Resolving trade-offs between food and ecological security in Punjab, India

Rice monoculture 2 Punjab

In Brief

Global agriculture aims to resolve trade-offs between food production and natural resources. We build on the concept of ecosystem services and analyse trade-offs between food and ecological security in Punjab, India, where agriculture adopted high input farming in 1960s. We then offer solutions by developing some alternative scenarios in order to resolve trade-offs. In Punjab, agricultural policies supported subsidies for fertilsers, pesticides and electricity etc. to promote intensification since the 1960s. This has resulted in trade-offs between agricultural production and natural resources such as decline in crop diversity, depletion of the groundwater table, and degradation of soil and human health. The crop diversification index for Punjab followed a sharp and regular decline from 0.80 during early 1970s to 0.66 in 2011-12. Area under irrigated rice increased from 2.02 million hectares in 1960-61 to 4.07 million hectares in 2010-11. Application of higher amounts of nitrogenous and phosphorus fertilizers has resulted in oversupply of these nutrients in soils leading to water pollution due to leaching. Drawing from these experiences, we propose to integrate social, natural and economic capital for securing food and ecological security. We conclude by providing recommendations to support sustainable agriculture in Punjab, India.

Key Concepts

  • High input farming systems practiced around the world since 1960s have resulted in increase in productivity but have resulted in decline of biodiversity, ecosystem services and natural resources.
  • Ecosystem services concept is appropriate to understand various trade-offs between agriculture and the environment.
  • There is need to resolve these trade-offs so that agriculture can continue to fulfil the growing demand for food.
  • We highlight a case study, where high input-based agriculture was introduced in 1960s to increase food production and achieve food security in Punjab, India. However, over last five decades, this system has negatively impacted natural resources and human health.
  • We demonstrate by developing alternative scenarios that such farming practices can be modified to decrease their impact on natural resources.

Increasing population and growing food demand in developing countries require integrated approaches and global efforts to ensure food, nutrition and livelihood security along with environmental sustainability1,2. Today, out of 896 million extreme poor, 815 million suffer from chronic under nutrition and 791 million live in developing countries3. Three Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 1, no poverty; SDG 2, zero hunger; SDG 3, good health and well-being) will be significantly impacted negatively if productivity advancement is not commensurate with environmental sustainability4. There is also a need to improve the incomes of the rural poor without impacting ecosystems in economically poor regions. This is possible by improving agricultural outputs, as a large number of the global poor remain in rural areas and are associated with farming. Increasing agricultural output by using intensive practices may lead to social and environmental impacts as observed in many parts of the world1. To avoid such negative impacts and to improve rural livelihoods and wellbeing, there is need to reduce trade-offs between food production and natural resources.

In the developing world, there are about 500 million smallholder farms that host about 2 billion people, the majority of which live under chronic poverty and are vulnerable to climatic, social and political drivers4. India is host to 1.35 billion people, out of which 70% remains associated with agriculture for livelihood5. India started its food self-sufficiency program, in partnership with global organisations in the mid 1960s through the green revolution6. India’s food production during the green revolution was supported by relevant policies and investments in agricultural research, extension networks and in creating regulated markets. However, that technology based on external inputs led to massive farm debts and have social and environmental impacts6. It is speculated that agricultural intensification in Africa, South East Asia, South America and other regions may lead to similar negative outcomes in those countries in the longer term. This can be avoided if agricultural development is integrated with environmental and social outcomes with the intervention of appropriate policy responses2. Therefore, there is need to understand trade-offs between agriculture and natural resources.

We build on the concept of ecosystem services to analyse trade-offs between food and ecological security. We analyse a case study from Punjab, India, where high-input farming is practiced since 1960s. We examine drivers of change in agriculture in Punjab agriculture and highlight trade-offs between food production, natural resources and ecosystem services. We provide recommendations to develop sustainable agriculture in this region to improve environmental health. We conclude by summarising ways forward to secure food and ecological security.

Ecosystem approach to agricultural intensification

Agricultural ecosystems are modified and managed by human beings largely in rural settings. These ecosystems produce many ecosystem goods and services such as food crops, biofuels, wool, cotton, nutrient cycling, etc.7,8. However, recent realisation of declining trends in ecosystem services from agricultural ecosystems has promoted global efforts to halt this decline7,9. The United Nations has facilitated the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) to translate sustainability science into policy and action to halt the decline of biodiversity and ecosystem services9. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) is another initiative led by the United Nations Environment Program to study the economics of biodiversity loss. The recent focus of the TEEB project is to examine all negative and positive externalities in agriculture and food systems1. Widely known as TEEBAgriFood, the study aims to capture and internalise the value of natural, social and human capital in the agriculture and food systems1,2. These global efforts and coordinated programs along with scientific studies are the basis of our framework to analyse case of high-input based agriculture in Punjab. Our framework includes social, natural and economic capital which support the delivery of ecosystem services for human wellbeing (Fig. 1).

