Ramnath Vaidyanathan is a General Manager of Sustainability, Good and Green at Godrej Industries
There is a huge opportunity for transformational sustainability in a sector that employs nearly 60 percent of the Indian population–agriculture. This opportunity exists despite the ambitious sustainability targets that have been set already and the tremendous work being done in achieving them.
Growth inhibitors in the agricultural sector
Even though India has become a surplus agri-producer, the sector still remains unsustainable, with misdirected subsidies, storage and logistical shortfalls, food wastage, archaic farming practices, inadequate access to finance, inequity in the value chain, land degradation, water depletion, and crop burning—just to name a few challenges. We need to bring together the principles of sustainable growth, innovative technologies, green financing, a progressive regulatory ecosystem, and leverage corporate social responsibility to overcome these obstacles.
Internal carbon and water pricing
Industry has shown that a realistic, staggered and incremental carbon pricing mechanism can accelerate the switch to low-carbon pathways, and it’s time the agricultural sector adopted this principle. However, even more so than carbon, which is still taxed through cess and duties, water continues to be treated as a right rather than a precious commodity, with associated costs of treatment and delivery. As a scarce resource, water should be priced by factoring in the risk of unavailability, which will indirectly induce its judicious usage.
Growers to have more knowledge and greater autonomy
Farmers need to have greater control as well as accountability over what they grow and when they grow it. Data and artificial intelligence can be used to help farmers make decisions to maximise yield and revenue and optimise resource usage. India has one of the highest rates of internet and mobile penetration in the world, which needs to be leveraged to provide not just a knowledge repository for training in modern farming practices, but real-time information on weather and climate patterns, control of their irrigation systems, access to finance and market linkages. This will allow the farmer to have greater ownership of their products and increase their revenue share generated across the value chain.
Improved farming practices
The idea that sustainability is at odds with productivity is obsolete. The Netherlands, a tiny country with sparse land for cultivation, two-thirds of which is low-lying and often inundated by floods, has become the second-largest agricultural exporter in the world– through a combination of sustainable agricultural practices, such as precision and vertical agriculture, and technology to minimise waste, both in growing and processing agri products. We need to make large strides in educating our farmers on these modern agricultural practices.
Reversal of degraded land
Through watershed programmes, degraded land can be rejuvenated to improve productivity, increase livelihoods, sequester carbon and conserve natural biodiversity. For example, through the Godrej IWMP (Integrated Water Management Program), in partnership with the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), 12,000 hectares of water-stressed area across four states have been transformed. First, by building water catchments, the water table has risen significantly, which provides farmers with water availability through the year, for multiple crop cycles.
Additionally, by educating them on Sustainable Agricultural Land Management practices (SALM), farmers have seen improved soil nutrient content, greater water retention and strengthened soil structure, leading to higher yields and greater resilience. The average monthly household income for farmers under these programmes has increased by an average of 500-600 percent.
The role of the government
Needless to say, the government has a crucial role to play to create the ecosystem for sustainable growth and ensuring equity and compliance across the value chain. A robust and transparent green financing system is required to provide access to and incentivise the adoption of sustainable agricultural technologies and practices. Additionally, sectors allied to agriculture need to be strengthened—such as storage, cold link logistics, and food processing. Not only will this reduce wastage and distress selling, but it will also provide new revenue streams and create jobs.
It is quite literally the burning issue of our time. This is despite the fact that solutions to mitigate this problem already exist in the form of technologies, to collect agricultural waste for conversion into briquettes and use as biofuels. What is needed is greater circularity in the value chain where farmers are incentivised to collect and sell their biomass to manufacturers of briquettes, who in-turn generate revenue by selling this as boiler fuel to industries looking to replace fossil fuels with greener alternatives.
Input costs in agricultural production can reduce automatically when there is increased consciousness about their price and value. Lower costs and improved productivity will enable the government to spend less on subsidies and focus more on developing the overall ecosystem. Allied industries such as food processing, horticulture and bio-fuels will generate greater revenue. With the right vision and participative implementation, sustainable agriculture has the potential to herald the next green revolution in India.
The writer is a General Manager of Sustainability, Good and Green at Godrej Industries