyond the ₹142,000 crore ($20 billion) budget of MoAFW the Central government also spends about ₹71,309 crore ($10 billion) annually on fertiliser subsidies. So, while the Indian government recognises the importance of promoting sustainable agriculture, the focus remains heavily skewed towards green revolution-led farming.
Among SAPSs, eight of the 30 practices receive some budgetary support under various
Central government programmes. These include organic farming, integrated farming system, rainwater harvesting, contour farming (terraces), vermicomposting, mulching, precision farming, and IPM. Among these, organic farming has received the most policy attention as the Indian states have also formulated exclusive organic farming policies.
Civil society action on sustainable agriculture in India
Similar to the policy side, organic farming gets the most interest among CSOs. Whereas very few CSOs deal with precision farming, integrated farming systems, and biodynamic agriculture (Fig ES3).
Across States, Maharashtra is the most popular among the CSOs. Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Odisha are the next in order. We find very few CSOs active in states like Punjab and Haryana (Fig ES4).
These CSOs provide various support to promote SAPSs, including training, capacity building and awareness generation of farmers, support for inputs preparation and seed management, field demonstration activities. A few are also involved in technology transfer.
Merely 0.8% of the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare budget is allocated to National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture indicating a significant scope to support sustainable agriculture further.
Key emerging themes in India’s sustainable agriculture
This section discusses the key cross-cutting themes that emerged during our research and are central to the discussion on sustainable agriculture in India.
• The role of knowledge: Most SAPSs are knowledge-intensive and need knowledge exchange and capacity building among farmers to enable their successful adoption.
• The reliance on farm-labour: Given the practices are niche, the mechanisation for various input preparations, weed removal, or even harvesting in a mixed cropping field is not mainstream yet – increasing the reliance on labour for various on-field activities. Labour- intensiveness may pose a barrier to the adoption of some of the SAPSs among medium to large farmers.
• Motivation to adopt SAPSs: First, conventional agriculture’s long-term negative impacts are pushing farmers to look for alternatives. Second, where farmers are in a resource- constrained environment, such as rain-fed areas, and not using significant external inputs, anyway, and hence are willing to make the incremental shift to adopt SAPSs.
• SAPSs’ role in food and nutrition security: Most SAPSs promote crop and food diversity through intercropping, mixed cropping, crop rotation, agroforestry, or IFS. One, it improves the farmer’s food security by diversifying their food and income sources. Secondly, by improving the diversity of available nutrition, it enhances the nutrition security for agriculture families which could possibly solve the country’s underlying malnutrition problems. However, both these aspects are hardly studied in the available literature and thus warrant future research.
Way forward to scale-up sustainable agriculture in India
Based on the gathered insights, we propose the following next steps towards an evidence- backed scale-up of sustainable agriculture in India.
Focus on knowledge exchange and capacity building among farmers and agriculture extension workers on SAPSs. Leveraging and building-on the extensive prevailing on-ground CSO capacity would be a great first step.
Restructure the government support to farmers. Instead of encouraging resource- intensive cultivation through inputs-based subsidies, align incentives towards resource conservation while rewarding outcomes (such as total farm productivity, enhanced ecosystem services) and not merely outputs such as yields. It will allow a multitude of farming approaches, including SAPSs, to flourish.
Support rigorous evidence generation through long-term comparative assessment (between resource-intensive and sustainable agriculture) in view of changing-climate to inform long-term resilient approaches to nutrition security. It would help enable an evidence- backed and context-relevant scale up of SAPSs.
Broaden perspectives of stakeholders across the agriculture ecosystem to consider alternative approaches, as they are only exposed to resource-intensive agriculture for the last six decades. A suite of strategies spanning evidence-driven narratives to on-ground field visits would help.
While states like Sikkim and Andhra Pradesh are leading the way on sustainable agriculture in India, the adoption remains on the margins at an all-India level. Likewise, the impact evidence about its outcomes on the economic, social and environmental front is limited.
At one end, we must generate more long-term evidence. Alongside, we should leverage existing evidence to scale-up context-specific SAPSs. The scale-up could start with rainfed areas, as they are already practising low-resource agriculture, have low productivities, and primarily stand to gain from the transition. As the positive results at scale would emerge, farmers in irrigated areas will follow suit.
At the budgetary level, significantly increase allocation to sustainable agriculture enabling its evidence-backed scale-up across the country. At the tactical level, focus on region- and practice-wise priorities, which span a wide variety: from technological innovation to help mechanise labour-intensive processes to farmers’ capacity building in knowledge-intensive practices.
Finally, broaden the national policy focus from food security to nutrition security and yield to total farm productivity. It would help recognise the critical role that sustainable agriculture could play to ensure India’s nutrition security in a climate-constrained world.
(Study has been authored by Niti Gupta and others)