Food and nutrition security are possibly the most basic of human needs, yet these continue to be major unmet challenges at the global level. SDG 2, by coupling mandates of food and nutrition security with sustainable agriculture, underscores the critical role required to be played by sustainable agriculture in addressing this challenge. The reason that the need for sustainability has now entered the equation is that the agriculture sector, over the last few years, has been witnessing the ravaging impacts of climate change and the emergence of natural resource constraints linked to over-extraction as limiting factors.
In recent times, there has been much debate around the idea of singularity – the hypothesis that with the advancement of technology, and especially artificial intelligence, technology has entered a runaway cycle of self-improvement that will result in unheralded and unimaginable changes in human civilisation. The scenario of continuous exponential growth implicit in this debate is a phantasm that recurs across several sectors, including agriculture. The green revolution in India too was probably driven by the delusion that it is possible to endlessly increase farm production by applying technologies that allowed for more extractive consumption of natural resources. The long-term impacts of green revolution being experienced today serve as a grim reminder that there are, ultimately, limits to growth.
This brings us to the conclusion that we can no longer afford to equate agricultural development with a single-minded pursuit of productivity – the striving for higher and higher farm production per unit of land, regardless of the ecological and social costs involved. The dependence on productivity as the singular measure of success must be replaced with a plurality of indicators that encompass various dimensions of impact, including not just the economic, but also the ecological and the social, and equally importantly, that throw light on the long-term repercussions of current actions.
Agricultural systems are complex adaptive systems that are regulated through feedback mechanisms, and it is this language that we need to tune in to, in order to design sustainable management systems. Sustainable agriculture allows us to participate in this system as responsible elements, to get optimised (as opposed to maximised) production without destructing the underlying ecological balance.
Moreover, it is worth underlining the fact that agriculture manifests as an interaction between people and ecosystems, and so, as it is important to understand the dynamics of the ecosystem, it is equally important to understand the manager of this ecosystem, that is the farmer. The measure of sustainability in agriculture must, therefore, also include indicators that help capture the capacities of farmers to adopt, innovate, adapt and disseminate sustainable practices, especially in response to changing climatic and market contexts, and thereby become more resilient.
The various dimensions of sustainability in agriculture briefly discussed here, once again bring us back to the argument made earlier for a plurality of indicators – indicators that consider not just production, but also the wellbeing of the farmer and the health of the environment. Even more importantly, the set of indicators used for measuring success must be outcome oriented, so that we are able to track if our actions are leading to the desired impacts. Thus, for example, we must be able to register not just reduction in the use of chemical fertilisers and a corresponding increase in the use of organic manure, but also evaluate if the action resulted in improved organic carbon in the soil. Of course, outcomes may be expected only over a longer time horizon, but the tracking systems must already be calibrated for the purpose.
The importance of outcome tracking is also linked to the complexity of the systems that we are working with. Because development interventions are typically designed to influence a specific part of an integrated system on the basis of an expected cause-effect relationship, they often fail to foresee the impact of other elements of the system, or feedback mechanisms in the ecosystem, disrupting this anticipated equation.
The imperative for diversity extends not just to the indicators, but also to the methods by which progress is measured, analysed and reported. Engaging a diversity of stakeholders, ranging from the scientist and policy maker to the farmer and the consumer, in tracking and assessment is essential for a healthy diversity of perspectives to come in for a holistic sense of progress.
It seems that tracking the adoption and impact of sustainable agriculture will require an overhaul of our measurement systems, with a plurality and diversity of indicators that encompass its multiple dimensions, and the inclusion of a wider spectrum of stakeholders in the processes. The task at hand is a complex and challenging one, and will require the coming together of multiple competencies and disciplines, not to mention intent and commitment. Sure, this will have to be a departure from the rather simplistic measure of productivity that has been driving much of the agricultural sector till now, but as Einstein famously said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
The views expressed in the article are those of the author’s and not necessarily those of Development Alternatives.