By Helga Ahmad
OVER THESE past many years, international reports have warned Pakistan over the looming water crisis the country will face, if essential steps to prevent it, are not undertaken. Periodically the printed and electronic media too reminds us, besides emphasizing the impact it will have on our the food chain.
As yet, however, ignored continues to be that our agricultural soil is dying. Massive input of chemical fertilizer over the past many decades without the so essential organic balance, has reduced the carrying capacity. Today, crops have to be protected from varieties of diseases through application of intensive spraying of pesticide.
There was a time when visitors to Pakistan marveled over the amazing flavour of our vegetables, while Pakistanis visiting the West were shocked over its bland taste. Today, this role is reversed, as how can a diseased soil bring forth fragrant crops. Seventeen years ago, a group of Dutch Scientists, led by a Pakistan colleague, undertook a study in the rural area of Sialkot, which supplies fresh vegetables to Lahore and Islamabad during winter. A full growing cycle was recorded of canal-tube-well water and soil with periodic testing of the growing vegetables. The final samples were taken from the loaded vehicles ready to take the vegetables to the market. Volumes of printed matter were the result and to those unaware of the scientific language it was explained that it actually implied: not meant for human consumption.
More or less at the same time one came to know of young girls, not yet in their teens, already treated for cancer at Shaukat Khanum Hospital. These girls were from the tobacco growing areas and their duty during the harvesting season was to string the leaves for the drying chambers. Tobacco today requires up to 16 sprays. An effort to establish an extensive program to raise natural predators for the insect pest failed, as the pesticide lobby was too strong. A visit to the Childrens Cancer Wards of varied hospitals might just expose a segment of this rapidly growing problem, to which already new born babies (of all classes) fall victim.
A similar scenario prevails in the cotton growing belt, which received periodic coverage in the media since the last 20 years. Yet, the cotton-pickers still remain exposed to the remnant of the extensive spraying on the crops. Not only are they exposed to it while picking cotton, but around every village stacks of cottonwood ensure fuel for the community. As cotton wood too contains residues women inhale it through its fumes while cooking. Crops grown after cotton absorb it from the soil. This vicious cycle continuous unhindered and every medical report a vast section of the people living there says CANCER.
A well-known dairy company tried to export its milk products to Malaysia which was rejected, as the pesticide residues were far above the accepted WHO standards. Cottonseed cake, a major animal feed too is a carrier, besides of course freshly grown fodder takes it up from the soil. And so, starting from the tip of our mountain ranges, where cottonseed cake is feeding stall fed animals, down seep the pesticides.
Added to it is, that decades of heavy farm machinery rolling over agricultural lands have hardened the top soil destroying its natural fauna, which used to feed on the dry vegetative matter, known to build up a healthy humus content. Before we destroy the future of our children, perhaps the time has come to again look westward, were efforts are underway to find alternate solutions to the increasing natural hazards, finally acknowledged to be mainly man-made. The focus today in the West as well as China is on the benefits of HEMP (cannabis sativa), a plant prohibited in our country since decades.
A well established fact it is now, that commercial interests played the major role in propagating the “Reefer Madness” hysteria, in the Mid Thirties. Hemp was then considered a serious competitor to the newly developing processing technologies in the Synthetic Fiber- Plastic- Textile-Timber- Oil- Paper- Composite Wood Products and Pharmaceutical Industries. Aggressive lobbying for Marijuana Prohibition started and is still banned in the US and our country.
Although China never imposed a ban the vast potential of this plant were revived after Beijings Hemp Research Centre was established. Advanced technologies in reducing the lignin content in hemp were developed turning it into an easily workable fiber for highly sophisticated textiles. Twenty thousand hectares of hemp are already planted and Chinas ambition is to expand it to 1.3 million hectares of farmland. The added benefit would provide income for millions of small-scale farmers in the poorest of rural areas, as it would free large areas of cotton-growing land for food production, besides reducing the massive input of chemical fertilizer/pesticides on cotton crops.
Today over 600,000 acres of hemp are growing worldwide, with Canadas farmland in 2008 covering already 8,500 acres, while US is a major importer of its raw and finished products, although till today it is illegal to grow it on its own soil. Cotton, one of the most environmentally destructive agricultural crops is known to require alone in the US a staggering – 125 million kilograms of pesticides annually. Pesticides are possibly the greatest toxic threat to contaminating our soil, air, water and natural communities because they are often permanent and they bio-accumulate, i.e. their toxicity increases as they are consumed up the food chain. Many pesticides are known carcinogens, and can also cause immune-deficiency disorders. Added to this, pesticides have a petroleum base and their excessive use perpetuates our dependency on oil.
Hemp on the other hand enriches the soil, requires little or no pesticides nor herbicides and its extensive and deep root system draws nutrients from deeper soil layers. When the roots breakdown after harvesting they aerate the soil and provide humus thus contributing to a healthy microbial life in the soil. Cotton grows only in moderate climates and requires much more water than hemp. Hemp grows in a wide range of climates and is frost tolerant. Its irrigation requirement is one third to that of cotton.
The fiber length can reach fifteen feet, while cotton fibers are less than one inch, besides its tensile strength and durability far outshine that of cotton. UK polluting industries are paying farmers, willing to grow hemp, carbon credit, which is then fed into bio-digesters and the methane gas produced turned into clean energy. Similar in France, carbon credit is paid to industries which turn the inner woody part of hemp into building material, now called also hempcrete. Green Building Council has calculated, that built up area alone accounts for 38% of CO2 emission, while hemp is carbon negative. It is also claimed that it is resistant to termites and rodents, non-flammable and ideal for cyclone and earthquake prone areas.
Forgotten seem to be, that the first cars built by Henry Ford depended on material gained from hemp, while today Mercedes and BMW still use hemp by-products. With hemp a eco-friendly renewable raw material, also known for its high nutritional value, reinforces plastics, substitutes mineral fibers, can be easily recycled and has thus no waste disposal problems.
The present shortage of wood fiber at the international market has contributed considerable to ignite the renewed interest in hemp and plant breeders have developed hemp varieties with increased fiber content and very low levels of THC, the psychoactive ingredient of marijuana.
And so, the World is moving on, while it seems we are meant to stagnate. Or, are we allowing our minds to open up?