Agriculture And Environment: Case For Sustainability

Financial Times Information
Author    Ishita G. Tripathy and K. K. Tripathy

Business Line, 10 November 2004 – Farmers must be encouraged to limit use of agro-inputs that can have negative environmental impact.

As agriculture evolved into a more productive activity, it became more energy-intensive too. In the process of this transformation, the varieties of crops chosen, though high-yielding, were found to be prone to epidemic diseases. This led to extensive use of pesticides and insecticides.

The changes in environment caused due to agricultural practices are varied: -defacement of land,
-deforestation,
-loosening of soil structure,
-depletion of soil nutrients, water logging,
-depletion of ground water resources,
-multiple nutrient imbalance,
-changing pest-disease-weed syndrome,
-eutrophication (enriched nutrient content) of water bodies, and   *methaemoglobinaemia (a kind of anaemia caused by water containingnitrates).

Agriculture is the most dominant land-using activity. As settled agriculture encroaches further into forests and fragile areas, the ecosystem gets destroyed with universally acknowledged adverse impact on all forms of life. Deforestation is already known to have caused irreversible damage in some areas and its continuation could lead to ecological disasters.

At the current rate of forest loss in developing countries, at over half a per cent a year, is perceived as jeopardising the sustainability of the whole pyramid of systems for human support based on plant life. Removal of forest cover also upsets the natural hydrological system – reducing water-holding capacities of land, leading to flash floods, soil erosion and the consequent dry season water shortages downstream.

Three key issues of agro practices determining sustainability are:

Irrigation

Controlled irrigation is a pre-condition for the success of intensive agriculture. Problems related to irrigation range from seepage in the canal system to excessive irrigation, which cause salinity and water logging, reducing aeration and percolation of the applied fertilisers below the root system.

The major problems associated with the unscientific and unregulated development of groundwater are the over-exploitation of the resource leading to a fall in water levels causing failure of the well/tube well, deepening of the structure resulting in higher cost of pumping as well as seepage from sewer system
Soil

Soil erosion happens when the surface soil is washed away due to excessive rains and floods, indiscriminate felling of trees, conversion of forest into cultivated land and incorrect methods of cultivation. Besides depleting vegetative cover, overgrazing hardens the soil, prevents forest regeneration and causes soil erosion.

Excessive use of fertilisers also leads to micro-nutrient deficiency in soil. The applied fertilisers, which are not used by crop plants and percolate down, find their way into groundwater aquifers, increasing concentration of nitrates in drinking water that could lead to methaemoglobinaemia in bottle-fed infants.

Extra amounts of fertilisers being washed down with rain water into water bodies, causes eutrophication of the latter.

Biocides

The effect of ‘biocides’ such as insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and rodenticides remains active long after their targets are destroyed (and destroy other beings not aimed). This makes ‘biocides’ environmentally dangerous. Their concentration in the food chain gets magnified at each trophic level: A process called ‘biological magnification’.

How ecological Indian farming?

With a vast population base, food needs and the related burden on agriculture are increasing.

India has 18 per cent of the world’s population and 15 per cent of total livestock. Of the country’s total geographical area of 329 million hectares, 174 million hectares (53 per cent) are degraded. Many Indian crops are found to be pesticide resistant and in many agro-products pest residues are found which make them ineligible to compete globally.

The Indian agro-exporters often do not conform to the stringent sanitary and phytosanitary measures and product quality standards, under the WTO regime. Recently, the EU countries imposed a technical ban on Indian exports of gherkins and grapes and refused to accept the consignment of these products, stating that these products had pest residues and did not conform to the harmonised levels of pesticides of European Countries and Codex Alimentarius (CA) standards of food safety. Certain countries have also prescribed their respective minimum levels of pesticide residues and accordingly, refused to accept Indian products having higher pesticide residues.

The way ahead

A gradual shift from chemical to ecological farming may be a viable option to make agriculture sustainable. Immediately, the farmers could build up a sufficient organic base to fertilise the fields and improve soil productivity. The cost of cultivation can be brought down substantially since many farm-growing inputs can be integrated efficiently into the farming system. Ecological farming is a highly knowledge-intensive, labour-oriented and complex system integrating several organic recycling processes. A high degree of motivation, conviction and innovative ability can make it a success.

Eco-friendly microbes, particularly, bio-fertilisers, such as Rhizobium and Azobactor are being used by farmers for a number of crops. Sprinkler and drip irrigation will ensure optimal and timely irrigation, along with effective land preparation. Questioning the system of mono-culture is the demand for eco-generation by way of mixed cropping patterns. Environmental-friendly pesticides such as neem derivatives have become important components of Integrated Pest Management strategies. The problem of seepage of canals can be tackled best by lining canals and distributories with concrete. Many experts have recommended stall-feeding to overcome problems of overgrazing.

Ecological farming is economically rewarding, intellectually stimulating and energy-saving system. It is also a net foreign exchange saving system since it reduces the import of fertilisers. Sustainable farm practice with the help of Integrated Pest Management, Integrated Nutrient Management and Integrated Weed Management is the call of the hour.

As India has graduates from an importer of agricultural produce to a net exporter, environmental barriers to trade need to be prevented. The Government could determine a set of practices conforming to international standards for producing agricultural products. There is also a need for greater attention to pre- and post-harvest technologies and value addition to primary commodities as well as sanitary and phytosanitary measures, facilities for detecting aflotoxins and pesticide residues and the adoption of CA standards.

The farmers should, therefore, be trained to limit usage of agro-inputs that can have negative environmental impact, such as pesticides and fertilisers. Since quality considerations need to be mainstreamed in all agricultural enterprises, a vigorous movement may be launched to educate in every village panchayat two-three farmers on quality issues. They, in turn, should play an active role as quality supervisors in their areas for improving farm practices by maintaining quality while producing, harvesting and value adding agro-products.

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