[Interview] Prabhu Pingali on the pathways to minimise tradeoffs between hunger reduction and climate mitigation

  • A zero-hunger, zero-carbon food system could minimise the trade-offs between hunger reduction and greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture by adopting effective climate mitigation strategies, says agricultural economist Prabhu Pingali.
  • In an interview with Mongabay-India, Pingali discusses the opportunities and challenges associated with a zero-carbon, zero-hunger food system as India pushes for climate action and tackles its population’s well-being.
  • While there are ongoing experiments with zero-carbon techniques and approaches used within food systems such as solar-powered irrigation systems, and improved water management systems for rice cultivation, there is a lack of a state or national-level approach.

Progress toward achieving Sustainable Development Goals on hunger reduction — without any change in current food production practices — will hinder India’s efforts to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and hold the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, says agricultural economist Prabhu Pingali.

“Over the past half a century, rising food-grain productivity in India has resulted in major progress in hunger reduction, at least in terms of calorie sufficiency. Staple grain-centric agricultural policies, especially price supports and input subsidies, contributed to the quantum leap in food grain supplies. However, we also saw a rapid degradation of the environmental resource base and rising greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions,” said Pingali, Director at Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition (TCI).

Pingali cautioned that under a business-as-usual scenario, the current push for doubling productivity will further aggravate these environmental and climate tradeoffs, but a “zero-hunger, zero-carbon” (ZHZC) food system could “explicitly minimise the trade-offs between hunger reduction and GHG emissions by adopting effective climate mitigation strategies.”

Zero-hunger, zero-carbon food system is one that pursues the goal of zero hunger through enhancing productivity growth while at the same time maintaining net-zero carbon emissions from agricultural production, processing and movement along the food value chain.

Agriculture is responsible for nearly 20% of India’s emissions, with livestock and rice cultivation its biggest contributors. Between 1990 and 2014, agricultural emissions rose 25%. Compounding its commitment to climate action by leaving forests intact and expanding plantations and land-based mitigation projects such as renewables, is India’s urgency to attend to the insidious nature of challenges of malnutrition and nutrient deficiencies.

Rice cultivation in the Kaveri delta. Agriculture is responsible for nearly 20% of India’s emissions, with livestock and rice cultivation its biggest contributors. Photo by Ricardo Martins/Wikimedia Commons.

While India has made substantial progress in hunger reduction in terms of meeting calorie requirements, its progress in reducing “hidden hunger”, that is micronutrient deficiencies, has been limited.

“As a result, we see stubbornly high levels of child stunting and wasting and high levels of anemia among adult women. At the same time, we are starting to observe rising obesity trends. Promoting food system diversity and enhancing access and affordability of nutrient-rich food for poor populations is an essential component of the strategy to address hidden hunger,” notes Pingali who has worked extensively on agriculture for nutrition for over 30 years.

“Investments in rural markets and value chain investments are crucial for enhancing the supply of diverse foods for urban and rural consumers. Also important, is an agricultural policy that shifts away from its traditional focus on staple grains to one that expands the food basket and ensures year-round supply. Finally, we need investments in clean drinking water, sanitation and other public health facilities in order to address the problem of child malnutrition and adult health,” he said.

Moving towards a zero-carbon food system speaks to opportunities available in the transitions including diversification of production systems. The rising demand for food diversity provides farmers with market-led incentives to diversify their production systems from their traditional focus on staple grains.

“Diversification out of paddy rice cultivation, in particular, could have significant climate mitigation benefits in terms of reducing methane emissions. For rice and wheat production systems there are opportunities to reduce carbon emissions through zero-tillage systems, better management of crop residues, more efficient use of fertilisers and water, and in general adopting smarter farming practices. There are also opportunities for promoting livestock husbandry and fodder management practices that are more climate-friendly,” said Pingali.

However, any climate solution that focuses exclusively on mitigation without addressing small farm adaptation to climate change will not be directly meeting the needs of marginal small farm communities. “Moreover, small farm communities need technical, financial and extension support for successfully adopting climate-friendly technologies. Marginalised agricultural communities bear the brunt of the adverse impacts of climate change. Rising temperatures adversely impact their crop yields, especially for those living in the drylands. Increased frequency of events such as floods and drought add to the riskiness of food production by small farmers on marginal lands,” he added.

