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A case for ecological farming

THE EVOLUTION of agriculture from being a less productive to a more productive activity entailed a transition from being less energy-intensive to being more energy-intensive. This transformation has been manifest in the change of agro-ecosystems from `hunting and gathering' to `primitive agriculture' to `agro-horticulture' to `agrarian societies' to `modern agriculture.' In the process of this transformation, the varieties of crops chosen, though high-yielding, were found to be more prone to epidemic diseases. Extensive use of pesticides and insecticides to counter them also gave rise to an ever-increasing potential danger.

The changes in environment caused by agricultural practices span a variety of issues: defacement of land, deforestation, loosening of soil structure, depletion of soil nutrients, waterlogging, depletion of ground water resources, multiple nutrient imbalance, changing pest-disease-weed syndrome, eutrophication (enriched nutrient content) of water bodies and methaemoglobinaemia (a kind of anaemia caused by water containing nitrates).

Agriculture is the most dominant land-using activity. As settled agriculture encroaches further into forests and fragile areas, the ecosystem gets destroyed with universally acknowledged adverse impacts on all forms of wildlife. Deforestation is already known to have caused irreversible damage in some areas and its continuation would lead to further ecological disasters. The estimated current rate of loss of forests in developing countries, at over half a per cent a year, is perceived as jeopardising the sustainability of the whole pyramid of systems for human support based on plant life. Removal of forest cover also upsets the natural hydrological system — reducing water-holding capacities of land, leading to flash floods, soil erosion and the consequent dry season water shortages downstream. Three key issues of agro practices determining sustainability are irrigation, soil and biocides:

Irrigation: Controlled irrigation is a condition for the success of intensive agriculture. Problems related to irrigation range from seepage in the canal system to excessive irrigation, which causes salinity and waterlogging, reducing aeration and percolation of the applied fertilizers below the root system. The major problems associated with the unscientific and unregulated development of ground water are the over-exploitation of the resource leading to a fall in water levels causing failure of the well/tube well, deepening of the structure resulting in higher cost of pumping as well as seepage from sewer system.

Soil: Soil erosion takes place when the surface soil is washed away due to excessive rains and floods, indiscriminate felling of trees, conversion of forest into cultivated land and incorrect methods of cultivation. Besides depleting vegetative cover, overgrazing hardens the soil, prevents forest regeneration and causes soil erosion. Excessive use of fertilizers also leads to micro-nutrient deficiency in soil. The applied fertilizers which are not used by crop plants and percolate down find their way into groundwater aquifers, increasing concentration of nitrates in drinking water, which could lead to methaemoglobinaemia in bottle-fed infants. Extra amounts of fertilizers being washed down with rain water into water bodies cause eutrophication of the latter.

Biocides: `Biocides' like insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and rodenticides remain active long after their targets are destroyed. This makes `biocides' environmentally dangerous. Their concentration in the food chain gets magnified at each trophic level — a process called `biological magnification.'

With a vast population base of more than a billion, food needs and the related burden on agriculture in India are increasing. India has 18 per cent of the world's population and 15 per cent of total livestock. The per capita availability of forest in India is only 0.08 hectares vis-�-vis 0.8 hectares for the world. Out of the country's total geographical area of 329 million hectares, 174 million hectares (53 per cent) are degraded. Many Indian crops are found to be pesticide resistant and in many agro-products pest residues are found which make them ineligible to compete globally.

The Indian agro-exporters often do not conform to the stringent sanitary and phytosanitary measures and product quality standards under the WTO regime. Recently the member countries of the EU imposed a technical ban on Indian exports of gherkins and grapes and refused to accept the consignment of these products, stating that these products had pest residues and did not conform to the harmonised levels of pesticides of European Countries and Codex Alimentarius (CA) standards of food safety.

A gradual shift from chemical to ecological farming may be a viable option to make agriculture sustainable in the future. In the interim period, the farmers could build up a sufficient organic base to fertilise the fields and improve the productivity of the soil. The cost of cultivation can be brought down substantially since many farm-growing inputs can be integrated efficiently into the farming system. Ecological farming is a highly knowledge-intensive, labour-oriented and complex system integrating several organic recycling processes. A high degree of motivation, conviction and innovative ability can make it a success.

Eco-friendly microbes, particularly bio-fertilizers such as Rhizobium and Azobactor are already being used by farmers for a number of crops. Sprinkler and drip irrigation will ensure optimal and timely irrigation, along with effective land preparation. Questioning the system of mono-culture is the demand for eco-generation by way of mixed cropping patterns. Environmental-friendly pesticides like neem derivatives have become important components of integrated pest management strategies. The problem of seepage of canals can be tackled best by lining canals and distributaries with concrete. Many experts have recommended stall-feeding to overcome problems of overgrazing.

Ecological farming is economically rewarding, intellectually stimulating and energy-saving. It is also a net foreign exchange saving system since it reduces the import of fertilizers. Sustainable farm practice with the help of integrated pest management, integrated nutrient management and integrated weed management is the call of the hour.

ISHITA G. TRIPATHY & K.K. TRIPATHY

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