Thursday, September 27, 2012

Back to the soil

The most important key to the success of any farming effort is the health of the soil. Healthy and plentiful food can be harvested only if soil is healthy; on the other hand if the soil is badly eroded or its fertility has been badly impaired by indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, then high yield cannot be maintained even by excessive use of expensive inputs. What is even worse, the quality of the food produced declines in many ways and serious health hazards can emerge.

The World Resources Report (WRR) says: “Soils under intensive monoculture tend to lose organic matter and their ability to retain moisture, thus becoming more susceptible to erosion and ultimately losing their fertility and productivity.” Spread of intensive monocultures generally involves a higher reliance on chemical pesticides. A very small part of the pesticide applied on a field – less than 0.1 per cent in some insecticides – actually reaches its target organism. The rest plays the role of polluting land and water, poisoning birds and other forms of life. As WRR says, “wholesale elimination of helpful soil dwelling insects and micro organisms that build soil and plant nutrition sometimes occurs, essentially sterilising the soil.”

The London Food Commission admitted that at least 92 pesticides cleared for use in Britain have been linked with cancer, birth defects or genetic mutation in animal studies. Another report of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, said that pesticides in the food of US citizens may cause more than one million additional cases of cancer in the US over their life-time.

This rapid decline of natural fertility of farmland as well as poorer quality of food produced on it has led to a re-discovery of the benefits of organic farming methods by farmers in many parts of the world, including India. Dr Miguel Altieri, agro-ecology expert at the University of California has estimated that there are already about 5 million hectares of farms being recuperated through ecological methods by two and a half million families around the world. Jules Pretty has analysed 45 non-chemical agricultural initiatives spread across 17 African countries. From these some 730,000 farming households have substantially improved their food production and food security. In 95 per cent of the projects where yield increases were the aim cereal yields have improved by 50-100 per cent. Various methods of composting and making better use of dung, leaves and other organic manure are now well-established. Similarly many ecologically safe pest-repellents are well-known. Similarly crop and variety diversity, crop rotations which maintain fertility of land are integral to the success of organic farming.

It is the health of soil which is ultimately the most important determinant of the sustainability of any country’s food and farming system, including pastures, forestry and animal husbandry. Organic farming is a must if we have to get back the good health of our soil. Only organic farming can bring back the earthworms and various micro-organisms who constitute the living soil and contribute free of cost to the fertility of our farming will also save massive amounts of water in these days of water scarcity. Organic manure and composting increase the water retention capacity of the soil. Organic farming generally produces more hardy plants, particularly if local well adapted seed varieties are used. This will be a big asset to face adverse weather conditions in these times of climate change. In addition, shift to organic farming will also have important mitigation benefits by contributing to a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

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