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Food security needs sustainable agriculture practice

Sunday, Mar 15, 2020 13:45 [IST]

Last Update: Sunday, Mar 15, 2020 08:06 [IST]

Food security needs sustainable agriculture practice

Dr DEBAPRIYA MUKHERJEE
India’s food security programs are among the largest in the world and cover more than 800 million people in the country by providing affordable access to grains. Thereby significant progress has been made in improving food and nutrition security. For instance, stunting among children less than 5 years has declined from 48% to 38.4% between 2005-06 and 2015-16. During the same period, the percentage of underweight children has declined from 42.5% to 35.7%. All these programs are being implemented  so that vast swathes of people will not die of starvation.  But will any one agree to allow cutting down remaining forests to free up more land for farming; or to allow intensive farming within limited land and labor force using harmful chemicals to ensure food security even crops are highly contaminated and to jeopardize environmental sustainability (ES)?
In this view, we all will agree to produce crops that are perhaps drought resistant, or can fix their own nitrogen, or resist diseases and pests without use of pesticides and overall can ensure ES. Is it possible to adopt this agricultural practice where accelerated urbanization and corresponding human activities are triggering tremendous land use changes and restricting availability of farm land? Many people have their own blinkers and ideologies that people will starve before this happens. Now we are concerned to secure and provide plentiful, healthy and nutritious food for all in an environmentally sustainable and safe manner, while addressing the multiple burdens of under nutrition, overweight and obesity and micronutrient decencies.
In this piquant situation, there is emergent need to minimize the conflict between food security and ES based on critical appraisal of present unsustainable agricultural practice otherwise the depleted soil, chemically fouled waters, and worsening public health will lead to heavy financial burden. A range of studies have shown that the overuse of chemicals has found its way into Punjab’s food, water and soil and had a devastating impact on public health. There are at least 90 cancer patients for every 100,000 people in Punjab compared with the national average of 80. Though it is claimed by the manufacturers that there is no measurable harm to bee colonies … when these pesticides are applied on farms following official guidelines. But this statement is misleading and unscientific according to the scientists.
To prevent unsustainable agriculture practice, the National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA), in collaboration with other Missions under the National Action Plan on Climate Change, is striving towards mitigating the impact of climate change and sustaining agricultural productivity. Under NMSA, More than 62 million Soil Health Cards are being issued to farmers for providing crop-wise nutrient management recommendations and enabling them improve soil fertility as well as crop productivity by promoting organic farming. In reality, the major problems related to such intensive farming based on synthetic chemicals  such as  pollution, deserti?cation, topsoil degradation, biodiversity loss, pollinator decline, greenhouse gas emission, climate change, reduction of the size of the terrestrial carbon sink and energy requirements are not properly addressed.
Though advanced policy has been framed to address the complexity of food supply but exposure of intensive farming to different environmental risks associated with product life cycle including, production, processing, analysis, distribution, and recycling are not properly addressed as if "NATURE" doesn’t matter. This dismal ES  stays well shrouded  on the grounds of social angles ( food security)  and thereby ES that is defined as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs"  are not considered with due accentuation by any government. In this critical situation, sustainable development (SD) has been halted. In this view it is pertinent to mention that intensive farming being practiced in many countries contributes completely different forms of environmental burden than any other industrial and domestic sectors.
In India, increasing population and consumption of food are placing unprecedented demands on food production and natural resources. Green Revolution adopted mainly in developing countries  since 1960s has paid rich dividend as farmers were not only able to enhance food production to satisfy our needs but also to earn valuable foreign exchange. India has achieved a remarkable growth in agriculture, increasing food grain production from 83 tonnes in 1960-61 to about 252.7 tonnes in 2014-15. With food production, consumption of chemical fertilizers increased from less than 1 million tons of total nutrients in the mid sixties to almost 25.6 million tons in 2014-15 and pesticides with total consumption of from 41020 tonnes in 2003-2004 to 54121 tonnes in 2015-2016 reported by Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers, Govt. of India.  Thereby in the coming years, continued population growth will place the demands on the agriculture and natural resources with consumption of more chemical fertilizers leading to dismal of ES.
