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TIGR2ESS: Transforming India's Green Revolution by Research and Empowerment for Sustainable food Supplies

A Global Challenges Research Fund project


Justifications for supporting India’s agricultural sector typically lack an environmental perspective. A solution to this could be to think of the benefits of farming as public goods. Here, Flagship Project 1 intern Anna Gardner discusses a public goods case for public support to agriculture in India.

Agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for about 58% of India’s population. Support for the agricultural sector is typically justified in terms of poverty reduction, enhancing economic development, and ensuring food security. What these explanations lack is an environmental perspective. The question that arises is how we can resolve the need for ecological sustainability with support for an agricultural sector where the Green Revolution practices implemented since the 1960s have compromised environmental quality.

One solution could be to think of benefits from the agricultural sector as public goods. Lessons can be learned from European agri-environmental policy, which categorises agriculture as an industry producing a range of goods and services, some of which are not reflected in market prices.

What are public goods?

Public goods are defined in economics as non-excludable (because they are available for everyone to access) and non-rival (because consuming them does not diminish their stock; there is a continuous supply). In practice, rivalry and excludability are often scale-dependent - they vary depending upon land ownership and political choice.

The above definition can be expanded to recognise the nuances of human-nature relations. This in turn helps to align the so-called public goods agenda with other policy frameworks such as ecosystem services.

Why consider agriculture as a public good?

Considering agriculture as a public good means you can account for the benefits and costs that exist outside of private markets. Farming (and its associated well-functioning ecosystems and landscapes) can provide a range of public benefits that are not reflected in market prices.

Positive environmental impacts of agriculture include improved soil health, improved air and water quality, reduced flood risk and climate change mitigation through the reduction and storage of greenhouse gases, as well as preserving biodiversity and providing space for recreation. Farming can also produce ‘complex social goods’ with cultural and traditional value. The ecological and socio-cultural practices associated with farming mean it is a ready candidate to fit within the scope of public goods.

Support for agriculture as a public good

The public goods agenda has been used by the UK Government to justify support for the agricultural sector. The UK experience helps to frame the possibilities and challenges of thinking of agriculture as a public good.

There is some merit in applying a public goods agenda to the Indian context. It justifies prioritising support for sustainable farming practices and resource use, which is particularly important for addressing the environmental challenges India faces in the context of ecologically damaging farming practices, and, more broadly, climate crisis.

However, there are also aspects that are difficult to reconcile in India.

One criticism of using the public goods agenda is that it can involve a trade-off with food security. There may be an incentive for farmers to specialise in providing environmental services rather than producing food. This would have grave consequences for a country like India where food and nutritional security are a major challenge. While the primary purpose of supporting agriculture in the UK can be thought of in terms of its environmental benefits, in India supporting agriculture is more closely linked to the provision of food (a tradeable private good) and poverty reduction.

The employment share of the agricultural sector in India is also a potential barrier. In purely monetary terms, any public goods-based policy that seeks to compensate farmers for the cost of the environmental public goods they provide may be prohibitively expensive.

Other issues may also emerge. In the UK context critics argue that there is a higher uptake of agri-environmental payments in areas where this does not require significant changes to farming practices. This may limit the environmental benefits of such schemes. Linked to this, payments for environmental services usually reflect the compensation the farmer needs to make the required effort. This is not always the same as a calculated value of the public goods, again affecting the benefits provided by such schemes.

Is public support the answer?

Overall, the public goods agenda can be used to complement justifications for supporting farmers by providing an environmental perspective, rather than being the core rationale for such support. The question that remains is what concrete form any support on this basis should and can take.

Anna Gardner is an undergraduate student at the University of Cambridge in the Department of Geography and recently completed a research internship with TIGR2ESS Flagship Project 1. She hopes to carry out her dissertation in the area of resource management, looking at public and common goods.