Council on Energy, Environment and Water Integrated | International | Independent
Sustainable Agriculture in India 2021
What We Know and How to Scale Up
16 April, 2021 | Sustainable Food Systems
Niti Gupta, Shanal Pradhan, Abhishek Jain, Nayha Patel

Suggested citation: Gupta, Niti, Shanal Pradhan, Abhishek Jain and Nayha Patel. 2021. Sustainable Agriculture in India 2021 – What we know and how to scale up. New Delhi: Council on Energy, Environment and Water.


This study, in collaboration with the Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU), provides an overview of the current state of sustainable agriculture practices and systems (SAPSs) in India. It aims to help policymakers, administrators, philanthropists, and others contribute to an evidence-based scale-up of SAPSs, which represent a vital alternative to conventional, input-intensive agriculture in the context of a climate-constrained future. The study identifies 16 SAPSs – including agroforestry, crop rotation, rainwater harvesting, organic farming and natural farming – using agroecology as an investigative lens. Based on an in-depth review of 16 practices, it concludes that sustainable agriculture is far from mainstream in India. Further, it proposes several measures for promoting SAPSs, including restructured government support and rigorous evidence generation.

Key Highlights

  • Sustainable agriculture offers a much-needed alternative to conventional input-intensive agriculture, the long-term impacts of which include degrading topsoil, declining groundwater levels and reduced biodiversity. It is vital to ensure India’s nutrition security in a climate-constrained world.
  • While various definitions of sustainable agriculture exist, this study uses agroecology as a lens of investigation. This term broadly refers to less resource-intensive farming solutions, greater diversity in crops and livestock, and farmers’ ability to adapt to local circumstances.
  • Sustainable agriculture is far from mainstream in India, with only 5 (crop rotation; agroforestry; rainwater harvesting; mulching and precision) SAPSs scaling beyond 5 per cent of the net sown area.
  • Most SAPSs are being adopted by less than five million (or four per cent) of all Indian farmers. Many are practised by less than one per cent.
  • Crop rotation is the most popular SAPS in India, covering around 30 million hectares (Mha) of land and approximately 15 million farmers. Agroforestry, mainly popular among large cultivators, and rainwater harvesting have relatively high coverage - 25 Mha and 20-27 Mha, respectively.
  • Organic farming currently covers only 2.8 Mha — or two per cent of India’s net sown area of 140 Mha. Natural farming is the fastest growing sustainable agricultural practice in India and has been adopted by around 800,000 farmers. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) has achieved a coverage area of 5 Mha after decades of sustained promotion.

Sustainable agriculture practices and systems in India (2021) – key statistics

  • Agroforestry and system of rice intensification (SRI) are the most popular among researchers studying the impact of SAPSs on economic, environmental, and social outcomes. Evidence for the impact of practices such as biodynamic agriculture, permaculture and floating farming are either very limited or non-existent.
  • The existing literature critically lacks long-term assessments of SAPSs across all three sustainability dimensions (economic, environmental and social). Other research limitations include a research gap concerning landscape, regional or agroecological-zone level assessments and a relative lack of focus on evaluation criteria such as biodiversity, health and gender.
  • The budget outlay for the National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA) is only 0.8 per cent of the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare’s total budget - INR 142,000 crore (excluding INR 71,309 crore spent annually on fertiliser subsidies by the Centre).
  • Eight of the 16 practices identified by the study receive some budgetary support under various central government schemes. Of these, organic farming has received the most policy attention as Indian states, too, have formulated exclusive organic farming policies. 
  • Most Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) involved in SAPSs were active in Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Organic farming, natural farming and vermicomposting get the most interest from CSOs.

Key Emerging Themes in India’s Sustainable Agriculture

  • The role of knowledge: Most SAPSs are knowledge-intensive and successful adoption require knowledge exchange and capacity building among farmers.
  • The reliance on farm labour: Since SAPSs are niche, the mechanisation for various input preparations, weed removal, or even harvesting in a mixed cropping field is not mainstream yet. Hence, SAPs are labour-intensive, which may hinder their adoption by medium to large farmers.
  • Motivation: The negative long-term impacts of conventional agriculture are pushing farmers to search for alternatives. Further, farmers in resource-constrained environments who do not use significant external inputs are also willing to make the incremental shift to SAPSs.
  • Role in food and nutrition securitySAPSs improve farmers’ food security by diversifying their food and income sources. They also enhance nutrition security for families subsisting on agriculture. However, both these aspects call for further research.