Though corporate brigade always advocates that agrochemicals remain a key to the success of agriculture accord and make the country self-sufficient in feeding our people but according to researchers, 30%–35% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture and crop irrigation accounts for 70% of the world’s freshwater withdrawals. The use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer has increased nearly 21-fold since 1950, and more nitrogen is now added to agricultural soils than from natural processes leading to loss of human-derived nitrogen to the ambient air, receiving waters both surface and subsurface; and the resultant eutrophication in water bodies suffocates aquatic ecosystems. The problem of water pollution is further aggravated due to phosphorus from fertilizer and livestock manure. Rampant use pesticides, herbicides, antibiotic and hormone without optimizing the "Dose-Response relationship" are also exacerbating environmental pollution. Despite severe environmental degradation to maintain food security, no effective policy instruments have been developed to address the dual challenges of food security and environmental sustainability. In this view, food production must grow substantially while, at the same time, agriculture’s environmental footprint must shrink dramatically.
Numerous regulatory agencies all over the world have not clearly declared the possibility of environmental hazard due to use of these chemicals. Scientific truth behind this intensive farming has been manipulated simply to maximize the profit of agro-chemical producers globally at the expense of human health and environment. In this context, it is pertinent to recollect the warning of the famous scientist named Sri Bernhard Url  --- "Eroding trust in regulatory agencies will not improve democratic accountability and don’t attack science agencies for political gain (Nature553, 381, 2018)" ---  which brings to limelight how scientific assessment is being practically dictated by the corporate brigade.
In this view, organic farming is presently emerging as an alternative agricultural system or integrated farming system prohibiting the use of synthetic pesticides, antibiotics, synthetic fertilizers and growth hormones. It awards stress on fertilizers of organic origin such as compost manures, green manure and emphasizes on techniques such as crop rotation. An organic farming practice that is combination of incremental innovation of traditional agriculture practice called “agroecology”,  simply takes full advantage of nature’s assets, drawn from the farm itself and surrounding ecosystems, to grow foods. These foods are good for human health, economic prosperity, the environment and for slowing climate change. Eating a healthy diet rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals is a solid investment in preventive care. Preventing disease is much more cost efficient than treating it. For farmers, organic farming is profitable because organic foods are in demand and also due to the price premiums they receive.
In many countries including India, dedicated people are conserving and exchanging local traditional seeds to maintain a huge genetic pool. Traditional seeds for vegetables and cereals are also preserved, grown and sold throughout the respective country though not in large scale. The traditional agriculture by using indigenous seeds, judicious land management particularly agricultural diversi?cation practices (multi-cropping and crop rotations) can easily  reduce  the yield gap, signi?cantly improve aggregate stability of soil compared to conventional systems, enhance soil water retention, attract pollinators, improve water use e?ciency especially under drought conditions.
In an village named Moutorh in Purulia (India), we have succeeded in preparing organic manure utilizing aquatic plants such as Water Hyacinth, Pistia and azolla with little amount of cow dung and pond sediment  to grow organic vegetables, paddy, flowers, fruits and lentils  with little  financial incentive to prove its sustainability. Yield gap was minimum (10-15% less). Growth of plants in this soil, that was organically managed, has changed the soil quality for better as evident by the color of it and presence of living organism within four years.
Despite the obvious benefits, several key challenges have slowed the growth of organic agriculture. One of the major impediments is that agro-chemical industry tries to convince the small farmers as observed in many villages that organic farming requires "rocket" science and cannot be effective to ensure profit. Now increasing public awareness about the value of organic farming and conducting research to explore the barriers and opportunities to organic farming are essential in overcoming the challenges of organic agriculture. Additional innovative agriculture practice is imperative to fill the gaps in the scientific understanding of the benefits of organic farming. Of course, sanctioning of huge public money in the name of organic farming may be projected as a "proof" to establish the concern of the Government, State apparatus, regulators and the politicians. But this "support" of organic farming will must ensure practical benefit because that State-sponsored money often would not trickle down to the organic farmer at the grass root level with defined accountability and responsibility towards sustainable development addressing equilibrium among economy, society and environment.
E-mail dpmcpcb@yahoo.com

Sikkim at a Glance

  • Area: 7096 Sq Kms
  • Capital: Gangtok
  • Altitude: 5,840 ft
  • Population: 6.10 Lakhs
  • Topography: Hilly terrain elevation from 600 to over 28,509 ft above sea level
  • Climate:
  • Summer: Min- 13°C - Max 21°C
  • Winter: Min- 0.48°C - Max 13°C
  • Rainfall: 325 cms per annum
  • Language Spoken: Nepali, Bhutia, Lepcha, Tibetan, English, Hindi