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Sustainable Agriculture In Detail

  • 01 November, 2021

  • 7 Min Read

Sustainable Agriculture In Detail

Context: This topic is important for UPSE GS Paper 3.

What is Sustainable Agriculture? 

  • Sustainable agriculture is the production of plant and animal products, including food, in a way that uses farming techniques that protect the environment, public health, communities, and the welfare of animals.
  • It allows us to produce and enjoy healthy foods without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same. The key to sustainable agriculture is finding the right balance between the need for food production and the preservation of environmental ecosystems.

  • It also promotes economic stability for farms and helps farmers to better their quality of life. Agriculture continues to be the biggest employer in the world, with 40% of the world’s population working in it.

Methods of Sustainable Agriculture

1. Crop Rotation

Crop rotation is one of the most powerful techniques of sustainable agriculture. Its purpose is to avoid the consequences that come with planting the same crops in the same soil for years in a row. It helps tackle pest problems, as many pests prefer specific crops. If the pests have a steady food supply, they can greatly increase their population size.

Rotation breaks the reproduction cycles of pests. During rotation, farmers can plant certain crops, which replenish plant nutrients. These crops reduce the need for chemical fertilizers.

2. Permaculture

Permaculture is a food production system with intention, design, and smart farming to reduce waste of resources and create increased production efficiency. Permaculture design techniques include growing grain without tillage, herb and plant spirals, hugelkultur garden beds, keyhole and mandala gardens, sheet mulching, each plant serving multiple purposes, and creating swales on contour to hold water high on the landscape.

It focuses on the use of perennial crops such as fruit trees, nut trees, and shrubs all together to function in a designed system that mimics how plants in a natural ecosystem would function.

3. Cover Crops

Many farmers choose to have crops planted in a field at all times and never leave it barren; this can cause unintended consequences. By planting cover crops, such as clover or oats, the farmer can achieve his goals of preventing soil erosion, suppressing the growth of weeds, and enhancing the quality of the soil. The use of cover crops also reduces the need for chemicals such as fertilizers.

4. Soil Enrichment

Soil is a central component of agricultural ecosystems. Healthy soil is full of life, which can often be killed by the overuse of pesticides. Good soils can increase yields as well as help create more robust crops.

It is possible to maintain and enhance the quality of the soil in many ways. Some examples include leaving crop residue in the field after a harvest, and the use of composted plant material or animal manure.

5. Natural Pest Predators

In order to maintain effective control over pests, it is important to view the farm as an ecosystem as opposed to a factory. For example, many birds and other animals are, in fact, natural predators of agricultural pests.

Managing your farm so that it can harbour populations of these pest predators is an effective as well as a sophisticated technique. The use of chemical pesticides can result in the indiscriminate killing of pest predators.

6. Bio-intensive Integrated Pest Management

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an approach, which essentially relies on biological as opposed to chemical methods. IMP also emphasizes the importance of crop rotation to combat pest management.

Once a pest problem is identified, IPM will ensure that chemical solutions will only be used as a last resort. Instead, the appropriate responses would be the use of sterile males and biocontrol agents such as ladybirds.

7. Polyculture Farming

This technique is similar to crop rotation that tries to mimic natural principles to achieve the best yields. It involves growing multiple crop species in one area. These species often complement each other and helps produce a greater diversity of products at one plot while fully utilizing available resources.

High biodiversity makes the system more resilient to weather fluctuations, promotes a balanced diet and applies natural mechanisms for maintaining soil fertility.

8. Agroforestry

Agroforestry has become one of the powerful tools of farmers in dry regions with soils susceptible to desertification. It involves the growth of trees and shrubs amongst crops or grazing land, combining both agriculture and forestry practices for long-lasting, productive, and diverse land use when approached sustainably.

Trees have another important role that maintains the favourable temperature, stabilizes soils and soil humidity, minimizes nutrient runoff and protects crops from wind or heavy rain. Trees in this farming system are additional sources of income for farmers with the possibilities for product diversification.

9. Biodynamic Farming

Biodynamic farming incorporates ecological and holistic growing practices based on the philosophy of “anthroposophy.” It focuses on the implementation of practices such as composting, application of animal manure from farmed animals, cover cropping or rotating complementary crops for generating the necessary health and soil fertility for food production.

Biodynamic practices can be applied to farms that grow a variety of produce, gardens, vineyards, and other forms of agriculture.

10. Better Water Management

The first step in water management is the selection of the right crops. Local crops that are more adaptable to the weather conditions of the region are selected. Crops that do not demand too much water must be chosen for dry areas.

There should be well-planned irrigation systems; otherwise, other issues like river depletion, dry land and soil degradation will develop.

The application of rainwater harvesting systems by storing rainwater can be used in drought prevailing conditions. Apart from that, municipal wastewater can be used for irrigation after recycling.

11. Relay cropping

Relay cropping is a method of multiple cropping where one crop is seeded into a standing the second crop well before harvesting of the second crop. Relay cropping may solve a number of conflicts such as inefficient use of available resources, controversies in sowing time, fertilizer application, and soil degradation.