Agricultural ecosystems range from the field to the global level and provide ecological infrastructure (natural capital) for food production. Ecosystem services flow from this ecological infrastructure in the form of four categories – provisioning, regulating, cultural and supporting services7. Pursuit of one category of services can result in loss of other ecosystem services. This often results in trade-offs with natural resources and between other ecosystem services. Agriculture provides public and private benefits to farmers10. Some private benefits, such as provision of food and fibre, are traded in market and are known as marketable ecosystem services. Benefits, which are less tangible, include public benefits and are classified as non-market ecosystem services such as aesthetics of the rural landscape, carbon sequestration etc. The value of ecosystem services that flows from agriculture is realised by beneficiaries at multiple levels from farmers to governments. Farmers gain from production of food and fibre, whereas, some of the benefits such as carbon sequestration by soil and vegetation are societal benefits as they help removal of carbon from the atmosphere. These ecosystem services collectively result to improve the welfare of society and help maintain social capital. Welfare generated can provide different options to manage these interlinkages and feedback to conserve or protect the ecological basis of agriculture through sound policies under a favourable environment and help minimise trade-offs. These interactions of natural, economic and social capital in agriculture require support from various institutions that provide conducive environments to farmers, markets and businesses1. These are vital to strengthen agriculture and the farming community. We use this concept of ecosystem services to analyse trade-offs between food and ecological security in Punjab, India, where high-input farming is practiced since the 1960s and has resulted in many trade-offs.

Agriculture in Punjab, India

Agriculture in India provides food security to its 1.36 billion population and contributes 15.4% to the gross domestic product (GDP) of the country. Indian agriculture and food policy support one of the largest public distribution systems in the world, where the prime focus is to produce wheat and rice for national food security ( The focus of this study, Punjab, is one of the 28 states of India, occupies a 5.03 million hectare area and supports a population of 27.7 million. Punjab is an agrarian economy with a gross state domestic product (GDP) of US 73 billion. It is one of the most advanced agricultural states of India with high crop productivity and inputs use11-13. The state has 84 percent of its total geographical area under cultivation.

Drivers and trade-offs analysis

Agricultural intensification in Punjab was successful due to favourable farm policies that included subsidised electricity, fertilsers and a minimum support price for wheat and rice. Due to these favourable policies, agriculture in Punjab adopted green revolution technologies with a high success rate. The cropping intensity in Punjab is 190 percent with over 98 percent of the cultivable area being under assured irrigation14. Fertiliser consumption in Punjab (235 kg/ha) is 1.84 times higher than the national average (128 kg/ha). Punjab occupies only 1.5 percent of the total geographical area in India but contributes about 19 percent of the wheat production, 11 percent of rice production and 5 percent of cotton production in India. Punjab state contributes half of the rice and one-third of the wheat to the central pool of food grains to ensure the food security of the nation14,15. The current levels of productivity of paddy at 5.8 tonnes/ha and wheat at 5.1 tonnes/ha are comparable with the productivity levels of these crops in the developed countries. Table 1 summarises some of the key drivers and trade-offs between food production, natural resources and human health in Punjab, India. Land use change is one of the major drivers of intensification of farming (high input-based rice-wheat cropping pattern) in Punjab. Land was brought under cultivation from other uses such as forests, to increase total food production in 1960-61 to increase food self-sufficiency. Cropping area expansion led to trade-offs such as decrease in forest area. Such increase in net sown area by expansion of rice cultivation was supported by an increase in irrigated area. This resulted in depletion of groundwater from over exploitation. Increase in net sown area was possible due to introduction of high yielding varieties of wheat and rice, availability of fertilizers and pesticide. These were supported by farm sector input subsidies. These drivers of intensification in Punjab led to a decline in crop diversity, which has decreased significantly since the green revolution. Overuse of agrochemicals have resulted in environmental and human health issues (Table 1).

Scenario analysis of trade-offs and its implications in Punjab, India

Based on the above information, a summary of trends in key production and natural resources associated with agriculture in Punjab, India are provided in Table 2. In Punjab, trade-offs exist between food production and the environment, especially ground water resources, crop diversity, soil and human health (Table 1). In addition, there are some options, which can significantly enhance the synergies between food production and the environment. However, the trade-offs are stronger than the synergies, and it may not be feasible to completely neutralize the trade-offs by achieving higher levels of synergies with the current options. Minimizing trade-offs and improving synergies in current intensive agriculture will require significant financial, infrastructural and institutional support. Here, two alternate scenarios are highlighted – Crop Diversification (CD) Scenario, and Crop Diversification plus Technologies and Practices (CDTP) Scenario (Table 3)12. CD scenario requires decrease in area under rice cultivation by 1.2 million hectares. Whereas, CDTP scenarios requires adoption of water saving technology.


Strategic pathways for sustainable outcomes

This section elaborates on how this case study can be used to develop future priorities to secure food and ecological security in Punjab, India.

