David Ngendo Tshimba
Uganda Martyrs University
e-nvironment: A sustainable future for our planet
Sustainability per se is a broad and crucial subject. All basic aspects that underlie sustainable development seek to find a way to fulfill the required needs while minimising environmental damage and misuse of resources.
Agriculture is among the primary driving forces behind our planet, which constitutes the major concern in this context. Therefore, the involvement of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides to enhance agricultural production has ironically led to its downfall. While many countries have adopted these mechanisms, the consequences have either not been extensively thought about or simply ignored. From the time of the ‘Green revolution’ when these scientific mechanisms were widely promoted, developing countries were not immediately involved in these plans. Thus, with the coming of Western revolutionary ideas, the agricultural mechanisation ideals were forcibly implemented without the consent of the locals. Development in context seeks to address the needs of the people in question, considering their capabilities, requirements, their participation, and future consequences. The synthetic chemicals do not necessarily apply in this context and their implementation in developing countries only brought more harm than good.
Ultimately, for agricultural enhancement to be achieved, principal concerns of the persons in question need to be the fundamental aspects considered.
The Concept of development is so extensive that it touches all facets of life. Our analysis focuses on the environmental aspect. But one cannot focus on one aspect to the detriment of others, because such an approach will fail to be holistic, and so fail to address that particular developmental issue.
As far as the environment is concerned, greater understanding of the role that agriculture can play in improving economic and nutritional well-being will be required. Actually, agriculture, the study and practice of farming, constitutes the core source of human basic needs.
Some fifty years ago, the world faced a number of serious problems, including malnutrition for those who could at least get some food, as well as famine for others who are deprived. Therefore, it is up to us to learn how to address these issues in a way that we will survive after all. This paper addresses the ways that humanity, in the name of development, is dealing with its environment as far as agriculture is concerned.
As populations grow, environmental problems become more and more severe. The effects of environmental degradation and inadequate natural resource management are increasingly evident throughout the world. Moreover, the fact is many environmental problems are interconnected, as George W. Norton et al. (2008) have noted. Deforestation, soil erosion, overgrazing, energy depletion, climate change, desertification, silting of rivers and reservoirs are inextricably linked.
Sound environmental management is generally recognized to be essential for sustainable agricultural and economic development. To my mind, sustainable agriculture is the ability of a productive system to maintain its productivity over time, without severe or permanent degradation of land resources and/or ecosystems.
Agricultural productivity refers to farm output at harvest time, compared to the original inputs:
Some degradation can be intentional, but most is the unintended result of people or governments seeking means of solving immediate food and economic crises, often at the cost of long-term damage to the environment. Tesfa G. Gebremedhin and Ralph D. Christy have pointed out that the shift towards large-scale agriculture accelerates environmental degradation and reduces the quality of rural life.
In fact, we have already had significant evidence to demonstrate the effects of replacing traditional agricultural methods with chemical and technological “modern” methods. The first big push for such a shift came during the “Green Revolution,” beginning in the 1940’s. With the onset of the Cold War, with populations starving and discontent around the world, Western powers were eager to do something to assuage peoples ‘dissatisfaction, in hopes of deterring them from turning to communism as a solution. And so, in order to avoid a “Red Revolution,” Western scientists presented the idea of a “Green Revolution,” a technological revolution in farming that would increase agricultural yields, thereby keeping everyone fed and satisfied, without need to turn to communism. Therefore, the Green Revolution moved forward as a development strategy.
Farmers were taught to use engineered seeds, along with fertilizers designed to complement them. With carefully measured ingredients, crops were sure to be resilient to weeds and pests, produce higher yields, and reduce work and soil runoff, as they did not require so much tilling. Farmers across the world, particularly in Asia, abandoned traditional techniques of intercropping in favour of introducing Green Revolution inputs.
At the present time, however, western researchers, in the name of a development, are attempting to resolve worldwide hunger. Did the “Green Revolution” succeed in resolving world hunger, or merely introduce a more serious issue? The impacts of such a shift are multi-faceted and include a loss of community autonomy as well as community relationships, lost biodiversity, soil depletion, poverty, with little reduction in hunger.
Even though “most hunger is caused by a failure to gain access to the locally available food or to the means to produce food directly” (Peter C. Timmer et al., 1983), the Green Revolution failed to acknowledge the issue of distribution, and thus largely failed in eradicating hunger. Are people hungry because the world does not produce enough food? No. In the aggregate, the world produces a surplus of food. If the world food supply were evenly divided among the world’s population, each person would receive substantially more than the minimum amount of nutrients required for survival. The world is not on the brink of starvation. (George W. Norton et al., 2008).