Key Recommendations

  • The scale-up could start with rainfed areas, as they are already practising low-resource agriculture, have low productivities, and primarily stand to gain from the transition.
  • Restructure government support to farmers by aligning incentives towards resource conservation and by rewarding outcomes such as total farm productivity or enhanced ecosystem services rather than just outputs such as yields.
  • Support rigorous evidence generation through long-term comparative assessments of conventional, resource-intensive agriculture on the one hand and sustainable agriculture on the other.
  • Take steps to broaden the perspectives of stakeholders across the agriculture ecosystem and make them more open to alternative approaches.
  • Extend short-term transition support to individuals liable to be adversely impacted by a large-scale transition to sustainable agriculture.
  • Make sustainable agriculture visible by integrating data and information collection on SAPSs in the prevailing national and state-level agriculture data systems.


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Fellow & Director - Powering Livelihoods
Scaling-up sustainable agriculture is imperative to meet India’s nutritional security in a climate-constrained world. This report will help decision-makers filter signals from the noise to make informed decisions to scale-up sustainable agriculture in India.

Executive Summary

Green Revolution-led agriculture in a climate changing-world

Arguably, the Green Revolution remains the most defining phase of Indian agriculture in the last century. An input-intensive and technology-focused approach helped India avert potential famines and meet its food security needs by reducing food imports. While the Green Revolution has ensured India’s self-sufficiency for our cereal needs and has touched most Indian farmers, its long-term impacts are now visibly evident. Be it degrading topsoil, declining groundwater levels, contaminating water bodies, and reducing biodiversity. Crop yields are unable to sustain themselves without increased fertiliser use. Fragmented land holdings and associated low farm incomes are pushing many smallholders towards non-farm economic activities. Maturing climate change science makes it evident that input-intensive agriculture is both a contributor and a victim of climate change.

Sustainable agriculture: a promising way-forward?

In the face of increasing extreme climate events—acute and frequent droughts, floods, desert locust attacks—examples of resilience are emerging from the ground, highlighting sustainable agriculture’s potential. For instance, in Andhra Pradesh, during the Pethai and Titli cyclones in 2018, the crops cultivated through natural farming showed greater resilience to heavy winds than conventional crops. While such examples are emerging, the overall understanding of the state of sustainable agriculture at a pan-India level is missing. For example, what sustainable agricultural practices are prevailing across India? Where are they being practised? How many farmers have adopted them? Which organisations are promoting such practices? What impact has such practices had on farm incomes, environment and social outcomes? If impact evidence is not available, then what are the gaps in our current knowledge?

This study attempts to answer such questions to help policymakers, administrators, and philanthropic organisations, among others, to make evidence-backed decisions to scale-up sustainable agriculture practices in India as appropriate.

Sustainable agriculture: terminologies and the agroecology lens

It is important to understand what ‘sustainable agriculture’ is before identifying specific sustainable agricultural practices. As a concept, sustainable agriculture is dynamic with wide variations in its definition and practice. In our efforts to reconcile the concept, we encountered almost 70 definitions of the term. Multiple terms are used to refer to underlying concepts of sustainable agriculture. Let us consider the Google search trends of the last 15 years. Organic farming is the most popular term, followed by sustainable agriculture, agroecology, natural farming, and then regenerative agriculture (Figure ES1).

Figure ES1 Google trends show organic farming as the most popular term worldwide

Source: Authors’ adaption from (Google Trends)

Among various definitions, we selected agroecology as a lens of investigation in our study, as it adequately captures all the three dimensions of sustainability—economic, environmental, and social. Broadly, it refers to less resource-intensive farming solutions, provides more diversity in crops and livestock, and allows farmers to adapt to local circumstances.

Impact literature on India’s sustainable agriculture

From the systematic review of literature, we find that agroforestry, CA, and SRI are the most popular among researchers assessing the impact of SAPSs on various outcomes (Figure ES2). In contrast, the impact evidence around permaculture and floating farming in the Indian context is almost non-existent. The impact evidence of biodynamic agriculture is also very limited currently. Regarding different areas of outcomes, most of the SAPSs have many publications focusing on environmental indicators followed by economic and social ones. However, organic farming, natural farming, and integrated farming systems have many publications focused on economic outcomes.

  • The literature critically lacks long-term impact assessments of SAPSs across all three sustainability dimensions. Short-term (0.5 – 3 years long) assessments mainly dominate the literature. These are not helpful to understand the long-term impacts of transitioning to SAPSs. Few practices, such as CA, have long-term impact studies, primarily focused on environmental outcomes in Indo-Gangetic plains’.
  • Impact studies are mostly limited to plot-level trials, while assessments at a landscape/regional/agroecological-zone level are mostly missing, except for agroforestry. We find that the cost of long-term and larger studies is the biggest reason for these research gaps.
  • Most publications evaluate a SAPSs impact on only a single dimension of interest (such as water, soil, gender, or yields).
  • Yields, income, soil health, and water find the most interest as a subject area among researchers across all the three sustainability dimensions. Impacts of SAPSs on biodiversity, ecosystem services, health, and gender are least researched.
  • Conventional approaches to measuring farm productivity are often not adequate for SAPSs. For yields, the studies tend to compare a single crop yield between sustainable and conventional practices. Crop-diversification through inter-cropping or multi-cropping is common under various SAPSs, and the productivity discussions in literature often ignore outcomes across other crops. Similarly, various SAPSs commonly promote livestock integration, but the evidence capturing total farm productivity, including livestock output, is limited.


