Sustainable Food & Agriculture: 5 Ways We Can Do This
Here are some key ways to think of how we can grow better.
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There is a crisis across Maharashtra that we have all read about recently. The topics of farmer distress and suicides refuse to subside, and not just in harsh summers.
While our stores are overflowing with vegetables and fruits, and the granaries with food grains that rot away, we hear about numerous issues with the quality of what we eat every day- from the chemicals that we ingest in every meal, to the reduction in the nutritional content of the food over the years.
Even worse than these often discussed symptoms is the underlying hidden issue - the degradation of our ecosystems and our soil. As a small example, soil carbon across the Deccan plateau is at 0.3% or lower - a healthy soil should be at 3% or more! This has far-reaching consequences for our water security, food security, nutrition, and our economy itself.
Growing food sustainably is not something we can ignore without compromising our very future on this planet. So how do we start fixing this? Here are some key ways to think of how we can grow better.
Grow and Eat Local & the Indigenous
It is not only great because food that grows in the geography & suitable season, is healthier and more nutritious, but also because its footprint is the lowest. You are also keeping money in the local economy and are likelier to be connected to how this food is grown, consumed and processed.
From the grower’s perspective, it is just far less of a battle to grow plants that are well adapted. It is likelier to have all the nutrition it needs, is able to manage pests better, and have better weather resilience than something exotic that has been brought in from a different ecosystem.
Local food also automatically leads to both fresher produce, and to a larger diversity - both on the land and in your gut!
Increase Diversity - on the Farm and on your Plate
Till 1965, a banana the world over meant a Gros Michel in trade circles and markets. A fungal disease took out most of it, and the export industry switched wholescale to the Cavendish, which in turn was recently threatened by a different fungus. Except in pockets such as Kerala, the fruit essentially is that one variety, and susceptible to fungal attacks. That has increased risks, cost, and chemical residues in the plant as well as the soil and water.
The dozens of varieties of tomatoes we used to have a generation ago are now just a couple. The same is true for papaya, and the greens, and most other things. There are fruits and vegetables and grains that have almost disappeared from our diets and our stores, and sometimes even from the wild.
According to a study by Biodiversity International, of almost 391000 known plant species, over 5538 are known to have been used as human food. Today we depend on just three crop species - rice, wheat, and corn - for over half of the world's plant-based calories! Modern food systems are dominated by 5 animal species, and a mere 12 crops, out of the thousands we could eat. This lack of genetic diversity and variety makes our food systems a lot more susceptible to all kinds of failure, and less resilient.
Even in the context of a farm, it helps to plant as much variety to keep a single kind of pathogen or pest in check, to keep farm produce and incomes going through the year, and de-risked from the success and failure of one cash crop.
As consumers too, the lack of diversity on our plates reduces the variety and tastes available in our food, and less variety is certainly less nutritious overall.
Grow Naturally - this is more than just organic food
There is a lot of focus on organic food today, and cutting back on the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides is a great step forward. It does not just reduce the number of chemicals we eat in our food, but also in the soil, in the water that runs off and seeps into our lakes and rivers, and into the seas and oceans from there. The Black Sea dead zone, previously the largest in the world, largely disappeared between 1991 and 2001 after fertilizers became too costly to use following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of centrally planned economies in Eastern and Central Europe. Fishing has again become a major economic activity in the region.
But growing organic food in a degraded ecosystem is tough. What helps is to mimic nature, and recreate ecosystems that keep soil fertility and moisture healthy. There is many a clue in how to do this in our traditions - villages intrinsically respect “forest soil” - and in observing healthy, resilient ecosystems around us. It needs the help of the wild species - both plants and animals - around. It needs diversity both above and below the soil. It needs us to understand and recreate forest ecosystems and soil.
Focus more on Perennials than on Annuals
Our farming is largely based on annuals - plants we harvest and completely uproot in a cycle, and replant again. These are fragile and need a lot of water and attention. A forest, on the other hand, lives forever and survives and even thrives in a wide range of conditions. Trees are a very important component of this. Many a shrub, climber, root - all the various parts of this resilient ecosystem - are perennial as well.
Our idea of agriculture needs to move a lot more to perennial foods to get back this balance and resilience. Our dependence on a few grains has caused a lot of harm to our health, and also to the soil it grows in. Annuals do not provide a great habitat for insects and animals that are critical parts of chains in the ecosystem that we depend on in the long run. They also reduce soil biodiversity, make it drier and less water retentive. Trees, on the other hand, can dig deeper and access more nutrition, manage their ecosystem better, are hardier and serve many functions. They are less work for the farmer too!
Grow to consume and sell the surplus
Even a small farm can grow enough for a family’s needs for food. In fact, consuming what they grow and meeting their immediate needs is the best economic value a small farmer can derive from their effort. It is also food you know is grown a certain way and food that has travelled zero miles.
Farm economies were traditionally built around the idea of taking only the surplus to market, and there was a lot of sense in this. When one grows to consume first, the goals of diversity, having naturally grown produce that is regenerative and not destructive, and baseline sustenance are automatically met. It is great for the grower, great for the ecosystem and that is good for us all.
In summary - Grow Food Forests!
All that we have talked about above leads us to forests - ecosystems developed over millions of years of evolution that grow themselves perpetually, manage their soil, nutrition, water, temperature and a lot more. We, of course, need to grow more food. So we can learn from and mimic a forest, and plant in it a dazzling variety of food at not just one level but across all, from the roots to the canopy.
Permaculture principles have strived to understand and recreate this. We get started by helping the land recover and slowly become a forest, and in a few years, the effort and the inputs needed to reduce to a minimum, even as the availability, diversity of food increases, as does the nutritional content in everything that grows on it. The forest-farm not only provides food for us, but also for a million other species that coexist with it and help it in improving continually through their myriad actions. The forest also improves the water retention of the land, keeps the temperatures and humidity levels optimal, and is just a lovely place to live in.
This sustained and grew for millennia, and given half a chance, will do it again. It’s our best bet in a rapidly degrading world.
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