Approximately 40 percent of the Earth’s land surface is now being used for food production. All governments, world bodies like the UN and development financial institutions are pursuing policies to improve food security and support human development. However, it is well worth being cautioned that farming—unrestrained and unplanned farming in particular—is also associated with a wide range of negative environmental impacts.
These can include increased emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) and ammonia; depletion of freshwater; and increased soil compaction, depletion and erosion. Not to forget eutrophication, in which a water body becomes overly enriched with nutrients, leading to excessive growth of algae which produce toxins that are harmful to higher forms of life. This can cause problems along the food chain and affect any animal that feeds on them.
Ecosystem degradation has emerged as one of the biggest environmental threats around the world over the last three decades. Almost all our ecosystems, terrestrial or otherwise, stand degraded to varying degrees due to a mix of factors such as developmental pressures, population growth, over-exploitation, etc. Other stressors such as invasive alien species and climate change also impact many ecosystems.
The Bonn Challenge declaration and the United Nations declaration of 2021-30 as the ‘Decade of Ecosystem Restoration’ have placed ecological restoration at the forefront of the world’s biodiversity and climate change agendas. India too has chalked up an ambitious target of restoring 26 million hectares of degraded lands by 2030.
In India, agriculture is recognised as the leading contributor to biodiversity loss, which principally occurs through the conversion of natural habitats to farmed systems. Consequently, there is an urgent need to reduce the impact of food production on biodiversity, which could potentially be achieved by changing patterns of both food production and consumption, and through a combination of conservation, sustainable management and ecological restoration.
While many techniques and strategies are already available that can contribute to this goal, there is a particular need to scale them up from local to landscape or regional scales. It is well known that the fortunes of Indian agriculture swing periodically, depending on monsoons and the need to reduce the farm sector’s vulnerability to critical resources such as groundwater.
A recent study of eight crops compared the consumption of the most efficient and least efficient farmers. For paddy, it was revealed that shifting farming practices to more efficient ones could reduce water use by 25 percent in Maharashtra and 73 percent in Andhra Pradesh. Overall, 20-47 percent of irrigation water could be saved between 2030 and 2050—and reallocated to other sectors— if farmers adopted water-saving irrigation practices.
The crucial and even more significant aspect is not just conserving ecosystems, but restoring them as well. For instance, the degradation of natural ecosystems in the Western Ghats poses a direct threat to water security, and in turn, to the livelihoods of millions of people in the plains.
Degradation, therefore, has serious implications for human well-being and economic sustainability. Many of our ecosystems today are damaged beyond unassisted self-recovery. Mangroves along our coastline are severely impaired and need intervention.
Many protected areas like national parks stand ecologically unprotected due to invasion by species such as Lantana Camara, a flowering thorny plant that thrives in nutrient-poor soil, is toxic to herbivores and produces chemicals to deter other plants from growing too close to it,
We are, therefore, in a situation where conservation alone is no longer enough. We need a sustainable form of agriculture that can assist the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged or destroyed. Ecosystems are in a constant state of evolution. Ecosystem integrity, covering both biotic and abiotic aspects, forms the foundation of ecological restoration. Restoration adopts a holistic approach focused on all elements of an ecosystem such as soil, hydrology, flora, fauna, etc. This helps build the resilience and regenerative ability of the ecosystem.
We can never forget India’s 96 million hectares of degraded land which has already caused unprecedented loss of biodiversity. Extreme climatic events are another massive ecological challenge for our country. Offering livelihood opportunities to millions of workers who migrated to their villages and recovery from economic crisis due to the covid-19 pandemic have emerged as the biggest socio-economic challenges for the country.
A framework of different policies and strategies are in place to overcome these ecological and socio-economic challenges. Additionally, in the long run, we have to aim at ecosystem restoration and biodiversity conservation through sustainable agriculture processes and environment policies which can provide a cost-effective, efficient, and sustainable way for India to overcome its ecological and socio-economic challenges.
—The author, Sagar Kaushik is President, Global Corporate & Industry Affairs, UPL Ltd. Views expressed are personal
(Edited by: By Ajay Vaishnav)