Considered the “granary of India” because of its extremely rich farmland, Punjab is one of the country’s most prosperous states. But to ensure that it remains economically dynamic, the state has been banking on the development of intensive agriculture, based, in particular, on the use of large quantities of pesticides.
“The Punjab represents 2% of India’s farmland, but 10% of the chemical fertilizers used in the country are concentrated there. You can imagine the damage to soil quality. As a result, the percentage of organic carbon – roughly 4% in the 1970s, before the ‘green revolution’ – has fallen to approximately 0.4% today,” warns Jaspal Chattha, an expert in sustainable agriculture at India’s Naandi Foundation.
If the soil no longer retains carbon, organic matter cannot feed on it, which leads to impoverished farmland. Jaspal Chattha adds, “As a result of this deterioration, the soil does not retain as much water, which means drawing it from ever deeper down with diesel-powered pumps. According to a NASA report, if nothing is done, Punjab, which is also exposed to global warming, could suffer an unparalleled water crisis. It could turn into a desert.”
Improving production by promoting small local farmers
Given this situation, Nutricia (Danone’s baby food subsidiary, which uses 100% locally-produced milk in its factories) decided to take action in close collaboration with experts and small farmers in the field.
In 2013 it initiated a training program dubbed Academilk, which has since helped more than 5,000 farmers to improve the quality of their milk, while boosting their productivity.
“Punjab 2020 is an inspiring and ambitious initiative. I congratulate both the Nutricia and Naandi teams for investing time and resources in promoting sustainable agricultural practices and healthy nutrition in Punjab. Our entire team is proud to work in a company that is committed to leave a positive legacy in our community”. Rodrigo Lima, General Manager Danone One India.
But to take this a step further and foster the emergence of a sustainable ecosystem in Punjab, Nutricia has formed an alliance with the Naandi Foundation, specialized in water access issues, to lead the Punjab 2020 project. Backed by the Danone Ecosystem Fund, this project is based on a process of co-creation. “At Danone, we believe in an ecosystemic approach. Change can only be brought about by working hand-in-hand with farmers and the NGOs concerned,” says Sajid Ali, Social Innovation Manager at Danone Nutricia India.
Since its launch in early 2015, Punjab 2020 has been rolling out an inclusive model designed to ensure the sustainable sourcing of quality products and improve the living conditions of rural families.
“Initially, the idea is not only to provide advice to small-scale farmers to help them implement a profitable dairy production model, but also to draw on the concept of the ‘champion farmer.’ So the project aims to train more than 500 champion farmers on sustainable practices over three years. Once trained, they will be able to introduce other small-scale dairy farmers to these techniques,” says Sajid Ali.
The champion farmers involved in the process stop using any pesticides and are encouraged to diversify their crops. Burning their post-harvest residue is also prohibited. In parallel, those small farmers are trained to improve their dairy activity practices, and encourage optimizing the cow feed on their land in order to increase their milk production. The projects foster activity diversification for smallholders but also gives specific support to targeted group of small dairy farmers more specialized in milk production activity. In the view of securing the milk sourcing in quality and quantity for the Business Unit.
A mobile app is already in the pipeline for small dairy farmers, to give them advice on how to optimize their methods.
“The app will be released very soon. But it’s important to keep in mind that not every farmer in the region has the same level of education,” says Sajid Ali. “As a result, we will initially encourage them to note down their production data (operating costs, available stock, etc.), so that the habit can eventually be transferred to a mobile device. Slowly but surely, we’re helping farmers adapt to the challenges ahead.”
For Jaspal Chattha, the gradual implementation of sustainable and profitable farm models for small-scale growers is the key to the vital transformation of the Punjab region. “In addition to my duties at the Foundation, I’ve been a farmer since 1981, and I made the move to organic farming in 2004. The trouble is that small-scale farmers have no production processes – and they often work alone, without access to training, so they’re unable to improve their productivity and thus their income. So, regardless of the sustainability aspect, there is a problem in terms of financial prospects. And, if a dynamic for change isn’t established in that regard, people won’t want to change, either. In that sense, training and mutual learning sessions would be a real plus,” he says.
From sustainable agriculture to a healthy diet
The Punjab 2020 project does not focus solely on spreading a sustainable production model; it also aims to provide follow-up and nutritional advice to farmers’ wives and kids, whose poor and non-diversified diets now pose a threat to their health.
The introduction of sustainable production models and specific healthy food own production, particularly on small farms, will cut costs for rural Punjab families and give them to diversified diets. But we also want to involve them in changing their subsistence farming, in a way that’s good for both the soil and their health. And to advise mothers on their children’s diets or their own diets – during pregnancy, for example. This connection between sustainable production and nutrition is at the very core of our approach and helps to enact systemic changes to practices,” says Sajid Ali.
An approach that is completely in line with India’s desire to promote its own expertise through the concept of “Make in India,” summed up by former Danone India Managing Director Laurent Marcel in the daily Tribune India : “‘Make in India’ does not only mean manufacture in India, but also innovate in India to develop best-in-class nutrition products and services tailored for the Indian market.”