It’s absolutely essential to invest billions in a decade-long awareness campaign to reduce wastage of food and change consumer behaviour. If not, climate change prophesies will come true.

We are delighted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an impassioned appeal for the reduction in the use of chemicals in agriculture. Though, in time, the PM will realise it is easier to announce new approaches than to get the agriculture system to embrace the appeal. This does not have to be. Public policy and allocation of funds can play a critical role and change the trajectory.

The biggest threat to India is climate change. Many civilizations disappeared and empires have collapsed due to shifting rainfall patterns or prolonged drought.

In the run-up to the climate change summit, these points were raised by the IPCC. Over 100 million hectares in India is in the process of serious degradation, desertification and salinisation. Situated in the tropics, India has witnessed a many-fold increase in extreme weather events since 1950 and will be severely impacted by production variability. Soils are being lost upto 100 times faster than they can form and high temperatures increase the incidence of pests and diseases.

These will necessitate using more chemicals on the farm. Without the active participation of stakeholders and aid of indigenous and local knowledge, we cannot address these issues.

These alternative approaches require a paradigm shift towards principles of agroecology and weaning farmers by repurposing subsidies for ecosystem services. This requires a combination of different kinds of crop planting practices, different forms of mechanisation, aggregation and distribution of commodities. It is not easy and the myopic outlook of policymakers discourages them from believing it is feasible. As a society, we are not yet ready to commit to lifestyle trade-offs and more significantly, commoditisation of the food systems will impose stiff barriers in changing the status quo.

The bull run in commodity prices ended by 2013. Since then, food prices have generally remained subdued, instilling a sense of complacency amongst the public and those that influence policy. Consequently, there has been a steady but subtle shift in the narrative from agriculture to food, from yield to sustainability, from productivity to prosperity and from quantity to quality. Policies are being formulated where rather than supporting agriculture production, farmer livelihoods are to be supported by schemes like PM Kisan. Additionally, public funding for research and the subsequent deployment of funds for fundamental research and human resources has reduced in real terms. This is worrying as it comes at a time when scientists are warning of impending challenges in food availability arising from climate change.

Policymakers are blissfully unmindful of their own inadequacies. India’s population will peak in 20 years and wild claims are being made that it will have a problem of 20 per cent surplus production. The recent surge in surpluses are deceiving and too meagre to justify such smug satisfaction.

Ironically, decision-makers are simultaneously targeting an increase in food production by 50 per cent by 2050. Sadly, this has become the cornerstone of our national policy and the metric for measuring farmer prosperity. To expect a system that nurtures the problem to transform itself is as ridiculous a notion as “zero budget farming” demonising “organic farming”.

Unrestrained profiteering by agri-businesses is expediting climate change. Starved of funds, the exhausted public research system has taken a similar and easier path to maximise farm yields by monocropping and use of chemicals, encouraging agricultural practices that emit human-induced greenhouse gases. Economists will disagree but farm-gate prices have to rise substantially to account for the real cost of growing food for farmers to change practices and for agriculture to sequester carbon. Present practices extract a heavy environmental footprint, completing a vicious circle that makes agriculture more problematic while agriculture itself also intensifies climate change, compelling yields to be maximised.

As a result, millions of acres of a few cereal crops are planted. This is at variance with conserving biodiversity, which is essential for safeguarding the global commons. Worse, higher yielding seeds are quickly adopted by farmers — now over 80 per cent of most crop production comes from a handful of varieties in each crop type. Additionally, growing ecologically unsuitable crops in particular ecosystems is literally killing the planet. But policymakers are failing to grasp that food systems are breaching a breaking point of unsustainability. Policies on food production are not reflecting the exigency for change.

It’s absolutely essential to invest billions in a decade-long awareness campaign to reduce wastage of food and change consumer behaviour. If not, climate change prophesies will come true.