Sustainable Agriculture System: Sow Less, Reap More
Increasing climate change risk and deterioration of soil and water are posing
serious challenges to Indian agriculture. With a growing number of small farm
holders and their declining areas of operations, the challenge becomes
more complex for their viability. Therefore, future policies and resource
allocation should focus on sustainable and resilient agriculture that can
enhance income of small farm holders and reduce their risks. Keeping in
consideration the priorities in agriculture, there is a need to focus attention
on promoting sustainable agriculture and improving livelihoods of farmers and
Sustainable Agriculture: An Introduction
Sustainable agriculture is a system of agriculture that lasts for a long and maintains its productivity over the long run. Sustainable agriculture is both a philosophy and a system of farming. It has its roots in a set of values that reflects an awareness of ecological as well as social realities. It involves design and management procedures that work with natural processes to conserve all resources, minimise, and waste and environmental damage, while maintaining or improving farm profitability. Working with natural soil processes is of particular importance. Sustainable agriculture systems are designed to take maximum advantage of existing soil nutrients and water cycles, energy flows, and soil organisms for food production. As well, such systems aim to produce food that is nutritious, without being contaminated with products that might harm human health.
In practice such systems have tended to avoid the use of synthetically compounded fertilisers, pesticides, growth regulators, and livestock feed additives. These substances are rejected on the basis of their dependence on non-renewable resources, disruption potential within the environment, and their potential impacts on wildlife, livestock and human health. Sustainable agriculture systems rely on crop rotations, crop residues, animal manures, legumes, green manures, off-farm organic wastes, appropriate mechanical cultivation, and mineral bearing rocks to maximise soil biological activity, and to maintain soil fertility and productivity. Natural, biological, and cultural controls are used to manage pests, weeds and diseases.
The idea of sustainable agriculture has been around a long time. Since the very first crop was sown and animals were penned, farmers have tried to ensure that their land produces a similar or increasing yield of products year after back-breaking year; recent attempts to popularise the concept build on this tradition.
The following are the objectives of Sustainable Agriculture:
• Make best use of the resources available;
• Minimise use of non-renewable resources;
• Protect the health and safety of farm workers, local communities and society;
• Protect and enhance the environment and natural resources;
• Protect the economic viability of farming operations;
• Provide sufficient financial reward to the farmer to enable continued production and contribute to the well-being of the community;
• Produce sufficient high-quality and safe food; and,
• Build on available technology, knowledge and skills in ways that suit local conditions and capacity.
Basic Elements and Benefits
Sustainable agriculture’s benefit to farm and community economies, is grounded in well-established economic development principles and concern for the community:
Input Optimisation: Sustainable production practices maximise on-farm resources. Internally derived inputs, such as family labour, intensive grazing systems, recycled nutrients, legume nitrogen, crop rotations, use of renewable solar energy, improved management of pests, soils and woodlands are a few examples of substituted resources. According to some studies, these substitutions can be made while maintaining yields and often result in increased net farm earnings. These earnings can benefit the community by increasing local retail sales and providing a stronger tax base.
Diversification: To develop healthy soils and reduce purchased inputs, sustainable agriculture emphasises diverse cropping and livestock systems. Diversification can lead to more stable farm income by lowering economic risk from climate, pests, and fluctuating agriculture markets. This helps to keep farmers on the land and helps buffer the local economy from the shock of a dramatic decline in a single commodity/industry.
Conservation of Natural Capital: It is standard accounting practice to depreciate capital assets. It has not been standard practice for farmers to depreciate natural capital that is depleted by farming methods that do not conserve resources. Nevertheless, the loss is real, eventually affecting yields, farm profitability, and sustainability. In sustainable agriculture, economic value is created by maintaining the productivity of land and water resources while enhancing human health and environment.
Capturing Value-Added: The marketing of crops and products grown is by far the weakest link in the farmers’ role in the ‘field to table’ food system. To create and maintain a truly sustainable agriculture, farmers have to develop ways of retaining a higher percentage of value-added on the farm. While individual farmers can and do design, process and direct-market their own products, many other value-added strategies require more resources than one farmer can handle financially. Therefore, these value-added strategies require the formation of a coop of local farmers and a collaborative relationship with the local community.
Community: The elements of sustainable agriculture are integral to all communities. To support sustainable agriculture, there is a need to recognise the rural/urban interconnection, the conflicts and tremendous opportunities. The positives of a sustainable farming system include shared commitment to profitability, food security, food safety, open space for water recharge, natural habitats for flora, fauna and recreation and a cooperative and supportive social and economic community infrastructure. Nowadays, urban communities in India are separated from farming communities not only in philosophy, but also in their mutual understanding, particularly in their knowledge of the entire food production and distribution system. Recognition of the role farming has played in stabilising community is critical or it shall continue to disintegrate the rural fabric and preferred standards of living.
Methods and Approaches
Sustainable agriculture has been practiced for many decades and encompasses a tremendous number of different approaches described by different names. To this point, most of these approaches have largely been limited to the substitution of environmentally benign products and practices.
However, more significant advances can be expected as a result of developments in the science and art of agro-ecosystem design and management. Several approaches in the conventional agriculture (minimum tillage, chemical banding) fall into the “efficiency” category. They demonstrate a reduction in resource use and associated negative environmental impact, and in many cases a reduction in input expenses for the farmer. They represent, however, only an initial step towards a truly sustainable system.
Efforts to substitute safe products and practices (botanical pesticides, bio-control agents, imported manures, rock powders and mechanical weed control) are also gaining popularity. Despite the reduced negative environmental damage associated with them, they remain problematic. Botanical pesticides also kill beneficial organisms. The release of bio-controls does not address the question of why pest outbreaks occur dependent on imported fertiliser materials makes the system vulnerable to supply disruptions and excessive cultivation to control weeds is detrimental to the soil.
The systems that focus on redesign of the farm are the most sophisticated, generally the most environmentally and economically sustainable, over the long-term. These farm systems recycle resources to the greatest extent possible, meaning that little is wasted, few pollutants are generated, and input costs are reduced substantially.
In conventional agricultural systems, the success of sustainable approaches is very dependent on the skills and attitudes of the producers. The degree to which different models of such farms are sustainable is very variable, and is dependent on the physical resources of the farmer, and the degree deficiencies in support farm, the talents and commitment of the support available.
However, sustainable agriculture approaches are now being adopted by many farmers at a rapidly increasing rate. Even government and other organisations are promoting and designing programmes to support the sustainable agricultural practices. Agricultural professionals have been slow to respond to the needs of these producers, but many are now actively pursuing training and research in this area in order to contribute to this growing movement.