Context: Environmental impacts of agriculture.
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Environmental impacts of Agriculture:
- Freshwater is vital for farming as it drives both plant and animal production. Plant production depends on an adequate water supply, and animals require plants as a food source.
- While nearly 70 per cent of the world is covered by water, only 2.5 per cent is fresh water. The rest is saline and ocean-based. Even then, just 1 per cent of our freshwater is easily accessible, with much of it trapped in glaciers and snowfields.
- In essence, only 0.007 per cent of the planet’s water is available to fuel and feed its 6.8 billion people.
- This makes water a limited precious resource.
- In order to enhance agricultural production quantity and quality, several additives to the soil are used in farming. The widely used are pesticides and fertilizers, which end up as pollutants in water run-off from the soil. This run-off can adversely affect more people and animal wildlife.
- Crop and livestock production have a profound effect on the wider environment. They are the main source of water pollution by nitrates, phosphates and pesticides.
- They are also the major anthropogenic source of the greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide, and contribute on a massive scale to other types of air and water pollution. The extent and methods of agriculture, forestry and fishing are the leading causes of loss of the world’s biodiversity.
- Soil Degradation:
- In all ecosystems, the biodiversity held in soil is massive. Healthy soils are vital to creating ample food production.
- Although agriculture is not the sole cause of soil degradation, poor farming practices are known to cause a considerable decline in in the quality of soil. This mainly results from pesticide contamination, water logging and salting. Soil erosion leads to loss of soil fertility and structure.
- Climate Change:
- Agriculture and climate change have a reciprocal relationship. Climate change affects agricultural production through precipitation levels and temperature variations. In return, poor agricultural practices increase climate change.
- The most significant climate change associated with agriculture is brought about by methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide, all of which are greenhouse gases released into the Earth’s atmosphere from farming. Pesticides and fertilizers application affect the quality of air through production of compounds like phosphorus, nitrate and ammonia.
- Deforestation, another factor in climate change:
- Across the globe, cases of forests being cleared for agricultural reasons are on the rise with people seeking to increase their scales of agricultural production. Deforestation provides more land for crops and pasture.
- Deforestation enhances the effects of climate change. Destruction of habitat amongst species also leads to fragmentation and depletion. Extensive deforestation affects the water cycle, which results in interferences with precipitation.
- Livestock farming has a vast environmental footprint.
- It contributes to land and water degradation, biodiversity loss, acid rain, coral reef degeneration and deforestation.
- Nowhere is this impact more apparent than climate change – livestock farming contributes 18% of human produced greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. This is more than all emissions from ships, planes, trucks, cars and all other transport put together.
How Can the Environmental Impacts of Agriculture be minimized?
The key to protecting the environment against the harmful effects of extensive and unsafe agricultural practices is through sustainable practices. Sustainable farming incorporates both the conservation of available resources as well as employing farming practices aimed at environmental protection.
- Choosing less water intensive crops over water intensive cash crops:
- India produces more than 120 million tons of rice a year with the government ensuring purchase with good MSP and incentives to grow the crop. On the flip side, paddy consumes between 3,000 and 5,000 liters’ of water to produce just 1 kg of rice.
- On the other hand, crops like millets, lentils and pulses take half or less than half the amount of water for the same output. These are also rich sources of protein which makes them a sustainable alternative to water-intensive farming.
- Focusing on plant-based proteins: Plant based protein can be produced through climate and farmer friendly crops such as ragi, amaranth and millets.
- Adopting sustainable agricultural practices:
- Develop, facilitate and reward multi-benefit farming systems that enable more productive and resilient livelihoods and ecosystems, with emphasis on closing yield gaps and improving nutrition.
- Introduce strategies for minimizing ecosystem degradation and rehabilitating degraded environments, with emphasis on community-designed programmes.
- Reduce Post-harvest losses:
- Post-harvest losses of annual fruit and vegetable production in India are estimated at 20% due to inadequate transit packaging and refrigeration.
- Reducing such losses can minimize the impact on environment.
- Integrated Policy formulation:
- The multiple emergent challenges – food insecurity and under nutrition, climate change, increasing competition for energy and water, degradation of land and biodiversity are connected in complex ways and demand an integrated management approach.
- Adaptive management and governance to improve nutritional security, economic prosperity and environmental outcomes will require a much better global system for integrating spatially explicit information about agriculture, ecosystem services, markets and human populations in real time.
- Technological Intervention:
- Biotechnology can play a major role in helping farmers overcome challenges such as protecting crops against insects, weeds and disease, as well as battling vagaries of the weather.
- Much can be achieved without resorting to environmentally-harmful products and processes or over-reliance on irrigation, contributing to more sustainable farming practices
The need of the hour now is a new revolution — one that focuses on the environment, development and farmer welfare. With a focus on producing environmentally friendly crops, the next revolution can ensure that farmers are motivated to move to crops that consume less water, while ensuring their protection and a steady source of income.