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FAO Report: Hidden Costs of Global Agrifood Systems

Why is it in the news?

  • A recent report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) highlights the hidden costs of global agrifood systems, exceeding $10 trillion.
  • In middle-income countries like India, these costs constitute nearly 11% of GDP, leading to increased poverty, environmental harm, and health-related impacts such as undernourishment and unhealthy dietary patterns.
  • The report attributes these escalating costs to “unsustainable business-as-usual activities and practices” and emphasizes the need to transform agrifood systems.


Major findings of the Report

  • Intensive agriculture practices in India, such as monocropping and chemical-intensive farming during the Green Revolution, have led to impressive productivity but caused environmental and social issues.
  • The Green Revolution focused on high-yielding varieties of paddy and wheat, comprising over 70% of India’s agricultural production.
  • Infusion of seeds from multinational corporations and fertilizers has undermined seed sovereignty, dismantled Indigenous knowledge systems, and shifted from diverse crop varieties to monoculture, impacting nutrition and ecological health.
  • Privatization and deregulation of agricultural inputs have significantly increased farmer indebtedness, with the debt to asset ratio of a farmer household in India being 630% higher in 2013 compared to 1992.
  • Policies under the National Food Security Act 2013 assure subsidized food for 65% of households, but procurement heavily favours rice and wheat, leading to neglect of coarse grains, impacting biodiversity.
  • The expansion of sugarcane cultivation under policies favouring investments in dams and canal irrigation threatens food security, biodiversity, and contributes to environmental pollution.
  • Small and marginal farmers in India, ironically, remain among the most food and nutrition insecure.
  • Global trade relations, such as fluctuations in soy prices and historical influences, have impacted income for farmers in regions like Malwa.
  • Crop diversification, rooted in agroecology principles, is proposed as a solution to revitalize degraded land and soil.
  • Diversified multi-cropping systems, like ‘akkadi saalu’ in Karnataka, involve intercropping with legumes, pulses, oilseeds, trees, shrubs, and livestock, offering benefits like cash provision, ecosystem services, and biodiversity support.


Suggested Measures

  • Critics argue against alternative farming systems, but the FAO report emphasizes the substantial “hidden costs” of current systems.
  • Millets are highlighted as a viable alternative with comparable yields to rice and wheat, being more nutritious, environmentally friendly, and requiring minimal input.
  • Redirecting subsidies from corporations to farmers is proposed to incentivize the contribution to sustaining natural capital instead of depleting it.
  • Acknowledging the impracticality of an immediate shift, the report recommends a systematic transition for farmers, moving from chemical-intensive to non-pesticide management and adopting natural farming practices gradually.
  • Economic modelling of diversified farm allocation indicates potential improvements in ecological outcomes and sustained farm incomes in the short and long run.
  • Addressing challenges related to local seeds, institutional arrangements, drudgery, and farm labour is crucial for successfully scaling up diversified cropping practices through collaboration among institutions, policymakers, and social groups.

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