Public policy, ripple effects and feedback loops

Wheat Green Revolution

I have always been intrigued by product design and by extension policy design (& implementation). If the government were to look at itself as a start-up technology venture, the policies, schemes and guidelines issued by the government would possibly be the “products” of this venture.

And like any good product manager, one should study not just the immediate impact of change(s) in product design but also the delayed and maybe stickier changes in consumer behaviour.

And that is what I want to share with you today.

Shift in dietary habits due to Green Revolution

Sometime last month, I was visiting an uncle of mine – someone who is in his mid 70s, reasonably fit, exercises regularly and has borderline diabetes. While we sat at the lunch table, I noticed that he had multiple other grains in his roti as against mine which was from just wheat atta. It seems most physicians recommend adding ragi, chana etc in your atta mix as a healthier alternative.

And that’s how our conversation began.

Wheat Green Revolution

And what came out was quite surprising for me.

It seems in their childhood days in villages of western U.P., wheat was not the staple grain. Infact it was considered a delicacy and wheat-chapattis were made when they had guests over. And he comes from a well-to-do farmer family. This was not because of economic constraints, it was just how things were.

So as the elders started talking about this significant shift in probably the most important component in a typical North-Indian meal – roti – what emerged was that the shift was triggered by the Green Revolution in all probability.

This lunch group which included scientists and government employees, agreed to the following sequence of events:

  • Wheat was one of the chosen candidates for green revolution . Though am very curious to find out why?
  • Government stepped in on the supply side with higher yield varieties, irrigation support etc
  • It also created artificial demand by setting up floor prices thus encouraging farmers to grow wheat. Making wheat a critical component of Public Distribution System also ensured a big buyer for wheat at these prices. This in turn ensured that a higher percentage of land under cultivation now got sowed with wheat
  • This brought the otherwise-considered-premium grain into the middle-class households at a very affordable price. Imagine if suddenly, you find yourself able to afford an item which for years or maybe generations was considered premium, chances are you will buy more of it to feel good (my assumption)
  • And they all started eating wheat more, skewing our diet heavily towards this singular grain in North India.
  • And the subsequent generation(s) like ours has come to believe that our rotis have always been a wheat-only product. Coz wheat rotis is what we ever saw.

Am also very clear that India’s self-reliance on nutrition has been contributed heavily by progress on wheat and rice. So there’s no doubt that this has worked as planned.

The fact that wheat may not be the healthiest grain is probably something new. Gluten intolerance was probably unheard of during the Green Revolution.

But with the new facts before us, should the government re-evaluate its focus on just a handful of grains in its policies.

What if, the support prices on wheat are relaxed a bit? What if other “healthier” grains are encouraged similarly? Will the cost of managing supply chains and warehousing for multiple grains offset the advantages of a wider-spread in our diet?

Many questions and I don’t have any answers.

Low availability of fodder for cattle

Ask any elder who has seen standing wheat crop in the fields now-a-days vs in the old days. One thing they would tell you is that the wheat crop is now stunted. Its much much shorter.

This am told, was probably one of the biggest breakthrough in developing High-Yield-Varieties. The nutrients and water is no longer “wasted” in the growth of the non-grain-yielding parts of the crop.

But on the flip side – this has increased the cost of cattle-management for local farmers. Why?

There just isn’t enough fresh fodder for the cattle. The non-grain part of the wheat crop was used as fresh and dried fodder for the cattle that the farmer had at home. This is gone.

As my friend (who runs a dairy farm) tells me, procuring fodder is now a big challenge in most regions.


I am not an economist or an agriculture scientist and probably have understood just a very small part of the whole picture here.

But I learnt few important lessons from this lunch conversation :

  1. There are usually multiple ripple-effects of any new policy change ( or product change)
  2. While the product may deliver on the core metrics initially identified as measurements of success, we should zoom-out and ask ourselves, what else has changed
  3. I should start eating healthier. Right now  🙂
  • Abhimanyu

    wow.. an interesting observation lead to a healthy and filling discussion and discovery.

    Well written Wribhu

    • Thanks Abhi. Its just scary how small decisions can potentially impact so many down-stream attributes.