As we reach for the stars with great leaps in technology, it is easy to forget that our feet remain rooted to the ground and Mother Earth still remains the only home we have in the entire cosmos. Even as we seek to expand our horizons, we must remember the energy that enables to drive forward at increasingly blinding speeds owes its origins to nature's efficient yet frugal ways (assiduously accumulated over the millennia by plants harnessing the power of the sun) that have created the huge reserves which we are exploiting today.
Plants also hold the key to meeting our energy needs today, without abundant food human sustenance, leave alone progress is just not possible. The silent remnants of once great civilisations, abandoned due to their inability to feed their populace, hold important lessons for us, if we were to just observe and learn.
Our progress is innately dependant on food security which we are beginning to take for granted, but this complacency can be dangerous. Two critical factors have an inordinately high impact on our food security - soil and water. Not only are both resources finite, but retaining them in their natural, healthy state is of critical importance.
Most of our food is derived from carbohydrate rich cereals, pulses and tuber crops with roots just a few inches deep, dependant on the condition of the top soil. This topsoil, for the most part is just 10 inches deep and has taken millions of years to be formed, within which resides a microscopic web of life which we barely notice. It is the tenuous hold of our crops on this thin crust and the intricate relationship of their roots with this invisible web of life that ensures we get good yields to feed our people. It is this topsoil, ( the skin of mother Earth) which we are saturating with chemicals and salts and creating an imbalance which threatens not only its productivity but its very existence.
Life giving water is the other invaluable resource, once considered inexhaustible, its finite nature and importance is being driven home with increasing regularity through periods of searing drought interspersed with unexpected and unseasonal rain as our activities begin to impact our climate. With new large irrigation projects becoming scarce due to environmental factors, there has been a tendency to overexploit ground water with disastrous consequences to soil fertility. The fragility of our food production systems stand exposed and increasingly this is going to hit us where large sections of our populace are most vulnerable - our poor.
Abundant supplies of food and stable world supplies over the last 5 decades has laid thestrong foundation on which our progress has been built. In developing countries, agriculture accounts for a significant share of the GDP and more importantly, employment. With fragmented land holdings and poor access to resources, small farmers and landless labourers are most vulnerable to climate change, degradation of soil and scarcity of water.
- Our resource heavy technology for crop production is rapidly reaching the point of diminishing marginal returns. The danger signals are already fluttering, warning of tumultuous times ahead.
- Availability of arable land is declining rapidly as demands for housing, infrastructure and industry continue to burgeon - and it is prime agricultural land that is being rapidly lost.
- Soil quality is declining and yields are stagnating in our breadbasket even as population keeps increasing.
- Ground water resources are being depleted quickly, when juxtaposed with declining water flow in rivers due to shrinking glaciers this can seriously impact our ability to feed ourselves.
- Known reserves of mineral nutrients like potash and phosphates are also being depleted fast, this will affect not just the prices of these nutrients but also impinge on production.
- As a consequence, India could end up as a net importer of food in twenty years or so threatening our hard won food security with its impact on world food prices.
- This can threaten our balance of payments, value of our currency and fuel galloping inflation
- Accompanied by demographic changes such as an ageing population, this can stretch our civic services to breaking point
We need to reverse this trend of declining productivity of our soils and provide farmers with tools to combat regular periods of drought arising from climate change. If ever we needed an alternate path - a path which is sustainable and delivers replicable results, the time is now. Tomorrow may be too late.