Mar 23, 2023

Feeding India sustainably: Overcoming the next set of challenges in agriculture

Manan Dhanuka,  PGDM-2022 - 2024

India had a mounting hunger crisis immediately after gaining independence and struggled to produce enough food for the citizens. A string of droughts made things worse, causing devastating famines. So, the government stepped in to modernise farming to increase food supply, in what came to be known as “Green Revolution”. Soon we went from having a food crisis to having a food surplus.

Since India’s independence, the government’s agricultural policy has been driven by the priority to achieve food security at all costs. The “Green Revolution” helped us reach this goal. But we realised this goal at the cost of extremely unsustainable farming practices in the granaries of Punjab, Haryana, Western UP, and North Rajasthan (Phansalkar S, 2022).

Agriculture in India — Resource-intensive, cereal centric, and regionally biased

Green Revolution has ended up causing an overuse of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and irrigation. While this increased the crop yields in the short run, it has ended up causing large plots of lands to become infertile in the long run. This also has led to aquifers, which hold groundwater, getting severely depleted. It is estimated that a third of the country’s aquifers are being pumped much faster than they can replenish (McCarthy J, 2021).

The share of wheat, rice, and other cereals is a whopping 52% of all crops grown in India, which is the outcome of India’s food policy that remains “pro-cereal”. The country devotes lakhs of crores to producing wheat and rice, then tries to figure out how to store them and get rid of a lot of them later (Patnaik I, 2020). Stability of prices determines what incentivises farmers. With subsidised inputs such as fertilizers, power, and water and an assurance by the government to purchase output at the MSP (Minimum Support Price), it is more attractive for farmers to produce wheat and rice than vegetables. They get a more stable return. The monoculture of crops like wheat and rice, however, contributes to a lack of crop diversity, leading to a need for chemical fertilizers to compensate for soil nutrient depletion, which can have negative impacts on soil health and water resources. These water-intensive crops also require larger amounts of irrigation, as compared to other alternatives, leading to depletion of groundwater resources, and the excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides pollutes soil and water resources, leading to environmental degradation.

Agriculture in India is also geographically concentrated with Punjab and Haryana leading the race. Despite covering only 1.53% of its geographical area, Punjab makes up for about 15–20% of India’s wheat production, around 12% of its rice production, and around 10% of its milk production, and is known as India’s breadbasket (Punjab News Express, 2023). This places enormous pressure on the resources in these areas to feed the entire country.

Sustainable agriculture: The way forward

Though the Green Revolution helped India achieve self-sufficiency in food grain production, but it also led to several negative impacts on the environment and the sustainability of agriculture. The excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, depletion of groundwater resources, and soil degradation are some of the major issues that need to be addressed through sustainable agriculture practices. There is a need to diversify crops, reduce dependence on chemical inputs, promote efficient use of resources, and adopt climate-smart farming practices to ensure the long-term sustainability of Indian agriculture. It is vital to ensure India’s nutrition security in a climate-constrained world.

The challenges ahead

Sustainable agriculture is far from mainstream in India, with most sustainable agricultural practices being practised by less than five million (or four percent) of all farmers. This is because the adoption of sustainable agriculture faces some real hurdles.

Five key challenges need to be overcome for sustainable farming to be widely adopted in India (Phansalkar S, 2022).

  1. Drop in yields: It is currently difficult to move to sustainable agricultural practices from resource-intensive farming without seeing a visible drop in crop yields. They also might require an increase in costs. This is also in part because the current inputs which are intensively required like water and fertilizers are heavily subsidised by the government.
  2. Increased workload: Many practices also increase the workload of farmers which either requires hiring additional help or doing the additional work themselves.
  3. Availability and access to necessary materials: Many of the inputs required for sustainable agriculture are also not widely available and accessible. This is also in part because of their lower demand due to the other challenges faced in the adoption of sustainable agriculture.
  4. Overall food sufficiency: Large-scale migration to sustainable farming or even a shift away from paddy-wheat-paddy crop cycles could threaten the price stability as well as the food surplus in cereals in India. This is one of the reasons government policies still support unsustainable agricultural practices.
  5. Politics: Most economists agree that the best way to help farm households is through direct income transfer schemes. Neither minimum support price on crops nor waiver of loans or subsidies on inputs makes economic sense. Yet no government has had the will to make these changes because of various political factors at play.

Tackling the challenges to sustainable agriculture

However much challenging it is to adopt sustainable agriculture immediately, it is also not conducive to continue with our current unsustainable ways in the long run. Hence, we must find ways to solve the challenges.

Adopting the following methods will help tackle the challenges (Gupta N, 2021).

  • Innovating new technologies that improve yield: There have been breakthroughs that have the potential to improve the yield of crops like using multispectral imaging in agriculture and gathering data using drones. To innovate new feasible and viable technologies requires investment in research and development and to ensure their widespread adoption would also require knowledge exchange and capacity building among farmers.
  • Automating or reducing the effort for sustainable practices: Mechanisation for various input preparations, weed removal, or harvesting in a mixed cropping field is not mainstream. Hence, sustainable agriculture practices and systems are labour-intensive, which hinders their adoption. Reducing the effort and costs involved can drive significant adoption among farmers.
  • Restructuring government support to farmers: Aligning incentives towards resource conservation while rewarding outcomes (like farm productivity) instead of encouraging resource-intensive cultivation through input-based subsidies will allow many sustainable farming approaches to flourish.
  • Generating long-term comparative assessments: Supporting rigorous evidence generation through long-term comparative assessment (between resource-intensive and sustainable agriculture) will also go a long way to convince various stakeholders for urgent action.
  • Promoting agroecological practices: Agroecological practices promote sustainable farming practices that are based on ecological principles, such as crop rotation, intercropping, and natural pest management. Promoting such practices can reduce the dependence on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, thus reducing environmental impact.
  • Enhancing agricultural infrastructure: Improving agricultural infrastructure such as irrigation facilities, storage facilities, and market linkages can reduce post-harvest losses, increase the availability of food, and improve farmers’ incomes.

Conclusion: Bullish on the India growth story

India has come a long way since its independence 75 years ago. It has gone from being one of the poorest countries in the world to becoming the world’s fifth largest economy and more than $3 trillion in GDP. This transformation has brought out millions out of poverty, created new opportunities and hopes and is a testament to the strength and determination of the Indian people.

The Green Revolution has been criticised a lot because of its environmental impact and rightfully so. But it is also responsible for giving India food security which was the need of the hour. It stands as a living example of what we as a country can achieve if we put our hearts and minds to it.

I am confident that we can meet the need of sustainably feeding India, but achieving this goal requires us to unite and tackle the problem head-on through various spheres of influence that we exert as voters, consumers, corporate citizens, investors, and other stakeholders.


Phansalkar,S. (2022 February 08). The lack of sustainable farming prospects in India.

McCarthy, J. (2021 February 26). Groundwater Loss in India Threatens Millions of Farmers’ Ability to Grow Food.,%2C%2090%25%20goes%20to%20agriculture.

Patnaik, I. (2020 February 28). How India can stop over-producing cereals & give people what they want — veggies, dal, meat.

Punjab News Express. (2023 March 04). Punjab emerging as Food Processing Hub: Chetan Singh Jauramajra.

Gupta N. (2021 July 17). Sustainable Agriculture: What we know and how to scale up.

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