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OPINION: As food prices soar, unlocking India's potential requires systems thinking and transformative change

OPINION: As food prices soar, unlocking India's potential requires systems thinking and transformative change
Food inflation is the talk of the town, with even the RBI expressing concerns over persistent spikes in food prices on April 5, when it decided to keep the policy repo rate unchanged at 6.5%. The problem stems from the source as India's agriculture sector, contributing 19% of GDP and employing two-thirds of the population, faces multifaceted challenges. For example, small and marginal farmers struggle to access affordable credit and fragmented land ownership, leading to uneconomical farming practices and difficulties in adopting modern technologies. The lack of market linkages and price information also leaves farmers vulnerable to exploitation and uncertain returns.

Erratic weather patterns have impacted the food production yield several times in recent years, including the ongoing Rabi season. The trend is likely to intensify, with the Government of India's impact assessment warning of alarming yield reductions, with rainfed rice yields projected to drop by 20% in 2050 without adaptation measures to the changing climate. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlights that climate change can jeopardise core aspects of food security, necessitating a holistic approach that considers nutrition and climate resilience. Addressing these challenges requires a change in perspective, recognising the complexity of interconnected problems.
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To tackle the intricacies of India's agriculture and food system effectively, adopting a systems approach is crucial. This means acknowledging that the system consists of interconnected parts that evolve over time. Instead of focusing solely on individual components, we examine how they are organized and interact within the broader context. This holistic perspective allows us to grasp the dynamics of the system better and develop more effective solutions to its challenges.

A valuable tool for analysing significant changes in a system is the "water of systems change" framework by FSG, a global nonprofit consulting firm. This framework identifies six interdependent conditions—policies, practices, resource flows, relationships, power dynamics, and mental models—that collectively shape and influence social and environmental progress within a system. These conditions may vary in visibility to individuals within the system due to their explicitness.

It's akin to wearing special glasses that reveal how things are evolving. Imagine two fish conversing, and one asks about the water they're swimming in. The second fish, having always been immersed in water, doesn't even understand the concept. Similarly, as people endeavour to enact significant changes in systems, they are starting to recognise the "water" they've been immersed in all along. This framework aids in understanding how a system is structured, including its rules and practices, the interactions and collaborations among individuals, and the overarching ideas and goals guiding the entire system.
Existing system-level challenges
Applying the framework to the Indian agricultural context reveals a multitude of barriers hindering the transition toward climate-resilient, resource-efficient, and regenerative agriculture.

First and foremost, there exists a substantial challenge in overcoming the lack of evidence demonstrating the efficacy and benefits of agroecology practices. Traditional methods deeply entrenched in agricultural practices make farmers hesitant to adopt new approaches without clear proof of their advantages. Additionally, an underdeveloped ecosystem for inputs, implements, and infrastructure poses a significant obstacle. Inadequate access to bio-inputs essential for agroecological farming, coupled with a lack of well-established supply chains, impedes farmers' ability to embrace more sustainable practices.

Furthermore, the inadequate availability of patient capital emerges as a critical barrier. Farmers require financial support for investments in new technologies and sustainable practices, but the absence of patient capital options tailored to the longer gestation periods of these practices hampers their adoption. Disincentives within the policy and institutional landscape, such as subsidies favouring conventional farming over sustainable alternatives, further deter the transition. Suboptimal organisation of value chains and networks, coupled with unclear regulations and market linkages, presents challenges in making climate-resilient agriculture economically viable.

Lastly, the absence of well-defined criteria for ecological safety and people-centric transitions adds complexity, emphasising the need for a comprehensive approach to address these multifaceted challenges in the journey towards sustainable agriculture in India.
Looking at the bigger picture
When it comes to agriculture, the people involved often have a good understanding of how different parts work together. What they may struggle with is knowing how fast or slow things are changing in different areas. Looking at the bigger picture and understanding how things are moving - like what's gaining momentum and what's getting stuck - can lead to new ways of tackling shared problems.

For instance, the promotion of millets clashes with the on-farm activities incentivised by the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) scheme, favouring other crops like rice. Similarly, underlying trends such as the increasing migration of youth from agriculture bring attention to systemic challenges, questioning assumptions about the role of rural youth in facilitating the transition to sustainable practices.

Employing systemic approaches goes beyond specific tools for system diagnosis. While these methods are valuable, they don't guarantee change, and there's no one-size-fits-all solution. The process itself holds value, fostering connections among participants and deepening understanding.

Adopting a systemic perspective involves concurrent efforts across various levels of the food system, including reshaping consumer narratives, addressing value chain infrastructure gaps, and implementing policies safeguarding safety nets while providing incentives for transition. These initiatives establish interdependent feedback loops crucial for a profound and timely transformation of the food system. Moreover, a systems-oriented approach requires rethinking and restructuring institutions. In the Indian food system context, fostering synergies between safety net programs like the Public Distribution System (PDS) and initiatives under MGNREGA is crucial. Additionally, supporting farmers in their transition demands agriculture extension services prioritising diverse objectives for the food system.

Moving forward, India’s food system should aim to achieve multiple goals, including providing affordable nutritious diets for all, implementing decarbonised and ecologically sustainable land use, ensuring equity, and fostering resilience for farmers and workers. Employing systemic practices to comprehend and navigate evolving dynamics while maintaining an ambitious vision of transformative change is imperative.

Yamini Srivastava and Hansika Singh are Principal Strategists at Forum for the Future.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are of the author/interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of Business Insider India. The article has been partly edited for length and clarity.