Despite a primarily rural population, agricultural earnings have been declining, and India’s farming population is aging as young people look for better jobs and move into the non-farm sector. But at the same time, India’s overall agricultural productivity remains at a global low. As a result, yields are poor, most farmers operate at subsistence level, and desertification of once fertile land is an increasing problem across the country.
Meanwhile, initial results from the fifth National Health Survey show a sharp rise in hunger across the country in 2020. In India’s North East, stunting in children below five, linked to food insecurity, rose in Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura, and Nagaland. In Assam, only 8% of its young people aged 6-23 years have healthy, balanced diets.
As young people move out of farming in search of better jobs, India faces mounting risks to its overall food security – bad news at a time when national hunger and food insecurity are on the rise, compounded by climate and environmental risk. Existing data also suggests that non-rural employment is not expanding fast enough to absorb the young people moving away from farming. Instead, most jobs are being created in the construction sector, now precarious because of COVID-19 spurring recurring lockdowns.
Agroforestry - An alternative answer
If there is an answer to be found to these multiple dilemmas – jobs for rural youth, better farming incomes – it lies in fundamentally rethinking how we practice agriculture. Today the landscape is dominated heavily by monoculture farming, with government subsidies encouraging farmers to move towards chemical-based cultivation of genetically modified seeds. As a result, overall productivity remains low, and the intensification of chemical usage strips and depletes the soil, compounding the growing desertification crisis.
Agroforestry is an alternative to destructive farming practices, remedying some of these issues at the root. The national government’s increasing mention of agroforestry in policy reflects their recognition of its potential – though a significant gap remains between policy and execution. Existing research on agroforestry productivity in tropical countries like India reveals overall productivity gains of up to 56%. When piloted in a scientifically constructed food forest model, with eight varieties of trees and shrub crops representing the different “layers” of a forest canopy, it offers direct ecological and income gains. The complementary crops simulate natural organic conditions, cycling nutrients back into the soil and minimizing the need for water use. Meanwhile, growing eight crops on one small plot of land offers a significant increase in revenue returns. Designed carefully, the same plot of land can share space between high-value cash crops and food crops, meeting both income and food security needs for a family.
On average, agroforestry can generate a 40% increase in household income in farming communities that largely practice subsistence level agriculture. In Baligaon Miri Green village in Sonitpur district, Assam, the creation of food forests on empty lands belonging to indigenous communities has provided a maximum benefit by optimally leveraging soil, water, and sunlight flourishing without any human interference; producing ample food, healthy growth, and contributing to a balanced ecosystem. During the 2020 lockdown, when young people returned to their villages because of lost jobs in cities, they soon found agroforestry a simple yet lucrative opportunity for employment waiting for them on their doorsteps.
The economic and social potential of this opportunity is immense. In India’s North East alone, agroforestry earnings alone would generate Rs 36,045 crore annually if its agricultural land was optimized. Investing these earnings back in the community could deliver universal basic assets such as healthcare, education, energy, water access to over 500,000 households – with spending on healthcare and education matching international Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) standards. This alone would create the basis for a nature-positive circular economy. Making this transition will also be critical in managing the country’s carbon emissions, with farmlands accounting for 21% of the nation’s emissions. Effective management of farmland will mitigate emissions by 222.44 million tons of carbon a year.
Policy needs to urge this transition forward
Under the National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture, farmers received the support of up to Rs 70 per tree planted on agricultural land or in the periphery or boundary areas. This support needs to be streamlined with existing policies and subsidies, which currently focus on increasing the production of cash crops like oil palm through monoculture cultivation, often in unsuitable areas. A robust climate-smart agricultural policy must be tailored to local conditions and needs, elevating indigenous and local crops and providing robust crop insurance mechanisms for vulnerable farmers. In addition, direct economic support needs to be provided in supporting agroforestry and support for rural entrepreneurship in value addition packaging and branding on local produce.
Climate-smart, low chemical, sustainable crop intensification through agroforestry and insurance support for small farmers - this is the key to raising agricultural productivity and reviving India’s farming sector. The future of our food depends on the biodiversity-smartness of our farms; the future of our rural youth depends on our willingness to leverage an opportunity for sustainable transformation.
Ranjit Barthakur, founder of Balipara Foundation