Agriculture is the problem as well as the solution. Since humans settled down and began agriculture they started tempering with the nature. However, within decades or in some cases centuries, nature would strike back and drive humans from one piece of land by way of prolonged drought followed by nasty floods.
The pattern would vary from case to case but the holding story was the same. The migrant population would wander a while and then hit upon a new patch of virgin land, settle down and begin a new cycle of growth and prosperity.
However, in the 20th century as the population exploded the option of packing your bags and move to greener pastures steadily waned. The exploding population ensured that those who had land better hold on to it and try to make do with whatever was available. This led to intensive farming, technology oriented farming and then industrial farming.
Every nation came up with its own version. US had large mechanised farms and Communist Russia experimented with collective farming. No matter which path a society took the agriculture in the 20th century started reflecting three distinct trends – increased pressure to up the yield, proliferating use of technology and constant expansion of cultivable land.
These trends led to phenomenal increase in per hectare yield and helped many nations beat crushing poverty and rescue a large part of their citizens from extreme hunger. However, it also had some unintended consequences that started impacting the environment.
The pressure to increase per hectare yield forced governments and farmers alike to keep increasing the farm inputs. Cases of unrestrained use of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides etc led to a point where the farm produce became unfit for human or animal consumption.
In India, anecdotal evidence is visible in the wholesale markets of Central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh where farmers from the granary of India, Punjab, come each season to buy wheat for their domestic consumption. These farmers never use the wheat grown in their own fields as they know it is contaminated due to heavy use of fertilizers.
Aided by technology many farmers started growing crops that were traditionally not meant to be grown in their own land. A classic example is Saudi Arabia. The country flushed with funds started growing wheat in a desperately arid land using water from its meagre underground aquifers. Similarly, in India many arid areas stopped growing drought resistant hardy crops like maize, gram etc and switched to wheat.
The traditionally water sufficient areas opted for high yielding varieties and stopped experimenting with the large variety of seeds available to them. The high yield variety needed twice the amount of irrigation than the earlier varieties. Initially everything went well. Then the crops started failing as the ground water receded, and the pests became out of control due to single variety being used year after year and their increased immunity to pesticides.
Farmers responded with higher use of fertilizers and pesticides thereby contaminating the soil, underground water and surface water in the canals.
While the land was being squeezed for the last remaining fertility, the farmers and the governments were furiously expanding agriculture’s footprint. The buffer zones like, wetlands, fallow land, wasteland and marginal forest lands were being diversified for agriculture. As the intermediate zones between the agricultural land and the forests kept decreasing the threat to forest denudation increased too. It also substantially increased the human-animal conflict. The corn growers and ranch owners of Brazil were responsible for destruction of a large part of Amazon forest. Similar stories, though not as spectacular, were reported from across the world.
Suddenly the profession that satiates our hunger became the top destroyer of the environment around us.
Today our need to fill up our tummy or tickle our taste buds is spelling doom for the environment and contributing to widespread carbon emission, the chief cause of climate change.
The question is how can the environment be saved without compromising on our food security? It should begin by looking at the institution of minimum sale price (MSP). A mechanism developed by the government of India to help farmers by firewalling them against the manipulations of the touts in the wholesale market.
However, the system has a lacuna. It sets the price of wheat and rice at a higher level than any other crop which incentivises farmers to go for broke in their attempt to grow these two crops. India has witnessed a steady decline in the total sown area for many other grains and pulses but has seen the total acreage of wheat and rice grow by leaps and bounds even in areas that can’t support any of the two crops.
The system should change a bit and should be dynamic. Right now the warehouses are full of grains. The backup is so huge that India can withstand two consecutive droughts. So there is a need to better manage our land and its yield. A new responsive system can be developed whereby farmers can be asked to grow some other crop as wheat and rice are in plenty. Similarly those areas that can’t support these two crops but have traditionally supported other crops should be given incentives to wean them away from their addiction to wheat/rice.
The government of India has started a scheme of soil health card. This card will help the farmers find out what kinds of nutrients are needed in the upcoming sowing season. This information should be linked to the distribution of input subsidies. Every farmer should be given cash equivalent to the need assessed by the scientists. If implemented and followed in the right spirit it can fundamentally alter the habit of indiscriminate use of urea and other fertilizers.
It would bring down the unnecessary chemical load soil faces every year in many parts of the country. During the 1960s the policy planners, politicians, scientists and the farmers all joined hands in a rare show of solidarity to turn Punjab (the north western province of India) into a bead basket. The spirit of “green revolution”, as it is known, needs to be revived albeit with a twist.
This time the laboratory has to come to the farm and instead of one-size-fits-all solutions of yesteryears it should work in every region with diverse group of farmers to evolve strategies to increase their per hectare yield. Using information technology, big data, nano-technology, bio-technology and marrying it with age old wisdom of the farmers will help them create hyper local solutions.
Once the per capita yield increases the need to use the entire land available will decrease as more would be achieved in lesser hectares of land. Then sincere efforts should be initiated to reclaim the buffer zones.
These small incremental steps will go a long way in decreasing the chemical contamination of the land, save underground water in many arid zones, will offer an increased diversity of grains as well as help the natural buffer zones to flourish. This in itself would be a fundamental improvement from our present state and go a long way in re-establishing the natural balance we have disturbed for so long.
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I agree that agriculture is the most critical challenge for us to resolve. I also think that we need to do more to influence dietary choices globally as animal agriculture is even more detrimental than crop agriculture. We should be encouraging lower consumption of meat as well…in my opinion 🙂
Well lower consumption of meat is a tricky ground as it invites violent reactions. though your point is apt that meat eating needs to be rationalised. I hope even the meat eaters in many country will agree that they have been consuming far more than their bodies need. Also industrial scale production of broiler chicken and beef can be made more sustainable till the time people get off the over consumption habits.