How ecosystem-based approach can be used to improve productivity, alleviate poverty and secure livelihoods of farming and non-farming communities

The ecosystem-based approach includes social, ecological and economic dimensions of natural resources and ecosystem services. The case study highlighted several trade-offs between food production and trends in natural resources (Table 2). In Punjab, loss of forest cover, depletion of groundwater, loss of crop diversity, impacts on health have been observed since the 1960s when intensification was started as national food security policy (Table 1). The ecosystem based approach including ecosystem-based adaptation (by integrating biodiversity and ecosystem services into overall adaptation strategy) can help to adapt to the changing trends of natural resources, adverse effects of climate change and to minimize trade-offs due to loss of ecosystem services. Economic valuation of food production systems and associated loss of natural capital and ecosystem services can guide development of future agriculture that can ensure food security for the growing population in Punjab, India1,8. For example, accounting for groundwater use in supporting national food security policy can help achieve sustainable use of water in Punjab.

Valuation of natural capital and ecosystem services in agriculture can provide a viable solution to many of the current socio-economic and environmental challenges as experienced in this case. Valuation can guide decision makers regarding the trade-offs and develop policies that can provide win-win solutions for farming communities and the environment.

How understanding declines and deficits of ecosystem services can help advance practices and policies for sustainable and equitable development

 It is vital to quantify declining natural resources and ecosystem services as agricultural ecosystems are directly dependent on them1. Decline and deficits in ecosystem services often results in trade-offs as observed in the Punjab study (Table 1). Valuation of ecosystem services can thus provide better information to deal with declining natural resources and ecosystem services of any unintended consequences such as those of intensive agriculture realized in Punjab, India. Economic valuation also includes risks and uncertainties, which are critical issues in agriculture. Farmers and policy makers have to deal with risks and uncertainties in making decisions about which crops to grow, what management practices to follow, how to provide subsidies and incentives etc. Risks are associated with situations where farmers know about the market conditions, weather patterns etc. and can assign probabilities to the occurrence of those situations so, they can make decisions on the basis of this information. In contrast, uncertainty is the situation where a farmer cannot assign probabilities to unexpected events. For example, it is difficult to assign probabilities to the occurrence of events such as consequences of overuse of ground water, excessive chemical inputs, subsidies to inputs, free access to natural resources etc. Moreover, farmers cannot enumerate all of the possible consequences of a decision. This is usually referred to as when science cannot explain some complex functioning of ecosystems and biodiversity. Therefore, it is useful to assess and quantify deficits in ecosystem services that can enable policy makers to develop appropriate responses. In the current format, input subsidies in India are aimed at increasing per unit production. However, these can be directed towards protection of natural resources and ecosystem services in order to avoid and reduce trade-offs.

How this information on ecosystem services, inter-linkages and trade-offs can help guide decision making to secure food and ecological security

Estimation of the economic value of ecosystem services in agriculture can provide policies to support financial incentives that further encourage best practices to protect the environment and increase production. Such schemes are widely known as payment for ecosystem services (PES)16. There are beneficiaries who receive benefits from ecosystem services and providers who supply them. PES schemes usually focus on water, carbon, and biodiversity in addressing environmental problems through positive incentives to land managers. There are limited examples in intensive agriculture. For example, fallow practice, organic agriculture, and management of set aside areas on farmland are some of the examples advocated by the European Union Common Agricultural Policy. PES schemes in global agriculture could provide incentives to ensure food and ecological security17. These schemes can help enhance and maintain regulating and supporting services, which are vital for agricultural production. A part of input subsidies can be channelled towards such schemes in the farming sector. In addition, alternative type of agriculture such as conservation agriculture, natural farming, and organic farming can be promoted through such schemes18.


On the basis of our analysis of trade-offs between food production and natural resources, we recommend the below measures to achieve food and ecological security in Punjab, India.

  • There is need to reduce input subsidies that have supported intensive agricultural practices since the 1960s in Punjab, India. These subsidies can be diverted towards incentivising diversification strategies.
  • Incentives can be further developed to replace a part of input subsidies to support on-farm protection of natural resources and ecosystem services. This must include accounting for natural capital and ecosystem services on farms and then developing schemes such as paying farmers for saving groundwater and storing carbon in soil. These may include subsidies for purchasing water saving technology and soil management implements such as zero-till drill.
  • Agricultural practices should include alternative practices such as conservation agriculture to improve productivity and prevent any loss of carbon.
  • Estimating economic value of natural capital and ecosystem services can help develop appropriate policy responses.


The case of Punjab, India, highlights various trade-offs between food production and natural resources and ecosystem services as a consequence of policies that led to intensification of agricultural systems. Declining natural resources have impacts on various ecosystem services and human health as observed in this case. However, alternative scenarios developed for scaling down intensification through crop diversification and use of efficient water saving technologies and sustainable farming practices can help resolve some of the trade-offs. Ensuring food and ecological security require shifting support for existing subsidies on fertilsers, pesticides and electricity to policies that support sustainable agriculture through the use of sustainable intensification in Punjab19,20. Transformation in agriculture is required to meet the current and future demand of food by growing populations under adverse market and climatic conditions. The framework based on the social, natural and economic capital may provide guidance in developing such policies. There is need to fast track development of sustainable agriculture to overcome current challenges. In response to these challenges, trade-offs identified in agriculture sector in Punjab, India can be highly relevant to develop sustainable intensification of agriculture.


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