Road to Food Security: An Economic Analysis

Defining Food Security
Food security is a complex sustainable development issue that is intrinsically linked to health through malnutrition, sustainable economic development, environment, and trade. The World Food Summit of 1996 defined food security as existing “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”.
The four dimensions of food security include:
1. Adequacy of food supply or availability
2. Accessibility to food or affordability
3. Food utilisation: quality and safety of food
4. Stability of food supply, without seasonal fluctuations and shortages
The availability dimension of food security can be understood as ensuring that sufficient quantities of food are available on a consistent basis. This is impacted by the supply side aspect of food security and is a function of food production. Given the inter-linkages between agriculture and health, nutrition also becomes a core theme and food availability can be redefined as availability of nutritious food.
Improving food security has become a matter of global concern. With a growing world population, increasing food production has become a major challenge. According to the FAO, it is estimated that, by 2050, food production must increase by about 34%-70% over current levels in order to feed the anticipated global population of 9 billion. This projected population increase will involve an additional annual consumption of nearly 1 billion metric tons of cereals for food and feed and 200 million metric tons of meat. In India, the daily net per capita food grain availability in the country has dropped by about 60 grams in the last two decades, indicating that the rise in food grain production has not kept pace with population growth.
Further, another matter of concern is the fact that starvation and nutritional deficiencies in vitamins, minerals, protein, and calories are still prevalent. Global estimates indicates that there are over 800 million people who are chronically malnourished across the world and about 20% of the world’s undernourished population lives in India. Another alarming statistic is that more than 3 million children die each year due to illnesses caused by malnutrition across nations.
The Macro Factors Involved
Some of the factors that are contributing to this situation in India include:
On the supply side:
• The level of domestic food production
• Declining agricultural productivity due to reduced fertilizer consumption, insufficient irrigation, and reduced public and private investment in agriculture and rural infrastructure.
• Barriers to import of food grains (cost, quality, access, etc.)
• Climate change and its impact on food production and prices
• Inefficiencies in the food management and distribution system
• Product prices and related subsidies
On the demand side:
• Increasing population pressure with nearly 16 million people being added annually to the already large population of over 1.2 billion
• A strong and growing middle class population is resulting in changing dietary preferences
• Overall improvement in the purchasing power of the people
• The scope and effectiveness of supportive social programmes and schemes such as the ICDS, the Mid Day, Meal scheme, Food for Work and Rural Wage Employment Programmes.
Evaluating the Health of Indian Agriculture
So what is the current status of agriculture in India? The numbers appear to be mixed. While the country’s agricultural growth in 2013-14 increased to 3.7% during 2013-14 (PE) compared to the 3% growth achieved during 2000-2012 (Economic Survey 2013-14, GoI), the sector’s share of total GDP declined from about 30% in 1990-91 to below 14% in 2013-14 (Economic Survey 2013-14, GOI). The country produced a record 264 million tonnes (mt) of food grain in 2013-14, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. This increase was driven by new production records achieved for rice, wheat, oilseeds and cotton in the current crop year.
However, a deep dive into the productivity picture reveals a disturbing trend. During 1991-2000, the population grew at annual average rate of 1.97% while food grain production grew at an annual rate of 1.8%. During 2001-2010, the situation worsened with the population growing at 1.64% compared to a mere 1.01% growth in the productivity of food grain (Census 2011, GOI). In addition, growth in the yield of wheat fell from 2.87% to 0.73% while that of sugarcane dropped from 0.91% to 0.03% during the same period (PIB 2012). Such productivity declines could have serious repercussions for the food security situation in the country. If the situation persists, India will not be able to feed its growing population.
The Challenges and Solutions
So what are the roadblocks to sustainably increasing production and productivity in the Indian agriculture sector? The key issues and challenges that are often discussed here are:
• Stress on natural endowments, resulting in soil fatigue and declining resource use efficiency
• Erratic agro-climatic behaviour due to climate change
• Capital stock depletion and inadequate investment supplementation
However, agricultural experts also point to a sharp decline in crop productivity due to the poor adoption and scaling of modern technologies across the agricultural value chain. Studies have shown that at least one-third of future growth in productivity needs to come through innovations in crop technologies (Dev and Pandey, 2013). ‘Increased adoption of new agricultural technologies and innovations will help India achieve self sufficiency and eradicate food insecurity’, experts say.
Among the various agricultural inputs, the use of high quality seeds usually shows the highest returns relative to costs, both at the individual farmer’s level as well as for the economy at large. Availability of viable and vigorous seed to farmers at planting time is crucial and increases yield in the range of 15-20% (Athena Infonomics Research, 2014).
Studies that have explored the link between technology use and agricultural productivity have uncovered some important findings. Here are a few:
• Use of modern seed technology has been shown to enable reduced land usage and deforestation.
• Modern crop technologies, and transgenic approaches in particular, broaden crop tolerance to various abiotic stresses – drought, heat, cold or salinity – thereby helping them realise their full yield potential. Studies have estimated that approximately 70% of yield reduction is the direct result of abiotic stresses (Acquaah 2007).
• The adoption of technology has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68% (Klumper 2014)
• Modern crop technology can be adopted to improve nutritional profile of food crops through improved varieties, diversification and bio-fortification.
Economists have concluded that, in order to achieve self-sufficiency and economic growth, the growth in food grain production in India should move up to the rate of 2.3% per annum. Technology can be tremendous enabling tool towards this goal, provided we leverage it effectively.