Sustainable agriculture’s impact evidence in India
  • Income: The evidence around SAPSs’ impact on farmers’ incomes remains insufficient, both in terms of geographical coverage as well as the number of long-term assessments. Notwithstanding this critical limitation, the literature indicates the potential of a few SAPSs to enhance income through a reduction in production costs (CA, natural farming), diversification of agricultural production (IFS, intercropping), and premium prices (organic produce).
  • Yields: Notwithstanding the conceptual limitations to adequately estimate farm productivity, we find some emerging patterns for yields under a few SAPSs. For organic farming, at least in the short-term (2-3 years), yields are lower than conventional farming. Beyond this period, some studies show equal and even higher yields for some crops, particularly once the soil form and structure evolve after a few years of applying biological inputs. The short-duration studies of natural farming indicate no statistically significant changes in yields for most crops. For SRI, yield impacts are well documented, showing a statistically significant increase in various paddy varieties. Resource-conserving practices, such as vermicomposting, agroforestry, and crop diversification, have positively impacted yields. However, the lack of studies documenting the long-term impacts of SAPSs on yields makes it difficult to generalise results.
  • Water-use: Several studies in literature capture the impact of various SAPSs on water-use efficiency. In particular, SRI, CA, precision farming, rainwater harvesting, contour farming, cover crops, mulching, crop rotation, and agroforestry have positively impacted water conservation. Rainwater harvesting and SRI appeal to smallholder farmers because of their ease of adoption. Pre-monsoon dry sowing in natural farming is considered a breakthrough in the drought-prone regions of Andhra Pradesh, warranting further assessments.
  • GHG emissions: Among SAPSs, agroforestry, SRI, and CA have the most evidence for climate mitigation. Evidence associated with agroforestry’s carbon-sequestering abilities (above and below ground) is well established. A growing body of evidence suggests that the SRI promotes aerobic soil conditions reducing methane emissions. However, intermittent irrigation, an intrinsic component of SRI, can increase nitrous oxide emissions. Overall, long-term carbon sequestration impacts of the SAPSs need evaluation in India.
  • Biodiversity: Several SAPSs like agroforestry, IFS, permaculture, natural farming, organic farming, conservation agriculture, and crop diversification strategies (rotation, intercropping, mixed) tend to increase the spatial, vertical, and temporal diversity of species at a farm (and landscape) level. While research articles mention the impact on biodiversity, studies offering substantive empirical evidence are missing.
  • Health: We only find anecdotal evidence mentioning positive health impacts of various SAPSs, mainly through dietary diversity and less exposure to harmful chemicals such as pesticides. Empirical studies comparing SAPSs with conventional agriculture for health outcomes are missing.
  • Gender: Women contribute more than 70 per cent of the labour force in Indian agriculture. However, research studies focusing on gender outcomes of SAPSs are minimal. A few practices like vermicomposting, organic farming, IFS, and rainwater harvesting define women’s roles, but the evidence on women’s impact is missing. We need further research to understand the impact of various SAPSs on women’s workloads, income, empowerment, and employment.

While states like Sikkim and Andhra Pradesh are leading the way on sustainable agriculture in India, the adoption remains on the margins at an all-India level. Likewise, the impact evidence about its outcomes on the economic, social and environmental front is limited.

At one end, we must generate more long-term evidence. Alongside, we should leverage existing evidence to scale-up context-specific SAPSs. The scale-up could start with rainfed areas, as they are already practising low-resource agriculture, have low productivities, and primarily stand to gain from the transition. As the positive results at scale would emerge, farmers in irrigated areas will follow suit.

At the budgetary level, significantly increase allocation to sustainable agriculture enabling its evidence-backed scale-up across the country. At the tactical level, focus on region- and practice-wise priorities, which span a wide variety: from technological innovation to help mechanise labour-intensive processes to farmers’ capacity building in knowledge-intensive practices.

Finally, broaden the national policy focus from food security to nutrition security and yield to total farm productivity. It would help recognise the critical role that sustainable agriculture could play to ensure India’s nutrition security in a climate-constrained world.


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Fellow & Director - Powering Livelihoods

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