Scaling sustainable food production in face of climate change is the defining challenge of our times

Localised and climate-smart agriculture can help preserve agrobiodiversity and reshape the larger narrative of responsible food production   

By Sanjog Sahu
Published: Wednesday 13 March 2024
Tubers and millets are great examples of crops grown with traditional methods in localised geographies whose aggregated effect on bolstering global food security is well-established. Photo for representation: iStock

In July 2023, Dasra, a strategic philanthropy organisation, along with think tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF) launched a report titled Our Uncommon Future: Intersectionality of Climate Change and SDGs in the Global South, which explores the impact of climate change on Sustainable Development Goals and on food insecurity and malnutrition. 

The report found that there is a critical need today to not only treat food insecurity as a humanitarian crisis but to also address how climate change is reducing agricultural productivity by precipitating the frequency of extreme weather events.  

The report by Dasra and ORF also recommended nature-based solutions and adaptation to address the impact of climate change. This approach could not only help us protect our environment and preserve natural resources but also explore sustainable ways to uplift traditionally marginalised farming communities.

Links between traditional agriculture, biodiversity and economy

Does organic farming automatically amount to sustainable food production? During my PhD fieldwork, while researching how traditional agriculture in Odisha’s Koraput plateau influenced local biodiversity, I found that the answer to this question had many dimensions.

For example, while farming in the area was being carried out using traditional organic methods, whenever market prices fell, smallholder farmers felt pressured to intensify production to meet their basic needs. Most lacked the capital to invest in intensification using fertilisers, so they simply brought in more land under cultivation, sometimes by clear-cutting adjoining forests. 

So, while the produce could technically still be deemed as organic, there were environmental costs that were not immediately apparent. Such complexities need to be acknowledged when we talk about sustainability in food production.

Another lesson learned was how indigenous crops could significantly augment food security. Tubers and millets are great examples of crops grown with traditional methods in localised geographies whose aggregated effect on bolstering global food security is well-established.

Popular among farmers due to cultural affinity and relative ease of growing, they will gain more prominence on account of their climate-hardiness and nutritional benefits.

Agrobiodiversity is at the core of traditional agriculture, considering how different heirloom seeds and cultivars are needed to suit a variety of locales and microclimates. In this sense, localised agriculture enhances global food security by preserving the seed diversity required to give us alternatives in cases of pesticide resistance and disease outbreaks in monoculture farming. 

Local agriculture initiatives for promoting climate resiliency 

Local agriculture initiatives also strengthen global food systems by shortening farm-to-fork distances. This is not inimical to global commerce, as during COVID-19 when the global food supply system was disrupted, people could only buy what was available locally.

That showed us that no matter how strong or resilient the global food production system might seem to be, in the era of extreme natural disasters and climate change, we need a combination of global and local food production systems to create food resilience. 

Speaking of climate-resilient local crops, here is a success story. Last year, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations designated 2023 as the International Year of Millets. This was the culmination of a decades-long effort by multiple regional and local organisations to highlight the climate-adaptive and nutritional benefits of millets. 

But long before this, Odisha government had also officially launched the Odisha Millet Mission to promote millets in farms and on plates. This resulted in a multi-stakeholder coordinated synergy to better understand these climate-resilient, nutritionally, environmentally and ethically good crops and identify gaps in their cultivation and distribution. 

All this goes on to show how far we have come in terms of local agricultural efforts gaining mainstream acceptance. However, it is too early to say that these efforts have already transformed global food systems significantly. What we see for now is a lot of promise and potential to create more sustainable food systems, which is our collective challenge to meet.

Another intrinsic challenge to sustainable food systems has less to do with agriculture and more with consumption. Let’s take the case of tuber crops or millets again. As their popularity grows globally, competition will drive their prices down. There might then be pressure on stakeholders in the supply chain to further reduce prices, which at the farm level often leads to the externalisation of environmental costs. 

These super crops have the same potential to be grown unsustainably as any other crop. This has been an inherent challenge in scaling sustainable agricultural initiatives. 

Tackling environmental variables with technology

Scaling successful models in farming has been tricky because of the sheer number of environmental variables, due to which no single solution fits all contexts. Farmers in Jharkhand may not be able to grow a certain variety of sweet potatoes with the methods that have proven successful for Koraput farmers in southern Odisha. Methods must be customised based on soil, elevation and many other parameters.

In my experience, what works best is to streamline and democratise information flow amongst all stakeholders. For instance, at our food production company, Mati Farms, we achieved this by bringing far-flung farmers from different geographies who were growing the same crop under one umbrella and creating WhatsApp groups. 

After a few cycles, farmers learn what works best for them; we only provide information connected to weather data and soil analysis that they cannot access.

Historically, farmers from a particular geography have coordinated and exchanged knowledge. Technological innovations that can mimic this at a macroscale and integrate climate analysis will help to deal with climate extremes in the future. Climate-smart agriculture will go a long way towards augmenting food security.

Now, however, scaling food production sustainably to meet global demand is the defining challenge of our times and one we must meet quickly. The UN, in fact, projects that more than 600 million people worldwide will be facing hunger by 2030. 

It is important to underscore here that regenerative farming is not the only answer to global food insecurity, which has been increasing at an alarming rate since 2015. It can help mitigate damage to ecosystems, not restore them entirely. 

To care for our planet's health and eradicate hunger decisively, we need a sustained commitment to the SDGs. It is also a holistic strategy to empower farming communities with knowledge and tools to tackle climate change with smart and adaptive solutions.

Sanjog Sahu is the cofounder of Mati Farms & part of an initiative titled #GreenHustlers, focused on fostering a more inclusive and dynamic climate startup ecosystem in India.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.