Sustainable Agriculture: often debated, rarely understood

SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE became popular after the concept of modernization in agriculture. According to this concept, sustainable agriculture does not deplete the soil, people, and resources. It is an integrated, nature-based agro ecosystems designed to be self-reliant, resource conserving and productive in longer and shorter terms.

Sustainable development is the management and conservation of the natural resource base and the orientation of technological and institutional change in such a manner as to ensure the attainment and continued satisfaction of human needs for present and future generations. Such sustainable development (in the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sectors) conserves land, water, plant, and animal genetic resources, is environmentally non-degrading, technically appropriate, economically viable and socially acceptable.

Agriculture has changed dramatically, especially since the end of World War II. Food and fiber production increased due to innovative technologies, mechanization and increased use of chemical inputs. Although these modernizations have had many positive impacts but there are some irrecoverable losses due to it. Prominent among these are, topsoil depletion, water contamination, energy shortage, air pollution, continued neglect of living and working conditions for farm laborers, the high cost of production, deforestation, reduction in family farms and the disintegration of economic and social conditions in rural communities.

Top soil depletion due to soil and water erosion is a grave threat to our continued ability to produce adequate food. As the nutrient-rich topsoil erodes, the soil that becomes exposed is less likely to contain enough nutrients to sustain plant life. Erosion takes place due to intensive tillage and deforestation. The topmost soil is nutrient rich and due to continuous tillage practices, the soil is vulnerable and easily transferred from one place to other through water or wind motion. Various practices have been developed to keep soil in place, which include reducing tillage, zero tillage, use of cover crops and mulching.

Water is a vital element in crop production and it has become a limiting factor due to mismanagement. Water related issues are salinization and contamination. Salinity is an excessive increase of water-soluble salts in the soil and it has become a problem and caused due to inappropriate irrigation practices such as use 0f salt rich irrigation water or insufficient drainage. Contamination of ground and surface water takes place by excessive use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Intensive use of pesticides and herbicides are harmful to human beings and cause air-borne diseases and nasal infections. Hormone dependent cancers, such as prostrate and breast cancer may be via endocrine disrupting chemicals such as 2, 4-D and Atrazine (Both are herbicides).

Scientists believe that this exposure to pesticides and herbicides might be behind phenomena like the increase in autism rates and early rates of puberty, likewise, exposure to herbicides and pesticides can cause miscarriage. Use of chemical fertilizers has the worst effect on waterways caused by chemical runoff of excess fertilizer. The over-abundance of chemicals decreases the amount of oxygen in the water that results in the death of fishes. Intensive use of synthetic inputs also promotes air pollution. Wildlife is also affected by intensive agriculture and it is a principle agent of ecosystem destruction and endangerment of numerous species. Deforestation is also a major threat to wildlife. Much land for agriculture was cleared decades ago, most of the deforestation has occurred in the past 20 years.

Now its time to make transitions in our agriculture system in order to conserve the natural resources for our coming generations. For farming community, the transition to sustainable agriculture requires a series of small-scale realistic steps. It is important to realize that each small step can make a difference and contribute towards sustainable agriculture. We can adopt different means to achieve our goals in said field. It involves a variety of approaches.

Specific strategies must take into accounts such as climate, topography, soil physical and chemical attributes, insect pests, availability of inputs and individual farmers goals. Despite the site-specific and individual nature of this farming, there are some general principles, that can be followed such as selection of crops and varieties those are compatible with the site and conditions of a farm, diversification of different enterprises to augment biological and economic stability of farm, proper management of soil to enhance fertility protect soil quality, use land according to its capability, and efficient and humane use of inputs.

Mixed crop and livestock operations have numerous advantages. First, growing row crops only on more level land and pasture or forages on steeper slopes will reduce soil erosion. Second, pasture and forage crops in rotation enhance soil quality and reduce erosion; livestock manure, in turn, contributes to soil fertility. Finally, feeding and marketing are flexible in animal production systems. This can help cushion farmers against trade and price fluctuations and, in conjunction with cropping operations, make more efficient use of farm labor. Sustainable farming discourages monoculture because one type of farming disrupts the stability of a community dependent on a farm. Therefore, diversified farming is promoted because it is economically and ecologically more resilient. By growing a variety of crops, economic risk is less as well as less susceptible to radical price fluctuations associated with changes in supply and demand.

Cover crops have stabilizing effects on the agro ecosystem by holding soil and nutrients in place, conserving soil moisture with mulches and it also increase soil water-holding capacity and water infiltration rate. Many inputs and operations used in conventional farming are also used in sustainable agriculture.

Integrated pest management (IPM) is the combination of different techniques to create an effective pest control system. Monitoring and identifying pests are the first step. Not all pests need to be eliminated. Some dont cause major damage to the crops. By using techniques like choosing pest-resistant crops, rotating crops and using beneficial insects, the risk of pests settling in is smaller. When its time to attack pests, targeted spraying is best. Sustainable farmers, however, maximize reliance on natural, renewable and on-farm inputs. Sustainable approaches are those that are less least energy intensive, and yet maintain productivity and profitability.

Agriculture sector of Pakistan is well recognized for its multi-functionalities of providing food, nutrition and ecological security besides employment and livelihood for over 180 million people. This rosy picture does not commensurate with complete elimination of poverty. Thepresent situation calls upon sustainable agriculture system to expand our food basket without depleting natural resources and the environment. We need sound strategic planning and long-term policy making for successful implementation of this system. With sustainable agriculture, we will be able to conserve huge resources to fill many mouths which are empty now and many more which are still to come.

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