India is currently in throes of a record-breaking heatwave, scorching its wheat harvest and raising concerns over the country’s offer to stem the food stock shortfall following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, even as the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) warned in a report of 40% of the world’s land being degraded in its quest for food and natural resources and currently nearly half of the world’s land area is under agriculture.

Meanwhile, another UN report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, on climate mitigation, underscores that the Agriculture, Forestry, and Other Land Uses (AFOLU) sector which contributed to 13-21% of total greenhouse gas emissions between 2010 and 2019, offers considerable opportunities to reduce GHG emissions by a “concerted, rapid, and sustained effort by all stakeholders, from policy-makers and investors to landowners and managers.” According to the IPCC, AFOLU can provide 20% to 30% of the global mitigation needed for a 1.5 or 2°C pathway by 2050, though it cannot be a substitute for delayed action in reducing emissions in other sectors.

Prabhu Pingali in Maharashtra. Photo by TCI.
Prabhu Pingali in Maharashtra. He says that a zero-hunger, zero-carbon food system could explicitly minimise the trade-offs between hunger reduction and GHG emissions. Photo courtesy of TCI.

TCI recently launched the Zero-Hunger, Zero-Carbon Food Systems. In an initial meeting, researchers discussed evidence on climate impacts on Bihar’s agriculture and carbon emissions from current production practices in the run-up to a detailed assessment of the prospects for a ZHZC food system in Bihar, followed up by other eastern Indian states, such as Jharkhand and Odisha.

The challenge lies in making these technologies and management practices economically viable for smallholder systems, and in addressing the constraints they face in adopting more climate-resilient production systems. Examples of zero-carbon techniques and approaches used within food systems are solar-powered irrigation systems, conservation tillage systems, and improved water management systems for rice cultivation. But there are no state or national-level food systems that have achieved net-zero carbon.

“Most of these are discrete interventions that have not made a significant difference to the underlying system. There has also been limited attention to simultaneously addressing the dual goals of zero hunger and zero carbon. Identifying pathways that minimise the tradeoffs between hunger reduction and climate mitigation is the central objective of our initiative,” added Pingali.

But what would a zero-hunger, zero-carbon food system look like?

There is no one model for a zero-hunger, zero-carbon food system. “Specific interventions vary by agroecology and farming systems, including smallholder livestock systems. The common element is reducing carbon emissions by being smarter and more efficient in the choice of products produced and inputs used, especially energy, water, and fertilisers.”

“Incentives for changing production practices depend on a policy environment that encourages—or at least does not discourage—change, such as subsidy-free fertilisers, power, water and other inputs. Also important is a food price policy that does not aggravate the hunger-climate tradeoffs.”

Working with community-based organisations is one way to enable the transition is just for communities because it ensures climate-friendly agricultural technologies and practices are successfully adopted in a way that benefits smallholders.

“Farmer Producer Organisations and Women’s Self-Help Groups ought to be seen as partners in promoting zero-carbon strategies for crop and livestock production systems and value chains. Bihar, through its Jeevika program, has been a leader in popularising Women’s Self-Help Groups across the state.  That’s definitely a platform that climate-smart farming can be built upon,” Pingali said.

Prabhu Pingali, professor of applied economics and management and nutritional science. Photo by TCI.
Prabhu Pingali, professor of applied economics and management and nutritional science. Photo courtesy of TCI.

Pingali who is also the Governing Board Chair at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), a CGIAR Research Center, also spotlighted the role of CGIAR institutions in potentially having a big impact in making Indian agriculture resilient to climate change. “ICRISAT, headquartered in Hyderabad, has a long history of working on dryland crops such as millets and sorghum. These crops can help sustain the food security of the poor populations living in arid and semi-arid regions of India. Work on drought-tolerant crops and management practices such as conservation tillage and efficient water management help farmers adapt to climate change. It is true that India has strong agricultural research institutes.  ICRISAT and the CGIAR centers work in partnership with Indian institutes and are crucial conduits for bringing global knowledge and research advances for addressing the problems of Indian agriculture and food security in the face of climate change,” he added.


Banner image: Prabhu Pingali in Odisha. Photo courtesy of TCI.

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