World hunger is not caused by food shortages. People are hungry because they are too poor to buy the food available, not because there is not enough. Furthermore, “the less conspicuous but more pernicious problem, in terms of people suffering and dying, is chronic malnutrition.” Even good estimates depend on the definition used for this concept, a conservative estimate suggests that roughly 800 million people suffer from chronic and severe malnutrition associated with food deprivation (The Economics of the Agricultural Development: World Food Systems and Resource Use, 2008, p.6).
In fact, in Asia, where Green Revolution agriculture was most widely adopted, we now find two-thirds of the world’s undernourished population. So the Green Revolution has done little to address the issue of world hunger.
It must be noted that in several cases, such as Mexico and India, Green Revolution agriculture did exactly what it promised to do, namely, to increase agricultural yields. Unfortunately, however, more food in the world does not necessarily mean less hunger.
There is need to remind the “fans” of modernization, especially the modernization of agriculture, of the boomerang effect of modernization through the experience of Punjab, which used to be the flag-bearer of the Green Revolution and the most prosperous region in India, but today is in a sorry state (George W. Norton et al., 2008).
Humanity has come to know how to congratulate those who are able to introduce scientific innovations, however harmful these may turn out to be, but fails to sympathize with those who suffer negative effects from scientific research and discovery, even though the latter constitute a significant proportion of people affected.
Dr. Paul Hermann Muller, the Swiss inventor of the organochlorine insecticide DDT, won the Nobel Prize of Physiology in 1948. DDT, a bug-killing synthesis of Dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane, was the first synthetic insecticide to be widely used, yet is now considered to be highly hazardous, so is widely banned for agricultural use, according to the World Health Organization classification (New Internationalist 323, May 2000: The Facts on the Pesticides). Under United States law, a pesticide is any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling, or mitigating any pest, and also for use as a plant regulator, defoliant, or desiccant. Pests can be insects, mice and other animals, unwanted plants (weeds), fungi, or microorganisms like bacteria and viruses [URL Available online http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/about, Accessible on 22 August 2003].
Soil nutrient reserves are being depleted because of continued exploitation of nutrients without adequate replenishment. The consequent downward spiral of soil fertility has led to a corresponding decline in crop yields, food insecurity, food aid, and environmental degradation (Andre Batino et al., 2007).
Nikki Van Der Gaag has pointed out that organophosphate compounds include some of the most toxic chemicals used in agriculture. All have a cumulative effect with chronic exposure causing progressive inhibition of cholinesterase.
Van Der Gaag says that parathion is one of the most dangerous pesticides in the world; three drops are enough to kill a grown man. It is banned in most countries, but poor farmers buy it from illegal street shops and markets just because it is cheap and effective, and they have no idea of the dangers involved. Today, the World Health Organisation estimates that at least 3 million people a year are poisoned by pesticides, and that 200,000 people die. It is estimated that up to 25 million agricultural workers are poisoned every year. Pesticides are not just responsible for accidental poisonings; they have become a part of us and our environment in a way that could never have been imagined half a century ago: Pesticides waft into the air, sink into the soil, and leach into rivers and streams. Nor are they restricted to humans; they affect all living things from the smallest invertebrate to the largest whale.
An ecological study has demonstrated that 672 million birds are exposed to pesticides every year, and 10 per cent or 67 million, die. Our biodiversity is in a crucial danger. Among many other examples, we say that in China, 42,800 new cases of pesticide poisoning were reported in 1994, including 3,900 fatalities. Many were said to be victims of home-made cocktails marketed illegally (Bugs in System, edited by William Vorley and Dennis Keeney, Earthscan, London 1998). Acute pesticide poisoning is common, and little is known about potential long-term health effects.
What is shocking is the fact that hundreds of pests have become resistant to chemicals, and the number is growing. World pest populations have increased as pesticides kill natural predators of pests. As resistance to pesticides builds up and predators are reduced, future production potentials are jeopardized. And society bears the cost of off-farm pollution.
