Can agroecology pave the path for India’s agricultural transformation?
India's agriculture sector is at the cusp of a profound transformation that could revolutionise how we grow and consume food. The recent Agroecology Donor Convening from 10-11 August 2023 in Bangalore sought to understand the diverse roles that stakeholders need to invest in to support sustainable food system transitions. The inspiring journey of farmers, along with insights and recommendations from donors and CSOs, shed light on agroecology’s potential to reshape India's agricultural landscape.
Building momentum for agroecological practices in India
Agroecology is a multifaceted cluster of practices aims to incorporate ideas about a more environmentally and socially sensitive approach to agriculture with a focus on ecological sustainability. While India is home to diverse forms of agroecological initiatives at different scales, there is a growing need for a sustained push and direction to mainstream agroecological practices. The Bharat Agroecology Fund, committed to supporting local leadership and governance towards promoting agroecology, held a convention. It was a donor-focused event where other stakeholders were invited to give their perspectives to help build donor awareness and interest in agroecology. The discussions revealed that merely increasing fund availability is insufficient to enable the much-needed sustainable transition. A longer-term, collaborative multi-stakeholder investment is critical for transformative change. Donors need to engage with grassroots leaders, build community trust, and adopt accounting systems conducive to ecosystem-level initiatives. Monitoring and evaluation should shift towards processes that seek to understand and value the interconnected nature of health, nutrition, and local economy rather than focusing solely on production metrics.
The compelling narratives and experiences shared by farmer participants helped stakeholders empathise with the challenges faced on the ground. Bhairab Saini, hailing from West Bengal, owns approximately four acres of land where he cultivates grains, pulses, and rice. He is also deeply committed to conserving traditional rice varieties and has pioneered innovative multi-layer farming models. The young national award-winning Akash Chaurasia, based in Madhya Pradesh, not only manages diverse crops through multilayer farming through his popular Youtube channel that has inspired farmers like Basrahat Ahmed in remote Mirzapur to adapt these methods on his farm, following his return to his village after being a mechanic in the Middle East.
Bhairab Saini’s agroecological journey was a two-decade-long commitment to promoting organic and ecological farming practices and conserving traditional seeds, including over 120 varieties of rice. Agroecology, he believes, can enhance crop health and community well-being. Chaurasia, driven by a desire to improve human health through better diets and nutrition, suggested that agroecological methods could address multiple ecological issues, such as biodiversity loss, soil health degradation, and declining water availability, while offering improved economic returns for farmers.
Transitioning to agroecology is not without its difficulties. Chaurasia mentioned the lack of acceptance, limited resources (including seeds and water), and the absence of a market for agroecological produce as challenges. For Saini, finding buyers willing to pay fair prices for the efforts and quality was a challenge, and he depends on his personal networks, an advantage not all farmers enjoy. To a question posed on the availability of food for the nation through agroecology or organic or natural farming, Saini remarked,
‘We farmers can ensure enough production for everyone’s survival, but access to it and no one dying of hunger is another ball game of the country's politics that we all have to solve together’.
Long-term investments and collaboration can push agroecology transformation. Donors were reminded that their influence extends beyond financial support, impacting policy, advocacy, and innovation. With 60% of the Indian economy linked to agriculture, the sector's reform can have a significant climate-positive impact.
“We have to start the conversations; there are distinct and impactful efforts by different actors, but they are not strategically aligned. In order to scale up, all actors have to come together from different sectors such as funders, implementers, community and farmers to draw roadmaps that could push this (scale of agroecology) going forward”- Shloka Nath, ICC
Agroecology can empower rural youth
The average age of the Indian farmer has crossed 50, despite Indian youth comprising over 40% of its population. Reskilling youth to overcome the embedded risks in agriculture, compounded by the uncertainties of climate change, is critical to attracting youngsters towards farming. As the majority seek job security in urban areas, generations of experiential knowledge possessed by farmers are at risk of being lost. The question is, should only rural youth bear the burden of the risk and its consequences? There is a need to encourage youth participation in agroecology by promoting better returns and amplifying knowledge about natural farming practices, technology, and seeds.
“Agriculture should be a glamorous profession that should attract the youth of our country, and we have to create that glamour as a leader”- says Akash Chaurasia.
Policy Driving Agroecology –View of the Government
The Natural Farming Movement in Andhra Pradesh by the Rythu Sadhikara Samstha (RySS) shows the importance of the government's push in such movements for landscape-level transition. It started as a solution to the recurrent issue of drought and distress. A key element of the program design is leveraging the power of women collectives in the state and acknowledging the role of women in agroecology. The new JIVA programme of NABARD aims to use principles of agroecology to attain long-term sustainability and social and natural transformation. They define diversified crop systems, multi-tiered cropping, farmer-led extension, the use of natural manure, and the internalisation of markets as the five pillars of agroecology. In the collaborative efforts with the government, the donor's role could be exchanging knowledge and learnings from their experiences to avoid duplication of efforts. Funders can play supplementary roles by bridging capacity gaps for policymakers by creating collaborative multi-stakeholder platforms, strengthening CSO capacities, and documenting organisational learning. This movement should start with farmer leaders from communities who can play an essential role in spreading the message. Market demand is the critical factor where the government and each stakeholder must support communities to identify opportunities.
Paving the path for a resilient future
Conversations at the Donor Forum underscored the importance of continued support, collaboration, and policy advocacy to ensure the success of agroecology for India’s greener future.
‘Food and our food systems are at the core of a lot of economic activities and have a huge impact on what happens to our health, to economic outcomes, and our river systems….. So, irrespective of what you are doing, there is a link to agroecology whether you like it or not” - Sameer Shisodia, Rainmatter Foundation.
With this, the next steps involve a commitment to long-term investments and partnerships, collaboration with local stakeholders, advocacy for favourable policies, awareness-raising, comprehensive measurement frameworks, and support for research, innovation, and market linkages. With concerted efforts, India's agriculture sector can embrace agroecology and pave the way for a sustainable and resilient future for everyone.
Sayali Dongare is the Fund Administrator at Bharat Agroecology Fund. Hailing from a farmer family in Maharashtra, she is keenly involved in sustainable rural development initiatives.
Min (Minhaj Ameen) works at the Agroecology Fund and its sister initiative Bharat Agroecology Fund in India. He engages with diverse stakeholders to transform the Indian agriculture system through agroecology.