India faces an urgent need to ensure food and nutrition security for a growing population, while also securing sustainable livelihoods and responding to urgent climate needs. However, these different and urgent needs can often compete with or crowd out each other.

Here, Forum's Principal Strategist Hansika Singh makes the case for systems thinking to achieve food security resilient food systems in India.

Reeling from the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are entering an age of what many are now calling a poly-crisis. Particularly in many parts of Asia, we are already living in it – described by UNICEF as ‘the presence of multiple near- simultaneous shocks, with strong interdependencies among them, taking place in an ever-more integrated world’, Asia has seen increasingly visible effects of climate change (such as the 2022 floods in Pakistan) that intersect with existing challenges from exacerbating economic inequality, rising hunger, geopolitical instability, ecosystem degradation to growing inflation, among many others.

In this context, India’s food system faces obstacles on many fronts. On one hand, its agriculture system which accounts for a large proportion of food production in the country is battling inconsistent crop yields and declining productivity, increasing the precarity of farmers’ lives and livelihoods. On the other hand, in food consumption, we are witnessing a simultaneous prevalence of undernourishment, overnutrition, and micronutrient deficiencies in the country. 

India faces an urgent need to ensure food and nutrition security for a growing population, while also securing sustainable livelihoods and responding to urgent climate needs—building adaptive capacity in ecosystems and communities, as well as strategically leveraging on mitigation opportunities. In the current economic, political, and social paradigm, however, these different and urgent needs can often compete with or crowd out each other.

Rethinking our approach to interrelated challenges

To balance out these urgent yet seemingly competing needs, India needs to adopt a food systems lens as it approaches these challenges. In the last decade, the world over, there have been calls to shift from a siloed and linear approach of responding to food and nutrition-related challenges, to a systems-based approach. In simple terms, “food systems”, according to the OECD, refer to ‘all the elements and activities related to producing and consuming food, and their effects, including economic, health, and environmental outcomes.’

The framing of food systems has evolved in the last few decades as a response to the growing need for a more holistic framework to address the complex issues that underpin the production, distribution, and consumption of food. These issues are traditionally analysed in isolation, often with the intent of improving the efficiency of a particular element or activity. All of this is based on the assumption that improved efficiencies at these smaller scales and levels will contribute to the efficiency of the whole system.

However, we are increasingly finding evidence that contradicts this assumption – for example, monoculture- based agriculture systems are great at driving yield maximisation but over a long period of time they can strip soil of essential nutrients, deplete natural resources like water, and impact biodiversity in a landscape.

Rethinking food security in India: beyond the dominant narrative

Food security, as defined by the United Nations Committee on World Food Security, means that all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life. Amartya Sen has written extensively about the impact of the colonial experience compounded by market failures leading to the famines in pre-independence India. In some ways, the formation of the Indian nation-state was happening in the backdrop of food insecurity; hence the need for food security has dominated the discourse around food since independence.

In the first few decades of independence, the focus on green revolution crops and an ‘irrigation at all costs’ mindset continued to dominate the policy landscape, undermining traditional and rainfed sustainable agriculture practices. Even today, food and nutrition remain a big challenge that India faces. According to worldometer statistics, India is the largest source of undernourished people in the world, with around 194.4 million people or 14.37% of its population not receiving enough nutrition. We also have one of the worst rates of child malnutrition in the world (about one-third of malnourished children globally are from India).

Most Indians also have a strong emotional connection with the food security narrative. My own earliest memory of hearing the narrative of ‘food security’ was listening to my father talk about it when I was a child. He would often share stories from his own childhood in the 1960s about how India needed to get the PL480 wheat aid from the US due to food shortages. He would also often describe his experience of growing up in an agrarian household in east UP, where grain shortages would force them to eat a particular variety of coarse millet for entire seasons, which would leave their mouths sore for long periods. It would not be a far stretch to bet that most Indian families have narrated or heard a version of this story in the last one to two generations, and ‘food insecurity’ is a very recent lived experience and embodied memory for most Indians.

It is no surprise then that food security ends up dominating discourse despite the multiple challenges in the food system. As a result, yield maximisation remains the sole focus of most state policies and scientific experts. However, it is time that we start enriching the food security narrative by focusing on other indicators as well, such as nutrition security and resilience of the food system.