Benefits of Sustainable Agriculture

1. Contributes to Environmental Conservation

The environment plays a huge role in fulfilling our basic needs to sustain life. In turn, it is our duty to look after the environment so that future generations are not deprived of their needs. Sustainable farming helps to replenish the land as well as other natural resources such as water and air.

By adopting sustainable practices, farmers will reduce their reliance on non- renewable energy, reduce chemical use and save scarce resources. This replenishment ensures that these natural resources will be able to sustain life for future generations considering the rising population and demand for food.

2. Saves Energy for Future

Modern agriculture is heavily dependent on non- renewable energy sources, especially petroleum. Sustainable agricultural systems have reduced the need for fossil fuels or non renewable energy sources and a substitution of renewable sources or labour to the extent that is economically feasible.

3. Public Health Safety

Sustainable agriculture avoids hazardous pesticides and fertilizers. As a result, farmers are able to produce fruits, vegetables, and other crops that are safer for consumers, workers, and surrounding communities. Through careful and proper management of livestock waste, sustainable farmers can protect humans from exposure to pathogens, toxins, and other hazardous pollutants.

4. Prevents Pollution

Sustainable agriculture means that any waste a farm produces remains inside the farm’s ecosystem. In this way, the waste cannot cause pollution.

5. Prevents Air Pollution

Agricultural activities affect air quality by smoke from agricultural burning; dust from tillage, traffic and harvest; pesticide drift from spraying; and nitrous oxide emissions from the use of nitrogen fertilizer.

In sustainable farming, there are options to improve air quality by incorporating crop residue into the soil, using appropriate levels of tillage, and planting windbreaks, cover crops or strips of native perennial grasses to reduce dust.

6. Prevents Soil Erosion

Our continued ability to produce adequate food has been a serious threat to soil erosion. Therefore, numerous practices have been developed to keep soil in place, which includes reducing or eliminating tillage, managing irrigation to reduce runoff, and keeping the soil covered with plants or mulch.

Selection of suitable species and varieties that are well suited to the site and conditions on the farm can improve crop yield and diversification of crops (including livestock), and cultural practices enhance the biological and economic stability of the farm.

7. Reduction in Cost

Sustainable agriculture lessens the overall costs involved in farming. Smarter farming and moving food from farm-to-fork in a more efficient manner have helped everyone involved with the agriculture industry. IoT data from sensors installed in everything from seed drills, sprayers, and spreaders to drones, satellite imagery, and soil make it so surprises become rarities.

8. Biodiversity

Sustainable farms produce a wide variety of plants and animals, resulting in biodiversity. During crop rotation, plants are seasonally rotated, and this results in soil enrichment, prevention of diseases, and pest outbreaks.

9. Sustainable Livestock Management

Sustainable agriculture includes sustainable livestock production by selecting appropriate animal species, animal nutrition, reproduction, herd health, grazing management, which leads to the overall development of livestock for the long term.

10. Beneficial to Animals

Sustainable farming results in animals being better cared for, as well as treated humanely and with respect. The natural behaviors of all living animals, including grazing or pecking, are catered for. As a result, they develop in a natural way. Sustainable farmers and ranchers implement livestock husbandry practices that protect animals’ health.

11. Economically Beneficial For Farmers

In exchange for engaging with sustainable farming methods, farmers receive a fair wage for their produce. This greatly reduces their reliance on government subsidies and strengthens rural communities. Organic farms typically require 2 ½ times less labour than factory farms yet yield 10 times the profit.

12. Social Equality

Practicing sustainable agriculture techniques also benefits workers as they are offered a more competitive salary as well as benefits. They also work in humane and fair working conditions, which include a safe work environment, food, and adequate living conditions.

13. Beneficial for Environment

Sustainable farming reduces the need for the use of non-renewable energy resources and, as a result, benefits the environment.

Due to population increase, it is estimated that by 2050 we will need approximately 70% more food than is currently being produced in order to provide the estimated 9.6 billion world population with their recommended daily calorie intake. This is by no means a small challenge, but unlike many other sustainability challenges, everyone can play a part.

We all need to eat, but by simply reducing food loss and waste, as well as eating diets that are of lower impact, and investing in sustainable produce, we can make a difference. From countries to companies, right down to consumers, we all have a role to play. The challenge is simply making people care in a world where we are surrounded by such abundance.

Zero Budget Natural Farming in India

  • Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) is a set of farming methods, and also a grassroots peasant movement, which has spread to various states in India. It has attained wide success in southern India, especially the southern Indian state of Karnataka where it first evolved. 
  • The movement in Karnataka state was born out of a collaboration between Mr. Subhash Palekar, who put together the ZBNF practices, and the state farmers association Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS), a member of La Via Campesina (LVC).
  • The neo-liberalization of the Indian economy led to a deep agrarian crisis that is making small scale farming an unviable vocation. Privatized seeds, inputs, and markets are inaccessible and expensive for peasants.
  • Indian farmers increasingly find themselves in a vicious cycle of debt, because of the high production costs, high interest rates for credit, the volatile market prices of crops, the rising costs of fossil fuel-based inputs, and private seeds. Debt is a problem for farmers of all sizes in India.
  •  Under such conditions, ‘zero budget’ farming promises to end a reliance on loans and drastically cut production costs, ending the debt cycle for desperate farmers.
  • The word ‘budget’ refers to credit and expenses, thus the phrase 'Zero Budget' means without using any credit, and without spending any money on purchased inputs. 'Natural farming' means farming with Nature and without chemicals. 

