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Redesigning agri to align with nature is the need of the hour

With economic growth losing steam, and the growing fears of climate apocalypse staring ahead, the time to change has come

Redesigning agri to align with nature is the need of the hour
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Redesigning agri to align with nature is the need of the hour

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What may seem to be an otherwise 'useless' folk variety lying in gene banks, may eventually carry the genes for future crop varieties that can turn out to be mankind's saviour. To illustrate, a seemingly 'hopelessly useless' wild wheat from Turkey, which was stored with US Department of Agriculture since 1948, carried a gene that saved the American wheat from a major outbreak of stripe rust disease in the mid-1990s. Similarly, numerous other strains have similar such inbuilt ability. The challenge is to look for them

More often than not, common sense fails to enthuse innovators. In a quest to develop technological-fixes, innovators have often overlooked the social, environmental and ecological fallout. For years, agricultural scientists too had ignored repeated pleas from small farmers, agro-ecological voluntary groups, and civil society actors to look at the desirable traits in the traditional wheat varieties or for that matter the huge diversity available in other crop varieties to find answers for climate resilience and reducing the ecological footprint.

Climate change is now making it possible

It is promising to know that agricultural scientists have now begun to search the traditional germplasm for traits they didn't consider useful till a few years back. At the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) in Mexico, scientists are now trying to scout for traditional plant cultivars looking for genetic characters that could help breed wheat varieties having the ability to cope with extreme heat waves, incessant rainfall and prolonged drought-like conditions. Among numerous other scientific institutions across the globe, the Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia is one such institute that has also been working on a research programme to develop wheat varieties for heat and drought tolerance. They are trying to build on roots that can go a little deeper in soil to extract ground moisture.

This change in plant breeding approach is the outcome of growing concern over the temperature rise the world is faced with, and the need to develop plant varieties that can withstand these climatic aberrations. When Tsunami for instance struck the south Indian coastline, I remember two traditional paddy varieties in Tamil Nadu were able to withstand the salt water intrusion. In other words, while scientists were engaged in looking for salt tolerant characters, these otherwise 'less preferred' traditional varieties had the genetic ability to tolerate it.

What may seem to be an otherwise 'useless' folk variety lying in gene banks, may eventually carry the genes for future crop varieties that can turn out to be mankind's saviour. To illustrate, a seemingly 'hopelessly useless' wild wheat from Turkey, which was stored with US Department of Agriculture since 1948, carried a gene that saved the American wheat from a major outbreak of stripe rust disease in the mid-1990s. Similarly, numerous other strains have similar such inbuilt ability. The challenge is to look for them.

Of the 8,00,000 wheat cultivars that have been collected over the years and are stored with gene banks globally, it is high time agricultural scientists now try to find out the good and relevant inbuilt characters for climate resilience that these cultivars contain. Similarly, there are an equal number or perhaps more of rice strains that can form the basis of a new brave world where the idea is not to incorporate genes in high-yielding varieties but to develop these traditional varieties to fit in a diverse farming system. It is time to move away from uniformity to diversity. That's a message that emanates from climate change - the change in practices that move agriculture from an industrial direction reducing the ecological footprint in the process.

In other words, nothing is useless as far as plant biodiversity is concerned. But my only worry is that the search for climate resilient characters in the available plant germplasm may end up breeding new crop varieties that may once again be fitted into intensive farm cultivation practices, relying more on fertiliser and pesticides to boost yields. I understand that the world needs to produce enough for itself but at the same time it needs to shift towards sustainable farming practices. Given that modern agriculture results in one-third of the Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHGs), and acknowledging the enormous environmental destruction it has wrought in the process, the time is ripe for moving towards an ecological transformation of the food systems.

The transformation of the food systems that I am talking about echoes with a report on 'Feeding Britain from the Ground Up' that has recently been released by the UK Sustainable Food Trust. We need to redesign agriculture, and change dietary habits in a way these resonate with the environment. "Our modelling suggests that a nationwide shift to sustainable farming would result in an increased availability of seasonal vegetables, fruits and pulses; slightly less beef and lamb and about a third less dairy, produced from high-welfare, mainly pasture-based systems." The report highlights a number of sustainable and regenerative farming practices that can bring about food self-sufficiency based on safe and healthy food farming systems.

This reminds me of the immense insight on alternative agriculture coming from the academic writings of an American anthropologist at the Purdue University, Andrew Flachs. In a recent research paper entitled: "Degrowing Alternative Agriculture: institutions and aspirations as sustainability matrix for small farmers in Bosnia and India," he argues that profits, yields, and production growth are wrong matrix for sustainability. This I completely agree because in many of my interactions with farmers in Europe and America, one is made to conclude that much of the global farming crisis erupted after the emphasis shifted to boosting productivity (irrespective of the cost to natural resources) so as to produce surplus.

Prof Andrew Flachs accepts that the social and ecological cost of producing cheap and surplus food has been very conveniently externalised. The Rockefeller Foundation had earlier worked out the external cost to be three times more than what the consumers generally pay for food. If this cost was incorporated in the end price consumers pay, the present food system will find few takers. Using the degrowth perspective, Prof Flachs rightly says that alternative agriculture should be viewed from the prism of transformative change. This gains support from a huge and diverse community of practitioners, activists and food enthusiasts from across the globe.

Michel Pimbert is the founder and head of the new centre for the study of agro-ecology at the Coventry University, UK. Rejecting the idea that academic knowledge is superior to the knowledge of indigenous people and peasant farmers, in a recent interview he says: "When we focus on developing agroecological practices for resilience, we mean resilience to the climate crisis and to market volatility. We focus on how building farmer and citizen knowledge to improve agroforestry, intercropping and polycultures, evolutionary plant breeding, integrating livestock in agricultural systems as well as promoting shorter food webs to link producers and food eaters are all key to such multifaceted resilience."

These are not a few outstanding voices in favour of agro-ecological farming systems. A strong movement, led by a growing tribe of environmentally-conscious consumers, is leading the way. A lot still needs to be done to make alternative agriculture emerge mainstream, but a strong foundation definitely has been laid out. With economic growth losing steam, and the growing fears of climate apocalypse staring ahead, the time to change has come.

(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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