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Marching Towards Sustainable Agriculture

Marching Towards Sustainable Agriculture

The development and application of environmentally benign clean technologies is an area where business houses can help through their CSR programmes

M.S. Swaminathan M.S. Swaminathan

The Green Revolution of the 1960s and 70s allowed us to achieve a balance between human numbers and the human capacity to produce food. The Green Revolution technologies involved the use of external inputs such as hybrid seeds, mineral fertilisers and chemical pesticides. It, however, also generated environmental problems like soil erosion and degradation, groundwater depletion and salinisation, and loss of biodiversity. Climate change is further compounding farmers' difficulties. An understanding of the need for environmentally clean technologies began in the 1960s with the publication of the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Indeed, Nobel Laureate Albert Schweitzer then wrote:"Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth."

In my lecture at the Science Congress in Varanasi on January 4, 1968, (before the term Green Revolution was coined) I also made the following observations: "Intensive cultivation of land without conservation of soil fertility and soil structure would lead ultimately to the springing up of deserts. Irrigation without arrangements for drainage would result in soils getting alkaline or saline. Indiscriminate use of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides could cause adverse changes in biological balance as well as lead to an increase in the incidence of cancer and other diseases, through the toxic residues present in the grains or other edible parts. Unscientific tapping of underground water would lead to the rapid exhaustion of this wonderful capital resource left to us through ages of natural farming. The rapid replacement of numerous locally adapted varieties with one or two high-yielding strains in large contiguous areas would result in the spread of serious diseases capable of wiping out entire crops... Therefore, the initiation of exploitative agriculture without a proper understanding of the various consequences of the changes introduced into traditional agriculture and without first building up a proper scientific and training base to sustain it, may only lead us into an era of agricultural disaster in the long run."

My lecture aroused considerable interest in the development of clean technologies for agriculture. I coined the term "evergreen revolution" to indicate that what we need is increase in productivity in perpetuity. Most of our farms are small in size. What the small farmers need is more marketable surplus and climate resilient farming methodologies.

Water is the key input for agriculture. The choice of crops by farmers as well as nature depends largely on the extent of water availability. Seawater constitutes 97 per cent of the world's water resource. Nearly 25 per cent of the global population lives near the coast. Therefore, it is essential that we develop technologies for biosaline agriculture. M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) has developed such technologies based on sylvi-aquaculture systems. There are a wide range of economically viable halophytes, such as Salicornia, which can grow in coastal areas. Sea water farming for coastal area prosperity is an idea whose time has come. Therefore, MSSRF has established a Genetic Garden of Halophytes at Vedaranyam.

Among the other sources of water, groundwater is becoming increasingly important. Surface water resources such as tanks, lakes, reservoirs, and rivers are equally important from the point of view of clean technology development and adoption. Groundwater in eastern India contains arsenic and this can be removed by bioremediation techniques. Drip and sprinkler irrigation is another notable clean technology. Protected agriculture, particularly horticulture, provides an opportunity for linking drip irrigation with organic farming. Organic agriculture helps to improve soil health from the point of view of the physics, biology and chemistry of the soils. The year 2015 has been designated as the International Year of the Soil.

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Our government has announced that it will provide Soil Health Cards to farmers. This will help in ensuring sustainable advances in farm production and productivity. The Soil Health Card will become even more useful to farmers if the card is tailored to the needs of a specific cropping system. For example, we are short of pulses like pigeon pea, chickpea, moong, urad, lentil, etc. The price of pulses has gone up by over 60 per cent over the last year. As a consequence, protein hunger is increasing. Indeed, 2016 is the International Year of Pulses. Most of the pulses are native to India. They are grown without irrigation and under low soil fertility conditions. This is why the average yields of most pulse crops are about 500 kg per hectare. Crops, like arhar (pigeon pea), grown in Australia from seeds obtained from India, yield over 4 tonnes per hectare. The import of pulses is increasing and now exceeds 3.6 million tonnes.

Pulse crops require more phosphorus in the soil. Therefore, the Soil Health Cards given to those cultivating pulses should be designed to address the specific nutritional needs of these crops. The Soil Health Monitoring and Advisory Service, as I have been recommending, could be equipped to render specific advice to pulse crop cultivators on the nutrients needed based on soil testing. In other words, there has to be a cropping or farming system-based Soil Health Cards - it could help the farmer to enhance the productivity of the cropping/farming system.

The development and application of environmentally benign clean technologies is an area where major industry and business houses can help through their CSR programmes. One of the world's leading irrigation technology companies is Jain Irrigation of India. Despite having such fine institutions water use efficiency is poor. This is why the Prime Minister has been advocating the More Crop per Drop approach to water use. For rice, which requires more water than other crops, approaches like the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) help to reduce irrigation water consumption substantially.

We should pay equal attention to the quality of water. This is where industry and irrigation departments can work together. Some years ago, I visited Fuji Films in Tokyo. The manager took me around and finally he ended our visit at a few fish ponds. The fish appeared extremely active and happy. I asked the manager what these ponds were for and he said that all the treated effluents from the factory are used for aquaculture. He added that"the happiness of the fish is an index of the cleanliness of water". We need this kind of approach in CSR programmes so that clean technologies for clean agriculture can be launched.

Despite the priority accorded to irrigation from the early days of our independence, only 40 per cent of the cultivated area has assured irrigation. Rainfed areas grow important crops like pulses, oilseeds and millets. Semi-arid horticulture - like the cultivation of pomegranates - is also becoming popular. Therefore we should make rainwater harvesting mandatory both in farms and in homes. Areas like Sorah (formerly known as Chirapunjee) have heavy rainfall almost reaching 15,000 millimetres per year, but still suffer from water shortage during winter and spring months. This position, however, is changing as a result of the movement to establish Jal Kunds where rainwater harvesting and storage can be done efficiently.

In Maharashtra, where large areas are rainfed and also prone to farmers' suicides, water harvesting and crop-saving irrigation are exceedingly important. It insulates the farmer from total crop failure. Much of the water harvesting has to be community centred. Equity in water sharing is essential for cooperation in saving water. For this purpose, it will be useful to promote pani panchayats like has been done in parts of Maharashtra, so that the rainwater which is harvested and saved is used in an efficient and equitable manner.

Another area that needs attention is water for animal husbandry and fisheries. There are again clean technologies that can provide nutritious animal feed. Any waste cellulosic material can be enriched and made a perfect feed for animals. Horticulture lends itself to drip irrigation. We should train a man and woman at every panchayat to serve as water masters. They can guide and oversee the efficient management of the available water resources in the panchayat /local bodies. This is where technical guidance from industrial houses will be useful.

The future of our agriculture will depend on the steps we take to ensure sustainable water security. It is, therefore, hoped that integrated water conservation and management, along with sustainable usage, will receive high priority for support under CSR.

M.S. Swaminathan is founder and Chairman of M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation