With the onset of winter, a blanket of smog has once again settled over northern India, caused in part by deleterious agricultural practices. Heedless of the environmental outcome of their action, farmers in the region are burning crop stubble in fields to reduce manual drudgery and expedite sowing of winter crops. It is an annual civic tragedy, a reflection of how current farming practices contribute to public health and climate challenges. But there is quiet cause for hope.

Over the last couple of years, some farmers near Delhi have opted to sell crop residue so its rich organic content including carbon can be used to enrich soil rather than be released into the atmosphere as a planet-warming gas. It is an example of regenerative agriculture located on the fringes of cities and urban food practices that can be an important climate solution, drawing down carbon from the atmosphere, restoring nutrients and microorganisms to the soil, and bolstering food security.

This is critical to both achieving India’s climate goals and ensuring that its growing urban population has enough nutritious, high-quality food. Globally, food systems are responsible for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. “The largest contribution came from agriculture and land use/land-use change activities (71%),” says a Nature study, while “the remaining were from supply chain activities: retail, transport, consumption, fuel production, waste management, industrial processes and packaging.” Nearly 20% of India’s emissions came from its food system as of 2016, as per Our World in Data.

At the same time, however, reliable and equitable access to food remains a challenge. This is worsening with a range of climate impacts that include increasing drought, erratic monsoons, rising periods of extreme heat, and more frequent and intense extreme weather events.

As privileged consumers grow more conscious about what’s on their plates and scientific practices inform how we can reverse destructive food practices, opportunities abound for shifting food systems in urban India. For instance, the Naandi Foundation, known for activating community-led regeneration of forests in the Araku region of Andhra Pradesh, is exploring work on the peripheries of cities through a venture called Urban Farms Co. This involves sourcing raw materials – including paddy stubble that’s usually scorched to clear the fields – from within 10 kilometres of its farms.

“We believe what is typically thought of as waste can be converted into high quality farm inputs,” said Vikash Abraham, Associate Vice President of the Naandi Foundation who is building Urban Farms Co. “Through buying nearly a thousand tonnes of paddy stubble each year, we have been able to prevent 500 acres of fields from being burned.”

A large part of their work from the functional forests of the Araku Valley in Andhra Pradesh to the exurbs of Delhi, Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Nagpur has been to build a food system that’s productive for farmers, generates quality for consumers and is regenerative for nature. This is a marked departure from the industrialised practices of the Green Revolution of the late 1960s in India, which particularly transformed Punjab and Haryana with increased grain production through industrialised practices involving high yield variety seeds, water-intensive irrigation, and the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers.

Green Revolution

Two decades after independence, the country continued to be plagued by droughts and low productivity that led to food shortages. Since India was attempting to break out of a “Malthusian Trap” – that predicted that as population increased, crop production wouldn’t be able to keep pace – embracing these mechanised systems made sense. While the Green Revolution reduced India’s dependence on imported food grains and led to an agricultural boom in a few northern states, in the long term it has created a number of imbalances.

From groundwater depletion to soil degradation, these issues only accentuate each other. Take the heavy reliance on water soluble chemicals to accelerate crop yields. These disrupt natural nutrient processes and ultimately leave soil barren of organic matter and its ability to retain moisture. This not only releases carbon into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming, but also leads to ever more reliance on artificial inputs.

Today, we have a much better scientific understanding of the interconnected nature of these issues. “There are new areas of visibility in the rhizophagus processes of root systems,” Abraham from Urban Farms Co told me. Plants, soil and soil life have a symbiotic relationship – plants produce sugar and enzymes that are distributed through roots and serve as food for microbial life like bacteria and fungi. This ensures diversity of microorganisms in the soil that in turn is a nutrition feeder for the plant, and the soil’s water holding capacity, Abraham said.

Naandi Foundation’s Urban Farms Co is trying to build a food system that’s productive for farmers, generates quality for consumers and is regenerative for nature. Courtesy: Urban Farms Co.

However, even conventional farming faces distinct challenges around India’s congested cities with rapidly expanding boundaries due to formal and informal development. These include urban sprawl, high air and water pollution, and small land-holding patterns familiar across most of India. With farmers facing thin margins, new practices may not seem particularly lucrative.

Models that operate around collectives and nodal hubs could help address some of these challenges. “The Urban Farms Co hubs have processes like nurseries, seeds, farm services, equipment for members to rent, and demo plots for education,” Abraham explained. These hubs create economies of scale for farmers from the same region, ensuring consistency in generating inputs. The average hub generates 2,000 tonnes of compost – imagine more than 200 average sized trucks filled with dense organic matter – used in fields within a radius of a few kilometres. Farmers who have neighbouring plots invest in these inputs and receive a commitment to buy back produce based on quality. Urban Farms Co partners with the farmers and takes risks with them, only recovering its costs once farmers cross a certain revenue threshold, Abraham said.

The model seems to be working, says the company. From six farmers at the beginning of 2020, Urban Farms Co in Delhi now works with 100 farmers on 100 acres producing 100 metric tonnes of vegetables each month. The bulk of produce is procured by Urban Farms Co, which is now the largest distributor of organic vegetables in Delhi, and the lower quality produce is sold on the open market at mandis. Given the seasonal nature of production that doesn’t align with market demand, Urban Farms Co has a satellite hub in Himachal Pradesh to balance out availability of vegetables to fill consumers’ baskets.

Urban Farms Co in Delhi now works with 100 farmers on 100 acres producing 100 metric tonnes of vegetables each month. Courtesy: Urban Farms Co.

Women’s Agency

While organic farming in close proximity to cities can benefit privileged consumers, urban farming can also be oriented towards solving distinct nutrition needs of poorer communities. Since mid-2020, Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, a non-profit in Delhi, has been working with 700 women from informal settlements in Mahipalpur, Wazirabad, Bhalswa, among other places, on growing nutrient-rich food for their own consumption. This intervention arose from the non-profit’s observations about low-income communities’ inadequate nutritional intake, which is unfortunately common across both urban and rural India.

“Lack of access to food is a form of violence,” said Bharati Chaturvedi, the founder of Chintan. She was particularly concerned that women and girls were eating last, receiving not only meagre quantities of food but also items that had the lowest caloric and nutritional value. Frustrated with the lack of contextual solutions and the limitations of poor families’ household budgets, Chaturvedi and her team decided to build women’s agency to address this issue by planting vegetables like spinach and amaranth, rich sources of iron and several other vitamins and minerals. Their effort takes graver importance in light of the revelation in the latest National Family Health Survey that nearly half of Indian children and women are anaemic.

Working in communities where “land is hyper commodified and there are very few open spaces”, Chintan faced physical limitations that prompted them to use pots and planters to grow these foods, Chaturvedi said. In spite of these barriers, the pilot project has led to the women community members’ higher consciousness about nutrition, a willingness to experiment with cooking new kinds of food, and a powerful sense of solidarity. “Women have told our team that they and their daughters are eating better, and if they have excess produce, they’re giving it away to their neighbours,” according to Chaturvedi. Chintan plans to conduct nutrition tests to gauge changes in women’s health and hopes to scale this work in several other communities.

Considerations about food will be central to the range of transitions that India experiences in a warming world. From transformations of agriculture to cities to industry, the country needs multiple contextual interventions to ensure equity in its climate and development story. As agricultural practices around cities slowly move from being degrading to restorative, there is significant potential to build equity and food security, especially for vulnerable citizens, and this could be crucial to India’s climate and development story.

Aaran Patel is an MPP candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for Architecture & Urban Issues Writings for 2021.