Scaling up sustainable agriculture critical to improve farm incomes
Study by CEEW proposes several measures for promoting sustainable agricultural practices and systems, including restructured government support and rigorous evidence generation
SRI rice field (Image: Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA 4.0)

A recent study by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) found that less than 4% of Indian farmers have adopted sustainable agricultural practices and systems. Thus, sustainable agriculture is far from mainstream in India, with most sustainable agriculture practices and systems being practised by less than five million farmers. Scaling up sustainable agriculture would be critical to improve farm incomes and bolster India's nutrition security in a climate-constrained future.

The study supported by the Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU) indicates that there is a need to rethink agricultural practices and how we grow food and what we eat. It provides an overview of the current state of sustainable agriculture practices and systems in India.

It aims to help policymakers, administrators, philanthropists, and others contribute to an evidence-based scale-up of sustainable agriculture practices and systems, which represent a vital alternative to conventional, input-intensive agriculture in the context of a climate-constrained future. States such as Andhra Pradesh and Sikkim have already taken a lead in sustainable agriculture.

Sustaining agriculture has the potential to help diversify farmers' sources of food and income, make farming climate-resilient, optimise use of natural resources and re-build ecosystems. It also offers a vital alternative to input-intensive farming. It is also suitable in drier regions of the country as it requires lesser water.

The study is based on an in-depth review of 16 sustainable agriculture practices and systems such as agroforestry, crop rotation, rainwater harvesting, organic farming, natural farming, integrated farming systems and conservation agriculture - using agroecology as an investigative lens. . It also included a primary survey with 180 civil society organisations promoting sustainable agriculture, as well as 40 plus consultations with stakeholders such as the government and agriculture institutions.

Key highlights

  • Sustainable agriculture offers a much-needed alternative to conventional input-intensive agriculture, the long-term impacts of which include degrading topsoil, declining groundwater levels and reduced biodiversity. It is vital to ensure India’s nutrition security in a climate-constrained world.
  • While various definitions of sustainable agriculture exist, this study uses agroecology as a lens of investigation. This term broadly refers to less resource-intensive farming solutions, greater diversity in crops and livestock, and farmers’ ability to adapt to local circumstances.
  • Most sustainable agriculture practices and systems are being adopted by less than five million (or four per cent) of all Indian farmers. Many are practised by less than one per cent.

Crop rotation is the most popular sustainable agriculture practices and systems in India, covering around 30 million hectares (Mha) of land and approximately 12 million farmers. Agroforestry, mainly popular among large cultivators, and rainwater harvesting have relatively high coverage - 25 Mha and 20-27 Mha, respectively.

  • Organic farming currently covers only 2.8 Mha — or two per cent of India’s net sown area of 140 million ha. Natural farming is the fastest growing sustainable agricultural practice in India and has been adopted by around 800,000 farmers. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) has achieved a coverage area of 5 Mha after decades of sustained promotion.

Sustainable agriculture practices and systems in India (2021) – key statistics


Source: Authors compilation from literature, Stakeholder consultations, and estimations thereof. *The area and adopters can be updated with newer information if available. Note: * Based on estimates from literature and stakeholder discussions **The geographic spread is the indicative number of states where a non-negligible number of farmers adopts a SAPSs (say, at least a thousand farmers) # No of adopters (farmers) are deduced from the area under that SAPSs divided by the average landholding size for the kind of farmers majorly undertaking that SAPSs 1: Primarily comprises estimates pertaining to micro-irrigation 2: Estimates include areas under partial CA. 3: For crop rotation, estimates include cereal-cereal rotation 4: Estimates are based on the water conservation activities allocated under the Integrated Watershed Management Programme. The area estimates pertain to the watershed development area and not only the farm area. 5: Includes plantation crops having leguminous cover crops 6: Excludes intercropping in horticultural crops 7: Includes states that practice mixed cropping

  • Agroforestry and system of rice intensification (SRI) are the most popular among researchers studying the impact of sustainable agriculture practices and systems on economic, environmental, and social outcomes. Evidence for the impact of practices such as biodynamic agriculture, permaculture and floating farming are either very limited or non-existent.

The existing literature critically lacks long-term assessments of sustainable agriculture practices and systems across all three sustainability dimensions (economic, environmental and social). Other research limitations include a research gap concerning landscape, regional or agroecological-zone level assessments and a relative lack of focus on evaluation criteria such as biodiversity, health and gender.

  • The budget outlay for the National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA) is only 0.8 per cent of the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare’s total budget - INR 142,000 crore (excluding INR 71,309 crore spent annually on fertiliser subsidies by the Centre).
  • Eight of the 16 practices identified by the study receive some budgetary support under various central government schemes. Of these, organic farming has received the most policy attention as Indian states, too, have formulated exclusive organic farming policies. 
  • Most Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) involved in sustainable agriculture practices and systems were active in Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Organic farming, natural farming and vermicomposting get the most interest from CSOs.

Key emerging themes in India’s sustainable agriculture

  • The role of knowledge: Most sustainable agriculture practices and systems are knowledge-intensive and successful adoption requires knowledge exchange and capacity building among farmers.
  • The reliance on farm labour: Since sustainable agriculture practices and systems are niche, the mechanisation for various input preparations, weed removal, or even harvesting in a mixed cropping field is not mainstream yet. Hence, sustainable agriculture practices and systems are labour-intensive, which may hinder their adoption by medium to large farmers.
  • Motivation: The negative long-term impacts of conventional agriculture are pushing farmers to search for alternatives. Further, farmers in resource-constrained environments who do not use significant external inputs are also willing to make the incremental shift to sustainable agriculture practices and systems.

Role in food and nutrition security: sustainable agriculture practices and systems improve farmers’ food security by diversifying their food and income sources. They also enhance nutrition security for families subsisting on agriculture. However, both these aspects call for further research.

Key recommendations

  • Focus on knowledge exchange and capacity building among farmers and agriculture extension workers.

Restructure government support to farmers by aligning incentives towards resource conservation and by rewarding outcomes such as total farm productivity or enhanced ecosystem services rather than just outputs such as yields.

  • Support rigorous evidence generation through long-term comparative assessments of conventional, resource-intensive agriculture on the one hand and sustainable agriculture on the other.
  • Take steps to broaden the perspectives of stakeholders across the agriculture ecosystem and make them more open to alternative approaches.
  • Extend short-term transition support to individuals liable to be adversely impacted by a large-scale transition to sustainable agriculture.

Make sustainable agriculture visible by integrating data and information collection on sustainable agriculture practices and systems in the prevailing national and state-level agriculture data systems.

The study can be accessed here

Citation: Gupta, Niti, Shanal Pradhan, Abhishek Jain and Nahya Patel. 2021. Sustainable Agriculture in India 2021 – What we know and how to scale up. New Delhi: Council on Energy, Environment and Water.


Posted by
Get the latest news on water, straight to your inbox
Subscribe Now
Continue reading