Circular Food System: Building a healthy and resilient food system in India

Updated: Aug 4

Burgeoning food demand and environmental challenges associated with climate change, land degradation, and biodiversity loss are increasing pressure on the system. With half of the country’s working population employed, the agricultural sector remains essential to the Indian economy and vital to the nation’s food security. The Circular Collective looks closely into a system that requires urgent action.

Food is perhaps the most central element of our very existence, however, as Carolyn Steel points out in her book, Hungry City, we are rapidly moving away from the source, the knowledge and awareness of where the food we eat comes from. Unlike our grandparents, most of our interaction with food is in an artificial setting, far removed from its origin. Kale leaves packaged in layers of plastic found in a large air-conditioned store is a far more common sight in Indian cities than a bunch of gritty mustard greens that was considered a winter essential in North India. The poultry and fish we eat can be bought frozen, boneless and packaged in a manner that can make us forget that what we are going to consume was a live creature. These are some manifestations of the highly industrialised nature of the food that cities consume and like other industries, it’s operations are severely damaging. It is impacting biodiversity, where most variants of fruits, vegetables and grains are lost because based on the principles of suitability for mass production, it isn’t profitable to grow varieties any longer. In the process, the nutritional benefits of diverse food sources are also lost.

India is in dire need of a regenerative, restorative agricultural system. This should combine modern technology with traditional regenerative practices to meet India’s growing food demand.

Glaringly, we are surrounded by a seeming abundance of affordable, convenient food in all forms at supermarkets and restaurants, however, the true cost of this apparent excess is forgotten and in fact, is unaccounted. The Ellen McArthur Foundation has found that worldwide, for every USD 1 food purchased, the cumulative cost of its production, including impact on the environment and adverse, inequitable health outcomes is USD 2. Which brings us to the alternative, a circular food system aimed at increasing resilience and diversifying the food chain, reducing waste by design and promoting transparency in the value chain.[1]

Why is a food system transformation important in India?

Abundantly Unhealthy

The systemic inequality of an unsustainable economy is also reflected in its food system and resultant public health outcomes. According to ICMR-INDIAB study 2015, the prevalence rate of obesity among adults varies from 11.8% to 31.3% in different regions of India. On the flip side, we have one of the highest numbers of underweight adults in the world, in 2015-16, 19.6% men and 22.4% women were found underweight. These figures are also striking among children, we have the highest number of undernutrition and wasted children and also over a million overweight children.[2]

The detailed nutritional profile of people in the country is not encouraging either, in 2014-16, about 14.5% of Indians suffered a deficiency of one or more micro-nutrient.[3] CoVid-19 has revealed more clearly than ever before the importance of overall ‘health.’ While there isn’t any conclusive proof, a fair number of doctors and researchers have found that certain underlying conditions, including micronutrient deficiency (prominently, Vitamin D), are a contributing factor in determining the outcome and severity of the disease.[4]

A circular, regenerative food system may be a step in the right direction to address these inequities and inadequacies in our food habits. This is because a crucial aspect of the transformation involves diversifying the kinds of food we grow and eat along with the consumption of local foods wherever appropriate. This approach may offer a solution to improve not only planetary health but also public health.

India’s public distribution system (PDS) that procures grains from farmers and provides free grains to recognised beneficiaries (about 800 million per month since March 2020), distributes mainly wheat or rice as the staple (5 kilogrammes per person) and some pulses (1 kilogramme) for feeding an entire family for a month.[5] While India is home to a variety of millets that are not only more nutritious but also rain-fed and require fewer inputs to grow,[6] we are unable to leverage these as there isn’t any incentive to the farmer to grow millets or even pulses. This is because most of the procurement of grains for PDS is for wheat or rice,[7] although the commonly grown high yield variants of these are some of the most water-intensive crops.[8] Reversing this dependence on wheat and rice through diversification in the PDS grains mix by including more millets and pulses will help make good nutrition accessible to many, while also promoting resilience in agriculture.

Food, food everywhere but a lot of it in the bin!

An industrialised food system implies that from harvest to when it reaches consumers, it travels many kilometres and goes through multiple stages in the journey from farm to fork. It is on this journey that a lot of otherwise consumable food is wasted in India. Challenges like poor infrastructure with a lack of basic processing and storage facilities aggravate the problem.[9] It is estimated that nearly 40% of all food produced in the country is wasted in this manner.[10]

Immediate action by food producers and intermediaries in the supply chain is important as that is where most of the wastage occurs in the country. Companies should strive to quantify food and nutrient loss at various stages of processing and supply through the use of tools like the Food Loss and Waste Calculator.[11] This will help them plug gaps and can potentially benefit communities, the planet as well as the company itself. At the macro level, the Food Corporation of India, a public corporation responsible for operationalising the PDS and as such the food economy, may find it beneficial to use such tools to identify stages in production, types of foods and the geographic locations where most of the waste occurs. This information can help map the plan for creating infrastructure such as cold storages, food processing units in the country accordingly. Further, it may even be valuable to even make such food loss accounting a part of food production and distribution companies’ annual audits.

