Farming and Agriculture

Agriculture and the Environment

Opinion piece by Dr Jacqueline d’Arros Hughes, Director General, ICRISAT.

09 June 2022, Asia: Our food production, processing and distribution systems are intricately linked with the environment. Sunlight, water, nutrients and a diversity of plants, animals and microbes all have fundamental roles in agricultural production and global food security. Agricultural biodiversity comprises the diversity of genetic resources and species used in agriculture directly or indirectly, including species that support production (e.g., soil organisms and pollinators) and broader ecosystems within which agriculture takes place. As the global food demand rises due to the growing population, the environmental costs of agriculture are placing an unsustainable burden on our planet’s finite resources.

The environmental impacts of agriculture are well documented. Agriculture is the dominant use of land and this use will continue to grow as the food demand grows. Currently, it is estimated that 35 – 40% of available land is used for agriculture including raising livestock. Conversion of land for agriculture is estimated to account for 80% of global deforestation. Between 30 – 35% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from agriculture, and crop irrigation accounts for 70% of the world’s freshwater withdrawals. Fertilizers and pesticides used in agriculture often end up in water bodies leading to eutrophication of lakes and rivers – killing aquatic life. Industrial-scale agriculture reduces biodiversity and depletes soil nutrients leading to more demand for converting natural landscapes to agricultural use.

The twin burden of ensuring food and nutrition security while reducing the environmental impacts of agriculture is challenging but not insurmountable. The response should be at two levels.

The first, and straightforward approach is the technical solutions: improving yields of existing crops, better soil and water management, integrated pest management, multi-cropping, better agronomic practices, and using digital technologies such as soil sensors to determine when and how much irrigation is required, using advanced imaging techniques to predict outbreaks of pests and diseases, better post-harvest management to reduce losses and others. Such solutions are largely the domain of agriculture research organisations such as ICRISAT and our national and international partners, as well as others around the world.

The second, and more challenging, approach lies in the domain of policymakers – creating the right mix of policy incentives and disincentives to make agriculture more sustainable.

Policy incentives are required to promote sustainable forms of agriculture, promote a circular economy through the reduction and recirculation of natural resources at the local level, promote crops suited to the local ecology such as millets in dry areas and more. At the same time, policy disincentives are required for, say, tapping deep underground aquifers, discouraging water-intensive crops such as sugarcane in dry areas, and excessive use of fertilizers and other chemicals.

Researchers can play an important role in providing science-based evidence to help policymakers create the right blend of incentives and disincentives required to nudge agriculture on the path of sustainability – where food and nutrition security for all is ensured without jeopardizing the ecological base on which agriculture is so crucially dependent.

The interconnected nature of climate change, loss of biodiversity, land degradation, and air and water pollution means they must be addressed together to maximize the benefits and minimize trade-offs. Countries are already lagging in meeting the SDG goals. Major shifts in policies, governance, regulation, incentives and investment are urgently required to ensure agriculture has a positive impact on the environment rather than a negative one.

The year 2022 marks 50 years since the Stockholm Conference which declared 5th June as World Environment Day. This year’s theme Only One Earth was also the motto for the 1972 Stockholm Conference. Fifty years on, the motto holds true – this planet is our only home, and it is our responsibility to safeguard its finite resources for future generations.