Beyond hunger: systemic issues in India’s food system

India’s food system is a microcosm of its growth story; many of the paradoxes and tensions of the growth story can be observed in the challenges of the food system. The Green Revolution in the 1970s followed by the liberalisation of the Indian economy in the 1990s shepherded India onto a path of high growth. Since the beginning of the 2000s, India’s per capita has jumped seven times (From INR 18,667 in 2000- 01 to INR 1,28,829 in 2020-21).

However, the top 10% of the Indian population holds 77% of the total national wealth, suggesting that the growth process has been highly inequitable. Some states benefited over others and some historically marginalised groups were further excluded from the growth process. For instance, in a small-farm dominant country like India, inadequate infrastructure and a lack of institutional support have excluded many smallholders from benefiting from the growth process. Looking ahead, this unequal growth combined with increasing climate change challenges threatens India’s ability to sustainably and equitably manage an economic and nutrition transformation.

The nutrition challenge is also not a straightforward one, with the simultaneous prevalence of undernourishment, overnutrition, and micronutrient deficiencies. On one hand, India’s rate of the annual increase in adult obesity is “very high” at 5.2% and that of child obesity is also “very high” at 9.1%; on the other hand, 35.5% of India’s children under the age of 5 are stunted and 32.1% are underweight. 

The net increase in disposable income coexists with the slow developments in public health and education adding to the overall precarity of large sections of society. This is visible in macro indicators like our 132nd rank in the Human Development Index among 191 countries, as well as specific indicators like hospital bed availability where we rank 155th out of 167 countries.

These have direct and indirect implications for the nutrition issues facing India. Climate change is emerging to be the biggest systemic risk facing the food system. Climate change’s impact on the food system will push millions of Indians towards hunger by 2030 due to a decline in agricultural production and disruption in the food supply chain. According to IPCC estimates, climate change impacts have already reduced wheat yields by 5.2% from 1981 to 2009, despite adaptation.

Research from different states is also increasingly confirming this. A study in Karnataka shows how extreme temperatures can majorly affect crop yield/ productivity; a study from Odisha shows an increase in malnutrition due to natural calamities and disasters. Media reports also are increasingly talking about the impacts of unseasonal rainfall and/or heatwaves, affecting crop production and leading to price increases. Research indicates that the balancing impact of carbon fertilisation can negate the negative effects of global warming on agricultural output in India and that rising carbon dioxide levels can boost crop yields. Hence, decarbonisation of the food system should also be a co-benefit that India must strive for among other priorities, to contribute to the resilience and productivity of its agriculture system.

Despite the amount of evidence, most conversations focusing on the impact of climate change on food production and food security can be perceived as elitist, because they often involve discussions about adopting more sustainable farming practices and shifting dietary patterns like meat eating. These topics can come across as dismissive of cultural and traditional practices that have been integral to the food system for centuries. We need to lean into these multiple questions and tensions of the food system instead of trying to reduce complexity into neat boxes. India is in no position to pick up one or a few critical issues of the food system and then try to prioritise responding to those in a linear or hierarchical order.

From silos to systems

It is clear from the previous sections that combined with non-climate stresses on food, climate change will shake the pillars of food security as identified by IPCC, namely: availability, access, utilisation, and stability. Addressing these impacts and securing our food security will require us to balance the dominant narrative on food security with emerging facts, and to acknowledge that parameters outside of yield maximisation like nutrition and climate resilience are key to our food system’s sustainability. If we truly want our ‘solutions’ to avoid unintended consequences and negative impacts on life, we need to shift our ways of thinking and embrace the entirety of the complex web of issues.

The appropriate approach to go about these food system challenges would be to start with the acknowledgment that we are in the territory of what is rightly termed as ‘wicked problems’. Wicked problems have innumerable causes, are hard to describe, they do not have one right answer. Most importantly, the way a wicked problem is framed plays a key role in determining its possible solutions. To be able to serve the issues that will have the biggest human impact, India’s food system – much like the rest of South Asia and Asia – will need to bring a systemic lens into the way these challenges are framed and responded to.

Taking systems thinking-based approach means different ways of seeing the world, relating to people and issues of a system, embracing complexity, shifting power structures, and altering our deeply held beliefs.

These are five ways in which we can bring a more systemic approach to the food system transformation that is unfolding in India. These are by no means exhaustive, but provide good starting points to move away from the siloed approaches we are currently used to.

1. Understanding and shifting the goals of the food system: To transform India’s food systems, the first step is to discuss its goals. Initially, our focus was on transitioning from a deficit food system in the mid-1950s to a self-reliant and marginally surplus system. However, this emphasis on production has led to the depletion of natural resources and negative human impacts, such as the health costs of pesticide use. Moving forward, India’s food system should aim to achieve multiple goals, including providing affordable nutritious diets for all, implementing decarbonized and ecologically sustainable land use, ensuring equity, and fostering resilience for farmers and workers.

