- A zero-hunger, zero-carbon food system could minimise the trade-offs between hunger reduction and greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture by adopting effective climate mitigation strategies, says agricultural economist Prabhu Pingali.
- In an interview with Mongabay-India, Pingali discusses the opportunities and challenges associated with a zero-carbon, zero-hunger food system as India pushes for climate action and tackles its population’s well-being.
- While there are ongoing experiments with zero-carbon techniques and approaches used within food systems such as solar-powered irrigation systems, and improved water management systems for rice cultivation, there is a lack of a state or national-level approach.
Progress toward achieving Sustainable Development Goals on hunger reduction — without any change in current food production practices — will hinder India’s efforts to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and hold the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, says agricultural economist Prabhu Pingali.
“Over the past half a century, rising food-grain productivity in India has resulted in major progress in hunger reduction, at least in terms of calorie sufficiency. Staple grain-centric agricultural policies, especially price supports and input subsidies, contributed to the quantum leap in food grain supplies. However, we also saw a rapid degradation of the environmental resource base and rising greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions,” said Pingali, Director at Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition (TCI).
Pingali cautioned that under a business-as-usual scenario, the current push for doubling productivity will further aggravate these environmental and climate tradeoffs, but a “zero-hunger, zero-carbon” (ZHZC) food system could “explicitly minimise the trade-offs between hunger reduction and GHG emissions by adopting effective climate mitigation strategies.”
Zero-hunger, zero-carbon food system is one that pursues the goal of zero hunger through enhancing productivity growth while at the same time maintaining net-zero carbon emissions from agricultural production, processing and movement along the food value chain.
Agriculture is responsible for nearly 20% of India’s emissions, with livestock and rice cultivation its biggest contributors. Between 1990 and 2014, agricultural emissions rose 25%. Compounding its commitment to climate action by leaving forests intact and expanding plantations and land-based mitigation projects such as renewables, is India’s urgency to attend to the insidious nature of challenges of malnutrition and nutrient deficiencies.
While India has made substantial progress in hunger reduction in terms of meeting calorie requirements, its progress in reducing “hidden hunger”, that is micronutrient deficiencies, has been limited.
“As a result, we see stubbornly high levels of child stunting and wasting and high levels of anemia among adult women. At the same time, we are starting to observe rising obesity trends. Promoting food system diversity and enhancing access and affordability of nutrient-rich food for poor populations is an essential component of the strategy to address hidden hunger,” notes Pingali who has worked extensively on agriculture for nutrition for over 30 years.
“Investments in rural markets and value chain investments are crucial for enhancing the supply of diverse foods for urban and rural consumers. Also important, is an agricultural policy that shifts away from its traditional focus on staple grains to one that expands the food basket and ensures year-round supply. Finally, we need investments in clean drinking water, sanitation and other public health facilities in order to address the problem of child malnutrition and adult health,” he said.
Moving towards a zero-carbon food system speaks to opportunities available in the transitions including diversification of production systems. The rising demand for food diversity provides farmers with market-led incentives to diversify their production systems from their traditional focus on staple grains.
“Diversification out of paddy rice cultivation, in particular, could have significant climate mitigation benefits in terms of reducing methane emissions. For rice and wheat production systems there are opportunities to reduce carbon emissions through zero-tillage systems, better management of crop residues, more efficient use of fertilisers and water, and in general adopting smarter farming practices. There are also opportunities for promoting livestock husbandry and fodder management practices that are more climate-friendly,” said Pingali.
However, any climate solution that focuses exclusively on mitigation without addressing small farm adaptation to climate change will not be directly meeting the needs of marginal small farm communities. “Moreover, small farm communities need technical, financial and extension support for successfully adopting climate-friendly technologies. Marginalised agricultural communities bear the brunt of the adverse impacts of climate change. Rising temperatures adversely impact their crop yields, especially for those living in the drylands. Increased frequency of events such as floods and drought add to the riskiness of food production by small farmers on marginal lands,” he added.