13 September 2009

fertilizing famine

One of the biggest threats to the future of Indian agriculture is not the failure of monsoon and other climate vagaries but its own government's agricultural policy of subsidizing fertilizers. Agriculture itself is an energy intensive process, fertilizer and pesticide manufacture even more so. Run-offs from fertilizer plants affect water supplies and leach into the soil to contaminate ground water.

Ever since chemical agriculture reared its ugly head during the time of the green revolution in the 1960s, India has embraced this model and we are beginning to see the consequences now. The consumption of synthetic fertilizers has increased from 0.07Mt in 1950-51 to 23.15Mt in the year 2008-2009. This initially contributed to the growth of food production but five decades later, indiscriminate use has degraded the natural resource base and is affecting the abundantly fertile soil this land is blessed with. Now, there is a gradual decline in food production and the industry is affected by diminishing returns and failing dividends in agriculture intensive areas.

Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers used in conventional farming generate nitrous oxide, a gas 300 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2. 1 tonne of oil, 7 tonnes of GHGs and 100 tonnes of H2O are involved in manufacturing 1 tonne of nitrogen fertilizer according to the Soil Association.

For 2009-2010, the budget allocation for fertilizer subsidies alone in India was close to 50,000 crores. The government's current policy does not take into account organic fertilizers or bio fertilizers. World over the propounded 'safe' limit of chemical fertilizer is between 60-80kg/ha whereas in India this number is as high as 500kg/ha in certain areas! The irrigated area, which accounts for 40% of the total agricultural area receives 60% fertiliser applied - this means 40% is being washed into water supplies. Soil degradation is the biggest threat to agricultural productivity and the use of synthetic fertilizers contribute directly to it.

India agriculture has shifted away from the traditional inter-cropping to chemically intensive monoculture system. Now the government is investing heavily in the advancements of GM technology in order to "feed the millions". This shift has already taught us many lessons with land becoming fallow and uncultivable in many areas due to essential nutrients in the soil being drained away. GM will follow this same pattern - this needless investment into methods that do not work must be culled. Organic cultivation and inter-cropping not only protects soil fertility but with proper management will produce enough to feed the millions without compromising on environmental quality.

Organic farming can only be supported if consumers support the industry. Every time you make the choice to eat organic, you are playing a role in shifting the balance towards a more sustainable form of agriculture and choosing not to consume harmful chemicals along with your food. If this does not convince you then I suggest you read stories of real-life farmers here and here.

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