Bigger the family, more the mouths to feed.
When the human family is as large as 7 billion, the amount of food that needs to be produced to feed all of them (ideally) is mind boggling. In India, the amount of calories that a healthy male is expected to eat is about 3100 calories per day, and a healthy female is expected to eat about 2500 calories everyday. This basically means the equivalent of two large meals of chapathi (flatbread), rice, dals, curries and a portion each of vegetables and fruits.
It looks something like this.
The practice of feeding a lot of mouths: Modern agriculture
Agriculture has been practiced in human society for the last 10,000 years. But for most part, human population stayed under 1 billion. Today, in order to ensure enough food is produced, farmers have had to resort to “modernized” agricultural practices. What does that include?
- Sophisticated irrigation techniques.
- Chemicals that add extra nutrients in the form of fertilizers
- Chemicals that kill pests
- Enhanced seeds and crop varieties
- Hybrid crops.
- Chemicals that enhance the crop properties; smell, size, time for maturity, etc.
All of these enhancements are to produce crops that are bigger, grow faster, and are resistant to environmental stresses. The practices have ensured that we can get more, much more, out of a given piece of land; more yield in less time.
Is that a good thing?
While these practices have ensured short term super-production of food (see the impact of Green Revolution on food production), the environmental effects have been largely adverse.
Land degradation: Role of agricultural practices
Most of these practices are not tuned to the natural processes and the natural variety of nature. That is why, they have been causing land degradation (among other things).
Intensive irrigation on a single patch of soil has caused a lot of the soil to be compressed and/or washed off.
Consider rice, the staple food for 1/3rd of the world’s population. A patch of rice field that needs to be submerged under water for almost 60% of the rice production time. Now, multiply that into the number of crops the farmer is forced to harvest every year (about 3 crops). In a year, the land is under water for 7-8 months. That’s almost like a wetland! As this water infiltrates the soil, it would leach a lot of the nutrients deep into the ground. The soil pores become compact and/or filled with water. Organisms living there are drowned. Soils become saline and alkaline, losing their fertility. When this water is drained out, it washes away much valuable soil with it.
Improper agricultural practices lead to the pollution of both soil and water.
The increased use of chemicals, as fertilizer and pesticide, has disturbed the natural composition of nutrients in the soil. Today, most farmers overuse these products. If a farmer overuses the NPK fertilizer, the nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium content of the soil drastically increases. While this may help the immediate crops grow, most plants cannot survive in extreme conditions. In the long-term, increasing nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium in the soil increases the acidity of the soil, which reduces the uptake of these nutrients. As a result, there is no increasing benefit from adding fertilizers after a critical threshold is reached. Research shows that we can get the same yield with 40% less fertilizers currently being applied to fields. The excess amount of macronutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus, get washed away with irrigated water to local water bodies, leading to eutrophication.
Poor agricultural practices are reducing soil porosity, increasing soil salinity and alkalinity, disturbing the natural composition of nutrients in the soil.
Modern agricultural practices have also shifted our agriculture system from a polycrop to a monocrop culture (this may not be quite modern after all). Few staple and economic crops are grown extensively, other indigenous varieties are shunned. Previously, a single patch of land would have many types of crops being grown in it over the year. This would allow the land to replenish itself of lost nutrients, since different crops have different nutrient requirements. With monocrops, the diversity of an agricultural ecosystem decreases and impacts other microorganisms and insects that could have stabilized the ecosystem.
Further, monocrops with heavy fertilizer application has lead to a spike in pest attacks (larger crops also mean more food for pests!). This is causing a rise in pesticide use. Pesticides have a destabilizing on the ecosystem by selectively killing parts of a food web. Sometimes, pesticides also kill the insect along with their natural predators. Insects, however, tend to develop mutations to build resistance to pesticides. When the natural predators of an insect are dead, the insect population will rise with these mutations, leading to resurgence of pest attacks.
An interesting problem has arisen with increased agricultural potency. Previously wasted lands, highly acidic or alkaline lands have now become potential agricultural land, because our new varieties of crops are resistant to harsh conditions. For example, the development of wheat varieties tolerant to acid soil conditions with high aluminium content, permitted the introduction of agriculture in sensitive Brazilian ecosystems as Cerrado semi-humid tropical savanna. Today, the land there is further depleted in living condition for the native species there, and has resulted in huge biodiversity loss.
How can we make agriculture more environment-friendly?
- Waste less food
- Adopt ultra-modern, resource efficient agriculture practices
- Adopt natural farming methods like permaculture
- Go local
- Adopt reliable certification schemes
Waste less food: The population isn’t growing any smaller. Therefore, we have to continue growing crops intensively and round the year. One way to minimize pressure on land is to reduce food wastage. It is estimated that EUR 800 worth of avoidable food waste is generated every year in Europe. A lot of the food produced and stored in warehouses are spoiled naturally or infested by pests and destroyed. Such management mistakes can be reduced, and we would not need to produce so much food.
Ultra-modern agricultural practices: We could also shift from modern to ultra-modern agricultural practices that follow the principle of extreme resource conservation. It is also called precision agriculture. For example, drip irrigation and sprinkler irrigation has become a common way in which water is used judiciously. Even nutrients are applied through the drip system in exactly the right quantities for plants to absorb. AI is being used to assess the individual needs of plants (just like humans, each plant has unique characteristics) and providing nutrition in a completely automated way.
Natural farming methods: Or we could adopt natural farming methods like permaculture and agroforestry to mimic nature as much as possible. Natural ecosystems work best with variety (diversity) and seasonality. Accordingly, farmers cultivate multiple crops that complement each other and rotate crops every season. This ensures that nutrients are constantly replenished. Farmers focus on growing native crops; not exotic/non-native ones.
Go local: Modern agriculture emphasizes on volume; we need more food to feed global markets. If farmers decide to stay local and not worry about world markets, they can focus on producing healthy, good quality produce for their local customers – which will make their farming environmentally safe by default.
Adopt reliable certification standards: Farmers can also gain additional value by signing up for ecolabel standards that allow them to set higher prices for following environment-friendly practices.
We need to urgently adopt safe and efficient agriculture systems that maximise our food availablity and reduce wastage. With greater awareness and innovation, the world is slowly moving toward this goal.