Indian farming practices: Learning from elsewhere in the world

Strip cropping, as seen in the U.S., is when wheat is grown along with corn and soyabean, in the same farm in an alternative manner

A paper has appeared recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA(PNAS) titled: “Integrated farming with intercropping increases food production while reducing environmental footprint” 

 This work found that:

(1) “relay planting” enhances yield,

 (2) within-field rotation or “strip rotation”, allowing strips for planting other plants (such as grass, fruits) besides the major crop was more fruitful,

 (3) “soil munching,” that is, available means such as crop straw, in addition to the major crop such as wheat or rice, and

 (4) “no-till” or reduced tillage, which increases the annual crop yield up by 15.6% to 49.9%, and decreases the environmental footprint by 17.3%, compared with traditional monoculture cropping.

 This led to the conclusion that small farm holders can grow more food and have a reduced environmental footprint.

How do these factors apply to the small farmers of India?

  • Current statistics reveal that our country has a significant population of small farmers, many owning less than 2 hectares of land. About 70% of its rural households still depend primarily on agriculture for their livelihood, with 82% of farmers being small and marginal.
  • The total production of food grains in 2017-18 was estimated to be 275 million tons. Some others have pointed out that only 30% of all farmers borrow from formal sources.
  • The farm loan waivers from the state governments have been helpful in this regard, but yet, over 50% struggle to borrow from institutional sources.

Relay planting

Relay planting means the planting of different crops in the same plot, one right after another, in the same season.

Examples of such relay cropping would be planting rice (or wheat), cauliflower, onion, and summer gourd (or potato onion, lady’s fingers and maize), in the same season.

Why do this?

  • Well, less risk since you do not have to depend on one crop alone. It also means better distribution of labour, insects spread less, and any legumes actually add nitrogen to the soil! We have read about how small farmers in Telangana, Karnataka, and Maharashtra are actually doing this and earning money out of such relay farming.
  • They plant onions, turmeric, chilies, ginger, garlic, and even some native fruits, thus making a profit, during these relay times. 
  • Women plant materials for home food, such as greens, leafy vegetables, and pulses such as green grams, Finger millet (ragi in Hindi, kezhwaragu in Tamil) horse gram (chane ki dal in Hindi, kudure gram in Kannada, and kollu in Tamil), cowpeas, and also grass (all of which add the nitrogen to the soil and also to the world around us, fixing nitrogen not just under our feet but also in the air we breathe; the carbon dioxide, ozone, and the oxides of nitrogen and phosphorus that we inhale every day from the filthy atmosphere is at least nullified a little).

However, there are some challenges to relay planting such as mechanization becomes difficult and requires arduous management tasks.

Strip cropping

  • Strip cropping has been used in the U.S. (where the fields are larger than those in India), where they grow wheat, along with corn and soyabean, on the same farm in an alternative manner.
  • However, this needs large lands. In India, where there are large fields (such as the ones owned by cities and state governments), the land is divided into strips, and strips of grass are left to grow between the crops. The planting of trees to create shelters has helped in stabilizing the desert in Western India.
  • “Strip crop - a ray of hope” is the title given by the site ‘Vikaspedia’, which discusses Western Karnataka (and the nearby Telangana and Northern Tamil Nadu), dry belts with frequent droughts, where 80% of the farmers depend on groundnut monoculture as their option.
  • Karnataka Watershed Development (KAWAD) project and AME Foundation were initiated in the area between 2002 and 2005, to improve the food and income security of the farmers in the region. Extensive work was undertaken in the project on bunding, gully plugging, treating the watercourses, etc.
  • Apart from promoting in-situ soil and moisture conservation practices and soil fertility improvements, the project was also aimed at addressing the groundnut monocropping practice by exploring other options for the farmers. But, groundnut being a cash-fetching crop, farmers were not willing to forego a season with cereals replacing groundnut. So strips of cereal crop were introduced amidst strips of groundnut crop by the farmers. This technology is popularly called as strip cropping.

Soil mulching and no-till

  • While these methods are not easy for small farmers in India, they could be practised at least in larger farms such as the ones owned by industry and governments.
  • Soil mulching requires keeping all bare soil covered with straw, leaves, and the like, even when the land is in use.
  • Erosion is curtailed, moisture retained, and beneficial organisms, such as earthworms, kept in place.
  • The same set of benefits are also offered by not tilling the soil.

These four methods suggested by the international group are worth following in India.

Way Forward

In the rising threat of climate change and land acquisition for development, to ensure food security, per hectare productivity has to be increased by adopting sustainable ways and best global practices as mentioned above.



Source: The Hindu


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