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  • Deborah Dutta and C Shambu Prasad

Managing Sustainable Transitions: Ten Guiding Thoughts to Frame the Path Ahead

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

In this blog, C Shambu Prasad and Deborah Dutta explain the need for initiatives that enable sustainable transitions in the agrarian context and explore ideas that can kickstart the process. This article was originally published in AESA -"


Green Revolution practices characterised by input-dependent, fossil fuel-driven, monocropping methods have adversely impacted ecological systems, while also pushing farmers into debt due to the induced dependence on external inputs for agriculture. The input intensity has a deleterious effect on climate change with the agriculture sector being the largest consumer of scarce groundwater in India. To counter these trends, India has attempted or initiated several discussions and roadmaps towards sustainable food systems in recent times. These include policy directives to ‘Double Farmer Incomes’, the new “Vocal for Local’ and Atma Nirbhar Bharat, and NITI Aayog’s vocal commitment to spearhead natural farming initiatives across the country. These initiatives should also shift the goals of food production and provide some rethinking, even a reset in a few cases, of our food systems. As the Government of India readies itself for nation-wide food systems dialogues it might be pertinent to situate some of the discussions with alternative discourses for the future, especially following the Covid 19 pandemic.

Enabling Sustainable Transitions

Among the many discussion starters, the United Nations and FAO’s Track 4’s is important for its emphasis on the key problem - namely removing inequality and power imbalances. The need for equitable access to livelihoods and its fundamental connections with sustainable food production systems is well articulated. A fuller expression of these initiatives however cannot happen without a significant rethinking of the relations between producers and consumers in food systems.

We suggest that while there are many technical solutions that exist, and many more are being discovered by both researchers and practitioners and farmers there is a greater need for institutional reform to align organisations towards these objectives or goals. A commitment to shift dominant paradigms of food production or managing sustainable transitions in short. While most of the transitions literature is focused on urban systems, India has a unique advantage of being in a vantage position to lead this transition in agriculture given both the knowledge and its large farming community. Here, we briefly discuss ten pointers to enable sustainable transitions.

Ten Guiding Thoughts

1.Reversing unsustainable practices

It would be futile to continue proposing alternatives unless dominant, unsustainable practices are simultaneously curbed. This entails slowly dismantling the socio-economic and institutional arrangements that support such practices. Policy nudges that incentivise use of organic nutrients, multi-cropping systems, cut back on pesticide and fertiliser subsidies could help level the playing field for alternate practices to become economically viable.

2.Recognising multiple pathways and constructive synergies

Rather than design for a ‘one nation one everything’, or the grassroots version of a bad design, ‘one district one product’ it is imperative that plurality of approaches is encouraged. Food systems are often that are embedded in particularities of regional geography and a diverse set of practices that could include shifting cultivation, dry grain complex, natural farming, pre-monsoon dry sowing, regional water conservation methods and so on. Rather than follow a blue-print approach of any particular alternate practice, it is important to acknowledge specificities and encourage regional adaption and innovation.

3.Promoting knowledge dialogue and interdisciplinary collaboration

Institutions that are supposed to foster such innovations in thinking and practice are often locked into old approaches of intervention. On the other hand, practitioners having the most valuable knowledge and experience may not exist within formal institutions and state-led extension services. These actors must be supported in explicit ways with formal institutional arrangements to enable transition into sustainable food systems. An example is the Odisha Learning Alliance, a network of multiple stakeholders who approached the problem of food security and its alternative, the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) together and were facilitated to work across silos.

4.Partnering with civil society initiatives focusing on agro-ecology

Initiatives such as APZBNF and the Odisha Millet Mission are examples of how Governments can work with farmers and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs)to upscale alternatives by creating a critical pool of local resource experts and facilitating linkages with public distribution systems (PDS) or FPOs. Academic institutions need to see themselves as facilitators of knowledge dialogues and broker connections between diverse knowledge sources. Marginalised pioneers and creative dissenters within the establishment need to be recognised and supported in pro-active ways. Networks have an important role in this.

5.Strengthening local institutions

The sheer scale of expected transition demands dynamic, decentralised and situationally-responsive measures, none of which are possible through top-down bureaucratic channels due to the cost and time lag. Instead, local institutions need to be empowered and encouraged to form stable partnerships with grassroots organisations. Hyper-local market linkages and supply systems need to be built that can favour small and marginal farmers.

6.Strengthening adaptive capacities of vulnerable communities

Collective institutions need to be strengthened and invested in as they have the potential to address the critical issue of inequality of power relations in the market. Building capacities of these institutions takes both investment and time, especially if they are to enable the critical investments in capacities. Most vulnerabilities and shocks are responded to by enhancing the adaptive capacities of vulnerable communities.

7.Building a critically-conscious consumer base

Concerted efforts are needed to empower consumers to make conscious choices through supporting local agricultural initiatives. Critical awareness programmes and options can be designed to help consumers create demands that are ecologically responsive and offer fair price to farmers. Across the world, many community-supported agriculture projects can offer interesting design insights. A small number of initiatives are also gaining popularity in major metropolitan cities of India.

8.Governance structures to support small-scale urban agriculture

Rural and urban access to nutritious food can be increased through creating small, kitchen gardens for personal consumption. Integrated farming is also a promising avenue to supplement nutritional and income requirements, as documented in many case studies.

9.Reskilling in Agriculture

A neglected dimension of agroecology is its potential to reverse the continued deskilling in agriculture and providing spaces for newer skills. The education system needs to be framed in ways that value practical skills and labour, as opposed to relegating them as vocational subjects. The artificial dichotomy between intellectual and manual labour has a role in creating livelihood aspirations and societal status. This should be challenged through systematic reforms in the curricula with a discerning approach to avoid being co-opted by other agendas. The Natural Farming Fellow in Andhra Pradesh is an excellent example of agriculture graduates finding their mojo by returning to farms and demonstrating newer skills.

10.Rethinking food system goals

Finally, healing must begin by re-embedding local economies in ecosystems, increasing business accountability, and strengthening democratic structures. Newer health, economic and food system goals must be defined based on ecological wellbeing and flourishing rather than abstract figures that are supposed to indicate GDP.

These ideas are not sequential but synergistic and it is hoped that the renewed focus on food systems will help us rethink agriculture for a climate-stressed world. Operationalising these ideas require the creative facilitation of generative dialogues across different stakeholders and institutions. The wicked sprints by Socratus shows promise in applying in practice systems thinking to collective problem-solving. Managing sustainable transitions will need institutional innovations of various kinds that could lead to empowered civic action bodies, farmer collectives and social enterprises.


Prof Shambu is a Professor of Strategic Management and Social Sciences at IRMA. Deborah Dutta is a senior research fellow at IRMA, and is involved in a project titled 'Living Farm Incomes'.

1 Comment
Aug 01, 2021

Truly these are like10 commandents for sustainable transition. Re-skilling of agriculture and creating critically conscious consumers are the toughest tasks. Suitable policy measures and responsible governance of natural resources are very much needed to drive the transition.

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