Dearth of dirt

It is predicted that if soil erosion continues at this rate, the world will lose almost all arable land in the coming 60 years.[12]While it is a concern across the globe, India loses about 3 times (16 tonnes per hectare) more than the acceptable amount (4-5 tonnes per hectare) of topsoil every year.[13] Although it is a natural phenomenon triggered by events like rainfall, such an alarming rate is linked to activities including construction, over-irrigation and deforestation.[14] The decline in the fertility and nutrient availability of soil in India add to this woe, our farms today are deficient in 9 nutrients as compared to 1 in the 1950s. The issue is also aggravated by the intensive cropping of wheat and rice in a cyclical manner that necessitates the imbalanced use of artificial inputs. Fertiliser use is heavily tilted towards Nitrates variants which then lead to a greater loss of organic carbon in the soil.

A fair number of solutions appear effective for addressing soil degradation, however, they need to be made more broad-based to achieve the necessary change. For example, Nutrien worked with farmers in Zambia to improve soil health and resultantly maize yields by helping them introduce more organic nutrients into the soil through manure. As the improvement of soil health is a gradual process and initial investments do not show quick results, they found that a crucial aspect was assisting farmers in going through with this transition. This process was monitored over 10 years, finally, this balanced approach to the use of manure and fertilisers led to a nearly 60% increase in yield of Maize.[15] Similarly, Mahindra implemented an irrigation and soil erosion management project in India where it managed to bring irrigation cover to over 4000 farmers in Madhya Pradesh.[16]

At the policy level, India has a soil health card scheme under which samples of soil are collected and analysed, based on this farmers are offered a report of the nutrient status along with recommendations for nutrient use to complement the soil profile. This process is to be repeated for every holding every 3 years. Between 2015-17, it was observed that there was an 8-10% reduction in the excessive use of chemical fertilisers due to the health card recommendations.[17] However, there isn’t a formal mechanism to ensure that the recommended nutrient mix is used by the farmer in every instance. While the soil health card is a welcome first step but to reverse the ill effects of fertilisers, a crucial aspect will be a guided transition towards using the right nutrient mix, ensuring compliance. As Nutrien's example indicates, consistent support to each farmer and ensuring that no-one falls through the cracks due to the slow returns or the inability to invest on an uncertain outcome is necessary to truly turn things around.

The waste of waste

Over half of the waste produced in our country is made up of food matter, however, only 18% of this waste is composted.[18] It is difficult to compost more of this waste because of a lack of an efficient waste management design, which fails to address even a basic aspect like waste segregation at source. It is unfortunate because food by-products and other biodegradable waste are a rich source of nutrients for the soil to support further food growth, there is as such no ‘waste’ that should exist in the scenario. It is possible to reduce the landfills seen in the outskirts of Indian cities by at least half while also reducing dependence on chemical sources for maintaining soil fertility.

It is only after 2014 that national government schemes such as the Clean India Mission and the Solid Waste Management regulation issued in 2016, seem to have recognised the importance of waste segregation, recycling and minimising dependence on landfills. However, the reality on the ground remains unchanged. As nearly 80 % of all waste in cities is generated by households, its management will require the participation of each one of them. The Centre for Science and Environment, based on its project for zero landfilling solid waste management operationalised in Muzaffarpur, Bihar has found that a community-based approach that includes supporting behaviour change and building infrastructure can be fully operationalised in 3 years for INR 1,900 (~USD 25) per household. It also found that such a system can then be maintained for INR 80 (~USD 1.1) per month per household thereafter, which can easily be recovered as a user fee. After the basic cost for operationalizing such a model is met, the system would be self-sustaining. The model stresses on waste processing closer to source and selling the compost produced also at close distance, to peri-urban farms surrounding the city. At present, city administrations spend about 3/4th of its entire budget merely on waste collection, making it impossible to set up effective processing facilities to derive value out of waste.[19]

Circular Economy in India for Food and Agriculture; Ellen MacArthur Foundation

A food system for atmanirbhar Bharat

A version of ‘I told you so,’ that our grandmothers get to say all so often in several contexts is also true for a lot of the systemic changes required to build a resilient food system in India. A typical Indian household of moderate means from their youth, when urbanisation wasn’t the norm, would have a couple of cows, perhaps an ox or two for tilling and a small plot of land (held jointly by an extended family in most cases). In a good year, this land would give them enough grains and seasonal vegetables to sustain the family. The weeds, crop residue from the farm as well as any food by-product from the meals would become part of animal feed for the cattle and the cow’s milk would be consumed by the household in all possible forms - curd, clarified butter and buttermilk to name a few. The animal excreta was used for manure and even as biofuel for cooking on open stoves. There was no refrigerator or even electricity in many cases, therefore each member had a defined food ‘quota.’ Even then if there was any leftover, it would go to feed the domesticated cattle or stray animals.

Our lives and systems have indeed become far more complex and some of these practices themselves may be questionable now, however, the conscientiousness that drove the ethos of utilising and valuing every bit of food is perhaps even more relevant than before.

About the Author

Adrija Das (LinkedIn) is a public policy enthusiast and an entrepreneur with an interest in sustainable consumption and production. She co-founded Sensefull India and is also a former LAMP fellow



[2] [3] [4]

[5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11]

[12] [13] [14] [15] [16] Ibid. [17]



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