Author : Nilanjan Ghosh

Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Dec 23, 2020
Human economic ambitions have led to such interventions over the natural ecosystem that it has impaired the ecosystem processes and the capacity of ecosystem to provide the very critical “provisioning service” — food.
An ecosystemic delineation of food security for South Asia This article is part of the series — Post-Pandemic Development Priorities.

The state of “zero hunger” as delineated by SDG 2, has a broader implication than what is often perceived as “food security” in terms of its reductionist delineation through food production only. The inadequacy of such reductionism was highlighted by famines in colonial South Asia (eg., Bengal famine of 1943), and many other parts of the underdeveloped world in the last century. Therefore, the United Nations’ Committee on World Food Security defined food security as the state where “… 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.” This definition has many aspects embedded in it: first, it entails the food production aspect to ensure that adequate food is available; second, it embraces the aspect of equity and distribution intertwined in its various forms so that access to food is ensured; and third, it highlights the sustainability of the production and the distribution processes so that food availability and access are ensured “… for all people, at all times.”

Hunger in South Asia

Population in South Asia is growing at the rate of 1.5 percent per annum, and agricultural production growth at 2.5-3 per cent per annum over the last decade has been keeping pace with the demographic trends, thereby, creating the necessary provision for food. Yet, the global hunger index (GHI) of the South Asian region is one of the worst in the world, second only to sub-Saharan Africa. The improvements over the last two decades have been marginal: the GHI of 38.2 (falling in the classification of “alarming” that ranges between 35 and 49.9) during the beginning of the millennium has declined to 26 (still falling in the classification of “serious” that ranges between 20 and 34.9) in 2020 in South Asia. During the same period, GHI in sub-Saharan Africa declined from 42.7 to 27.8, while the same for Europe and Central Asia decline from 13.5 (falling in the classification of “moderate” that ranges between 10 and 19.9) to 5.8 (falling in the classification of “low”).

The global hunger index (GHI) of the South Asian region is one of the worst in the world, second only to sub-Saharan Africa.

This implies that the inherent age-old problems of distribution in terms of access still loom large for South Asia. Though India’s National Food Security Act 2013 emphasises defining certain target groups and highlights the importance of distribution, the condition in India is worse than most of the other South Asian nations. India ranks at 94, behind Sri Lanka (64), Nepal (73), Bangladesh (75), and Pakistan (88) in terms of meeting with the food needs of its population. As such, the situation in India worsened with the lockdown as a consequence of the pandemic. The lockdown that essentially locked up the market forces brought to the fore the failure of the distribution system as also the critical role that markets played in offering the cushion in normal times when the distribution systems had been failing.

The natural capital base for food production

Another critical element that is often missed out in food security policies of most South Asian nations is the inextricable linkage between ecosystems and food. There is scant acknowledgement of the fact that of the entire range of services provided by the ecosystem, food provisioning is of utmost significance. This production aspect of food is largely explained by the fundamental dependence of agricultural systems on ecosystem functions and processes. It is the “natural capital” base that sustains the food production systems. The ecosystem provides water, forms the soil, enhances the soil fertility, organically helps in pest control, and eventually helps the production process with all these ecosystem services. Interestingly, what is often perceived as “damage” from a short-term economic perspective turns out to be a boon from the perspective of ecosystem services. The Ganges floodplains are a case in point. Apparently perceived as “flood damage,” the floodwater, upon receding, leaves behind rich silt and micronutrients that have helped in the natural creation of the most fertile agricultural land — also known as “rice bowl” of South Asia.

However, human economic ambitions have led to such interventions over the natural ecosystem that it has impaired the ecosystem processes and the capacity of ecosystem to provide this very critical “provisioning service” — food. There are many such examples in South Asia. The construction of the Farakka barrage on the Ganges has impeded the flow of sediments that created the Ganges delta. Apart from that, it has also impeded movement of fisheries that has affected a critical provisioning service of the ecosystem in terms of food and also fishermen’s livelihoods. Unsustainable agricultural expansions during the last century have caused widespread changes in land cover, watercourses, and aquifers; thereby degrading the ecosystems and restricting their ability to support some services, including food provisioning. In the Cauvery basin in south India, and the transboundary Teesta basin in India and Bangladesh, the manifold increases in acreages of irrigated paddy in response to increasing support price of paddy have resulted in water conflicts. More than that, unsustainbale use of fertilisers and pesticides have impaired the natural soil fertility in many parts of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh thereby resulting in decline in the natural long-run productivity. The legacy of the Green Revolution that focused on such resource-intensive practices, unsustainable land-use change causing deforestation, and forces of climate change add to the woes further.

Food security has so far been thought of as a linear and increasing function of water availability.

The core of the problem lies here: management of the agro-ecosystems is delinked from the broader landscape. Unsustainable land-use change causes crossing of the ecological thresholds that reduces the ecosystem resilience and restricts the sustainability of food provisioning. The critical knowledge gap here pertains to the relations between water and food. Food security has so far been thought of as a linear and increasing function of water availability. Experiences in the US and the EU have refuted such a claim! Rather, there has been spree of decommissioning of dams in the occident acknowledging the fact that the natural capital base needs to be restored for sustaining the ecological foundation of food security and other provisioning and regulating services.

Towards sustainability of food security

Though the concern of equity in the food security discourse has been highlighted many a time with concerns related to food distribution (which became even more prominent during the lockdown), the concern of sustainability of food security has hardly been discussed in South Asia. Green Revolution in India completely ignored this aspect, and even today the South Asian delineation of food security carries on that legacy. Solutions lie with better soil and water management practices that can lead to increased water and land productivity. Interventions like trade in “virtual water” (or agricultural imports) can indeed play a crucial role. As such, an integrated land-water-ecosystems management approach is of utmost need for South Asia to fully appreciate SDG 2 as a post-pandemic development priority.

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Nilanjan Ghosh

Nilanjan Ghosh

Dr. Nilanjan Ghosh is a Director at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), India. In that capacity, he heads two centres at the Foundation, namely, the ...

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