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Saving the planet, and livelihoods

The science of precision farming can give us “more from less”

Saving the planet, and livelihoods
Groundwater is getting depleted fast and its quality becoming poorer with increasing use of chemical fertilisers and other industrial waste.

Awareness that humans are over-exploiting the planet’s basic natural resource endowment is growing. It is gradually being understood that such exploitation may boomerang and threaten the very existence of humanity. Whether it is a question of survival or prosperity of human race, one thing is clear: Land is getting degraded, especially the top soil that is crucial for food, feed and fibre. Groundwater is getting depleted fast and its quality becoming poorer with increasing use of chemical fertilisers and other industrial waste. The air that we breath is getting polluted at an alarming rate in certain parts of the world, especially in India, where, at times, it is difficult to even breath in a city like Delhi when stubble burning peaks in the agricultural fields in Punjab and Haryana. As a result of many of these factors and quite a few more, even bio-diversity is taking a hit.

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Against this backdrop, the moot question is what is the real cause behind such a fast deterioration of nature’s wealth, and whether humanity will be able to feed itself in a sustainable manner. Are there any silver linings with improved scientific knowledge? Or do we need to go back to natural farming/organic farming to survive? These are some of the questions weighing over every awakened citizen’s mind. The extreme weather events such as the recent heat waves in Europe and Asia, alongside droughts and floods in some other parts, further compel the asking of such questions.

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Let us focus here on the imbalance between the people, our planet, and the political economy of policies, and what best can be done. It took roughly over 200,000 years for Homo sapiens to evolve into the current form of man; mankind kept increasing in number while fighting all the vagaries of nature, including dreadful diseases and epidemics. In 1804, the count of humans on this planet touched 1 billion for the first time in history. The next billion was added in 123 years, and by 1927, human count touched 2 billion. Several major breakthroughs in medical science during this and the ensuing period ensured that the next billion was added in just 33 years, by 1960. And thereafter, humanity progressed even faster, notwithstanding a country like India facing a ‘ship to mouth’ situation on the food front in mid 1960s. The next billion count was added in just 14 years when humans on this planet reached 4 billion in 1974. And then it took just 13 years (5 billion in 1987), 11 years (6 billion in 1998), 12 years (7 billion in 2010), and another 12 years to add the next billion touching 8 billion in 2022. This explosive growth of humans on this planet, with higher and higher aspirations, has created a huge imbalance between the demand of the people and the capacity of this planet to supply in a sustainable manner.

The foremost question in such a situation is: Can this planet provide food for all through natural farming, without the use of any chemical fertilisers, pesticides, modern high yielding varieties of seeds, etc? Many governments, religious organisations, and some NGOs and individuals believe that there is no option but to go back to nature and practice organic/natural farming. Sri Lanka was one such country that wanted to get rid of chemical fertilisers.

In India, we have states like Sikkim declaring themselves as organic states, while many others are attempting to do so. Even the Union government has initiated a major programme on natural farming—along the Ganges river (5 km on each side of its banks) to start with. Many states like Andhra Pradesh are also scaling up fast on natural farming. I have nothing against such efforts and I feel that farmers should have all the freedom to practice whichever farming techniques make sense to them, so long as they are safe for society, augment their incomes and food security is ensured to the masses through ample availability of food at affordable prices.

Most of the studies conducted by Indian Council of Agricultural Research show that with the adoption of natural farming, the yields go down for major crops like wheat and rice by as much as 30-50%. These experiments have been conducted in scientists’ fields over a period of three years. But there is some other evidence, at the level of individual farmers whom this author personally visited, who claim their yields recover to normal levels after some time. Given that India is going to be most populous country in 2023 on this planet, we need to take policy decisions with better and more scientific evidence, if we want to avoid the Sri Lankan fiasco. To me, personally, the answer lies in aggressively promoting precision farming. It is this science of precision farming that can give us “more from less”. The innovations and developments in GIS (Geographical Information System), AIML (Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning) which can use enormous data to bring about precision in farming, use of sensors, drones, doves, and LEOs (low earth orbits), space technologies, cloud computing, are all bursting out like a revolutionary epoch in human history. Drips, hydroponics, and aeroponics, vertical farming, are all available for mankind to get much more from very little exploitation of the planet’s natural resource endowment.

But one critical factor that is needed to promote all this is political economy of policies. In India, specifically, we have a culture of free power, free water, almost 80-90% subsidy on urea, and so on. These subsidy policies may have been good in 1960s or 1970s when country had huge deficit of food. But, they are still continuing, and even increasing. That casts serious doubts on whether we want to get best results from limited use of natural resources. It is this policy conundrum which is leading to irrational exploitation of nature’s wealth. Who will bell the cat?

The author is Distinguished professor, ICRIER Views are personal

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