Food vs Income

date. 2020-2021

country. India, Nepal, Bangladesh

method. multiple-goal optimization

partners. Wageningen Environmental Research


India has gone from famine to food security in a matter of decades, an achievement brought about by the green revolution, through new high-yielding seed varieties and increased inputs, and - since the 1980ies – a rapid increase in the exploitation of groundwater resources through the introduction of tubewells and groundwater pumps. The Indo-Gangetic plain, with its vast irrigation system supplied by water from the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, is one of the ‘breadbaskets‘ of the world.

Despite this success, serious concerns remain regarding the viability of the current agricultural system. India still counts the largest number of malnourished children and adults in the world. High numbers of farmer suicides since the 1990ies indicate a severe level of distress. Agriculture is no longer considered a profitable enterprise. Increased costs of irrigation have been suggested as one of the causes of high levels of suicide.

In this scoping study, we characterize the trade-off between profitability and production, within three important energy and environmental boundary conditions related to the water-energy-food-environment (WEFE) nexus, under a range of water cost options. For this, we use the WaterWise hydro-economic model developed at Wageningen Environmental Research. Initial results show that prioritising income over production will lead to a large reduction in the production of staple crops under current cost and price levels.

Our exploration has relevance beyond the Indo-Gangetic plain and Indian context as it reflects the universal trade-off between guaranteeing income for food producers, and keeping prices low for poor urban and rural consumers. It also illustrates the potential conflict in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals ambitions, with SDG 1 - no poverty – conflicting with 2 - zero hunger.