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Conflicting challenges

Realisation of the 2021 WED theme of Ecosystem Restoration is limited by another imperative of meeting the extensive food demand

Conflicting challenges
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World Environment Day is celebrated on June 5 each year since 1974 to make people aware that nature should not be taken for granted and it must be respected for its value. This year's theme for WED is 'Ecosystem Restoration'. Wetlands across the world have been destroyed over the past century; population sizes of various species have experienced an average 68 per cent decline between 1970 and 2016 and; roughly, some 11 million tonnes of plastic makes way into the oceans each year, harming wildlife habitats and animals. Ecosystem restoration is indeed a pressing concern.

Scientists have warned that rampant jeopardizing of the world ecosystem could be the cause of the "sixth mass extinction". An estimated 4.2 to seven million people die due to air pollution worldwide each year, and nine out of 10 people breathe air that contains high levels of pollutants. In the wake of the pandemic, scientists observed the role of air pollution in transmitting the virus and the possible correlation between Covid-related mortalities and air pollution. The only option left is to restore the ecosystem. That means preventing, stopping, and reversing the damages so that we may improve people's livelihoods, counteract climate change, and halt the collapse of biodiversity.

According to researchers, the global food industry is responsible for up to one-third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, of which 30 per cent comes from livestock and fisheries. Can anyone agree to allow a large number of people to die of starvation; or allow cutting down remaining forests to free up more land for farming, or to allow intensive farming within limited land and a labour force using harmful chemicals to ensure food security? Even, the crops are highly contaminated and environmental sustainability (ES) is jeopardized. We all will agree to produce crops that are perhaps drought-resistant or can fix their own nitrogen, or resist diseases and pests without the use of pesticides. But is it possible to adopt these measures amid accelerated urbanization and tremendous land-use changes?

Globally, increasing population and resultant consumption of food are placing unprecedented demands on food production and natural resources. Though the Green Revolution had paid rich dividends to farmers, major problems related to such intensive farming, based on synthetic chemicals, are pollution, desertification, topsoil degradation, biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas emissions etc. Advanced policies have been framed in many countries to address the issue of food supply but environmental risks associated with intensive farming are not addressed. This dismal state of ES stays well-shrouded on the grounds of social angle (food security). It is pertinent to mention that intensive farming, across countries, contributes to completely different forms of an environmental burden than by any other industrial and domestic sector. Though corporate brigades always advocate that the agrochemical sector remains a key to the success of Indian agriculture in making the country self-sufficient in food, but according to researchers 30–35 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, and crop irrigation accounts for 70 per cent of the world's total freshwater withdrawals. The use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer has increased nearly 21-fold since 1950, and more nitrogen is now added to agricultural soils than from natural processes.

Numerous regulatory agencies all over the world have not clearly declared the possibility of environmental hazard due to the use of these chemicals. In India, the scientific truth behind intensive farming has been manipulated simply to maximize the profit of the agrochemical sector at the expense of human health and environment. The famous scientist Bernhard Url had said: "Eroding trust in regulatory agencies will not improve democratic accountability and don't attack science agencies for political gain". It brings to light how scientific assessment is being practically dictated by the corporate brigade. Despite the piquant situation, the Central Government is yet to frame any policy to resolve the conflict between food security and environmental sustainability.

In Purulia (West Bengal), we have succeeded in preparing organic manure utilizing aquatic plants such as Water Hyacinth, Pistia and Azolla with a little amount of cow dung and pond sediments to grow organic crops. The yield gap was minimum (10-15 per cent less). The growth of plants in this soil has changed the soil quality for the better as evidenced by the colour of it and the presence of living organisms. In 2016, Sikkim had achieved its goal of converting to 100 per cent organic farming. Kerala, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Goa and Rajasthan are also striving to shift towards a fully organic revolution.

Despite the obvious benefits, several key challenges have slowed the growth of organic agriculture. One of the major impediments is that agrochemical industries try to convince the small farmers that organic farming requires "rocket" science and cannot be effective to ensure profit. Increasing public awareness about the value of organic farming, and conducting research to explore the barriers and opportunities in organic farming are essential in overcoming the challenges faced by the sector. Innovative agriculture practices are imperative to highlight the scientific understanding of the benefits of organic farming. Of course, sanctioning of huge public money in the name of organic farming may be projected as a "proof" to concern but this "support" must ensure that practical benefits are met to the target beneficiaries and responsibility towards sustainable development is fixed.

The writer is a former Senior Scientist, Central Pollution Control Board. Views expressed are personal

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