Room to improve sustainable agricultural practices in India

Yields of rice and wheat in India have increased dramatically over the past 50 years, which has been critical for feeding the country’s growing population. Poor performance on key sustainability metrics, however, threaten the future of agricultural productivity, according to new research conducted by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture.

The study, published in Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), analyzed publicly available state-level data on 11 indicators, including pest management, fertilizer use, soil health, water conservation, and biodiversity. It is a first attempt to provide statewide report cards on ecological sustainability of agriculture across India, the authors said, adding that periodic revision of these report cards will help monitor the impact of initiatives to increase sustainability and improve state performance over time.

“Our paper clearly shows the wide variation in production practices across states,” said Divya Veluguri, research associate at Harvard Chan School and lead author of the study. “As each region faces a unique set of challenges and natural resource constraints, public policies and programs also need to be tailored to regional needs, with long-term sustainability in mind.”

India’s so-called “bread basket” states, Punjab and Haryana, were among the worst performing states, with groundwater extraction levels far exceeding replacement rates, poor soil quality, limited diversity of crops, and high pesticide application rates. This natural resource management crisis must be recognized, and any plan for sustainable development in the agricultural sector must take into account the need to preserve such natural resources as soil, arable land, and water, the authors said.

“The serious ecological crisis in agriculture and the increasing risks posed by climate change have made state governments shift towards agro-ecological practices. The state of Sikkim has declared itself completely organic and Andhra Pradesh is now in the process of shifting towards natural farming,” said G V Ramanjaneyulu, director of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture and a co-author of the paper.

Lindsay Jaacks, assistant professor of global health at Harvard Chan School, emphasized concerns with big gaps identified in the study regarding agro-biodiversity. “As India is one of the most agro-biodiverse regions in the world, systematic efforts are needed to encourage greater diversity in cultivated crops that will have important impacts in terms of climate resilience and co-benefits for human health and nutrition,” Jaacks said.

Read the Economic and Political Weekly study: Statewise Report Cards on Ecological Sustainability of Agriculture in India