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Stop plundering natural resources and reap benefits of infinite economic growth

Traditional farming practices can revive sustainable cropping systems

Stop plundering natural resources and reap benefits of infinite economic growth

Sometimes I wonder, what would have happened if nature had a voice. The global economic policies that have aggravated plunder of natural resources over the decades, in the race for an infinite economic growth, would have been tamed to a significant extent.

If soil, water and air, for instance, had a voice which they could often raise, I am sure the world would have been a much better place to live.

While a flurry of lawsuits in the United States confront the multinational agro-chemical giant Bayer-Monsanto over the alleged link some of its herbicides have with diseases like cancer and Alzheimer, the UN Human Rights Council says pesticides have ‘catastrophic impacts on the environment, human health and society as a whole.”

Studies have shown that it is a myth to believe that pesticides have a role to play in the elimination of hunger.

In fact, when it began, the Andhra Pradesh Community Managed Natural Farming programme, perhaps the world’s largest agro-ecological farming system now, started initially by banning chemical pesticides. Not many may know about it, but in the beginning it used to be called as non-pesticides management (NPM) before it got expanded.

Nevertheless, I am sure soil, water and air would have revolted at even a limited or restricted use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers. Dharnas and protests would have accrued at a number of places, and eventually the society too would have realised the need to protect these precious elements of the environment, at any cost. Policy makers then couldn’t have easily swayed with lobby groups wanting to use and abuse the environment for their respective commercial gains.

This in any case does not mean that the world would have faced recurring famines in one region or the other, or that much of the global population would have perished by now.

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention and the world would have truly learnt to live sustainably and equitably.

At a conference held a few decades back at the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, I recall the Third World Academy from Italy making a presentation wherein it was stated that the price of nitrogen fertiliser being very high in Brazil (there was no subsidy on nitrogen fertilisers at that time in the Latin American country), farmers began to use appropriate biological methods to make up for the non-availability of chemical fertiliser and yet had the highest productivity of sugarcane and soybean in the world.

Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, who was participating in that conference, wouldn’t agree. His point was that there is no way higher productivity could be attained without applying chemical fertilisers, which acted like a shot in the arm. After a lot of exchange, the Third World Academy finally invited him to visit Brazil, and see for himself how the farming communities did it. This invitation was accepted, and Norman Borlaug did visit Brazil.

During one of his subsequent visits to India, he did acknowledge that Brazil indeed was a top producer of soybean and sugarcane and more importantly without using nitrogen fertilisers!

I am sure that if this could be achieved in Brazil, it would have been possible for other crops and in other parts of the world.

Traditional farming practices accompanied by appropriate traditional knowledge could have easily revived sustainable cropping systems based on agro-ecological farming techniques.

For instance, in India, several studies point to a higher agricultural productivity much prior to the times when chemical fertiliser and pesticides became the norm.

In my columns in this newspaper, I had talked about how the G-20 in its Deccan High-Level Principles that was arrived at during India’s Presidency, actually failed to acknowledge the immense need for collaborative action for climate-resilient and sustainable agriculture based on traditional farming systems.

A study led by the University of Sydney published in the esteemed scientific journal Nature (July 13) showed just one frightening aspect of the negative consequences of indiscriminate pesticide pollution.

“Just because we don’t see pesticide residues in soil and water doesn’t mean they are not there, impacting critical systems on land, rivers and oceans,” said a co-author of the study.

This is true. After all, we don’t realise what the pesticides are doing to the soil microbes, to groundwater, to rivers and ultimately to the oceans. The entire ecosystem is negatively impacted and yet we remain mute spectators.

Analysing from the geographical distribution of the 92 of the most commonly used pesticides, the study “found that approximately 70,000 tonnes of potentially harmful chemicals leach into aquifers each year, impacting ecosystems and freshwater resources,” said Dr Federico Maggi, the lead author of the study.

Even if it is in miniscule proportion, some part of these chemicals does reach the oceans. But while the impact on oceans may be too far for us to visualise, the harm that such a huge quantity of these chemicals inflict while leaching into the sub-soil and aquifers should have raised uproar.

But it didn’t happen. I didn’t encounter any outrage anywhere, including from Sydney, where this university is situated.

Even before this study was published, I remember posing a similar question to Prof M.S. Swaminathan, the Father of India’s Green Revolution, who passed away recently at the age of 98. His reply was straight. While he was responsible for leading the fight against hunger, he had, at various platforms, warned of the negative consequence of the environmental fallout.

“Green Revolution was eventually taken over by Greed Revolution,” he had said in an interview, implying that strong lobbies kept up the tempo to protect their vested interests.

Since only one per cent of the $700 billion global agricultural subsidies go for ecological farming, it clearly tells us how powerful these agribusiness giants are. While there is a call for reducing these subsidies that have strengthened ‘intensive agriculture’ over the decades, a fear psychosis is created pointing to the possibility of sliding back into hunger if these subsidies are withdrawn. Eventually it is a zero-sum game, with Sustainable Development Index (SDI) being worked on the one hand while on the other, sustainable farming practices receiving nothing beyond lip sympathy.

Perhaps one of the ways to get out of this trap is to ensure that each one of us becomes the voice of the voiceless. If soil, water and air cannot speak, at least we can. To begin with, I think the need is to support the UN efforts to work out the economics of ecosystems and biodiversity.

Once we get to know the economic value of ecosystem services that nature provides, and then can protect and conserve the natural resources knowing the economic value of what our policies aim to destroy. At least, we can significantly minimise the destruction. A national accounting system based on eco-services protection may be the policy pre-requisite that the world is waiting.

(The author is a noted food policy analyst and an expert on issues related to the agriculture sector. He writes on food, agriculture and hunger)

Devinder Sharma
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