2. Building adaptive capacity and resilience simultaneously: Solutions must incorporate the simultaneous building of adaptive capacity in human and ecological systems, as well as resilience across the food system, to be effective. This requires shifting from a dominant commodity paradigm to a landscape-focused regenerative approach and moving away from inherited value chain models that prioritise shareholders. Instead, the focus should be on socially just and ecologically safe outcomes for all stakeholders and rights-holders. It is essential for various stakeholders in India’s food system to recognize these diverse needs and work together to avoid repeating patterns that have contributed to current challenges.

For instance, increasing millet production can be achieved without negative unintended consequences, such as using water-intensive hybrid varieties or causing food inflation for marginalised groups who rely on millet for nutrition. To derive social and ecological benefits from increased millet production, the process and approach must align with the vision of different stakeholders, including farmers, policymakers, market actors, and consumers.

3. Working at different levels and redesigning our institutions: Taking a systemic lens requires working simultaneously at different levels of the food system. This includes shifting consumer narratives, addressing infrastructure gaps in value chains, and implementing policies that protect safety nets while creating incentives for transition. These actions will establish reinforcing feedback loops necessary for a deep and urgent transformation of the food system. Additionally, a systems approach involves reimagining and redesigning institutions. In the context of India’s food system, creating synergies between safety net programs like the Public Distribution System (PDS) and schemes under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) is essential. Furthermore, supporting farmers in the transition requires agriculture extension services that prioritize multiple goals for the food system.

4. Reorienting technology and finance from its focus on efficiency alone: India’s technology ecosystem is thriving, and its impact is evident in the food system. Food delivery startups and agritech startups are on the rise, while technological innovations are improving various aspects of the food value chain. Organisations like Digital Green are developing digital solutions for rural communities. However, current technology focus mainly improves existing system efficiency, while urgent food system goals require aligning technology with future needs. Transforming the food system necessitates patient capital and accelerated financial mechanisms, as an estimated US$300 – US$350 billion investment is needed. The finance system’s perception of high risk and neglect of negative externalities calls for fundamental shifts in food system financing for a future-fit approach.

5. Strengthening food system governance: Strengthening food system governance requires addressing the power dynamics in decision-making. Currently, marginalised groups such as women, small-holder farmers, migrant labourers, and indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by decisions related to food production, distribution, and consumption, undermining their vital role in the food system. To avoid perpetuating old problems with supposed new solutions, it is necessary to actively shift and redistribute power while establishing effective governance structures.

To support the shift towards building adaptive capacity and resilience at a broader landscape level, appropriate governance is essential. Existing institutions should evolve to promote better collective action concerning land, water, and knowledge commons in the food system transformation. Answering these questions is crucial for strengthening food governance, ensuring diverse perspectives are represented, addressing power imbalances, functioning amid uncertainty, and incorporating learning and agility into processes.

Embracing complexity to navigate change

The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the interconnected nature of risks and their potential for cascading effects. Supply chain disruptions, migrant labour crises, economic decline, deteriorating mental health, and the spread of misinformation were all intertwined outcomes of the pandemic. The intensifying climate crisis poses similar risks, with potential tipping points that could severely impact systems like the food system. Failing to adopt a systems approach to address food system challenges will incur significant and escalating costs.

In India, engaging with diverse perspectives across political aisles is a crucial first step in responding to the multifaceted needs and goals of the food system. Instead of solving isolated problems, we must embrace the complexity of the food system to achieve an inclusive, nutrition-secure, regenerative, and resilient transformation. Ultimately, the choice lies between navigating change piecemeal or embracing complexity to build a food system that benefits everyone.

So, I leave you with a seemingly simple question: Will we continue to navigate change with a piecemeal approach, or will we embrace complexity to build a food system that serves us all?

Hansika Singh is a Principal Strategist at Forum for the Future India. With extensive experience in transformative systems change, she has led projects and initiatives across key systems such as Food, Energy, and Land-based commodities. Hansika is a seasoned change practitioner collaborating with business, government, and civil society stakeholders to address complex sustainability challenges. She holds a Master’s degree in Development from Azim Premji University, specialising in sustainability.

This article first appeared in Climate Action for India, created by Tedx Bangalore and published by egomonk. It is republished here under Creative Commons license CC BY-ND 4.0.

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