Here is the reason for questioning our conscience: “Why poison ourselves?” a precautionary approach to synthetic chemicals by Chris Bright (World Watch Paper 153, November 2000). Peter Rosset extols the virtues of the small farm model by “Kicking the Chemical Habit.” That is why, according to the Indian Environmentalist Vandana Shiva: “Every farmer is in debt and despair. Vast stretches of land have become water-logged deserts. And as an old farmer pointed out, even the trees have stopped bearing fruit because heavy use of pesticides has killed the pollinators, the bees and butterflies. Native seeds have been displaced by new hybrids, which are not perennial and so need to be purchased every year at high costs. Hybrids are also vulnerable to pests’ attacks. Now farmers are consuming the same pesticides as a way of killing themselves, in order to escape permanently from unpaid debts!” Misuse of Chemical pesticides and fertilizers has contaminated land and water, damaging the health of producers and consumers, and stimulating the emergence of pests’ resistance to pesticides.
‘Much of the food we eat contains pesticide residues. Although many of these do not exceed allowed levels for adult consumption, no one knows what the build-up of poison over time does to our bodies. Nor has the effects on babies and children been calculated. What we do know is that many of these pesticides can cause cancer or have other adverse effects on animals, humans and the environment…’ (New Internationalist 323, May 2000)
The Pesticide Action Network (PAN) has drawn up a list of twelve dangerous pesticides, which are well known as the “Dirty Dozen.” Almost all are in the World Health Organization’s hazardous category.
So what has been the argument for the continuing use of pesticides? One could eventually say they increase crop yields.
First of all, however, we do not need more food; we just need a fairer way of distributing it.
Secondly, eight per cent of pesticides are used in the rich world, and many of these are used not to grow food for humans but to produce animal feed for livestock. Hence, this becomes an escalating cycle of poison! [URL Available online http://www.pan-international.org, Accessible on 23 Septembre 2005] Finally, most pesticides in the Thirdly World are used on export crops, most of which are eaten by people in the West.
Furthermore, pesticides are big business. If pesticides were banned altogether, billions of dollars in food production would be lost, says the agro-industry.
All in all, while alternative development strategies can be followed, agriculture has an important role to play in overall development, especially in most developing countries.
“How can agriculture be improved to facilitate its role in providing food and contributing to overall development?” asked George W. Norton et al. (2008).
Land is source of food, shelter, tools, health, burials, in short LAND IS LIVELIHOOD (Rupert Hambira, 1999).
To my mind, by its essence and its nature, agriculture should also have something to do with culture. Here, Culture not only refers to ‘growing, cultivating’ but to some extent it also relates to ‘originality, authenticity’.
For generation after generation, numerous communities in the Global South practised subsistence farming. Within a village, they had the capacity to produce food they needed to survive. As such, these communities were self-sufficient and members of the communities maintained strong relationships.
However, these communities are now dependent in several ways on the Western world for their livelihoods: not only did they require a steady stream of imported agricultural inputs (demand increased by the inability to save and reuse suicide seeds), but they now had to export their crops- often producing luxury crops that could not sustain their own diets but were in high demand in Western countries.
And so, the rise of the pesticide industry has just transformed ‘agriculture’ into another deal, ‘agribusiness’ to the detriment of small farmers who farm more ecologically but just as productively. Agribusiness is inextricably linked to increased use of agro-chemicals. It is an approach to food production that sees the soil as a source of profit and the earth as a resource to plunder. It sees agriculture only as business and farmers as business people rather than guardians of the land!
Traditional methods, such as the abandonment of a piece of land for gaining fertility, shifting cultivation, fallowing, rotation of crops, organic manuring were and are, systems for land rehabilitation since the equilibrium in nature has been upset, and it should consequently and inevitably, be restored.
Research should go into alternative ways of reducing pests. In any cases, the use of biological means is highly appreciated instead of chemical pesticides as far as the prices paid by people’s health and by the deterioration of the environment are concerned.
Nevertheless, at some point, it will not be possible to switch overnight to completely organic agriculture. There needs to be a transitional period where there is a combination of organic and chemical agriculture.
REFERENCES AND BIBLIOGRAPHY
Norton, G.W.; Alwang, J.; Masters, A.W.,2008. The Economics of Agricultural Development: World food systems and resource use. New York: ISBN.
Bationo, A.; Waswa, B.; Kihara, J.eds., 2007. Advances in Integrated Soil Fertility Management in Sub-Saharan Africa: Challenges and opportunities. USA, Springs.
Boyce, K.J.; Rosset, P.; Stanton, E.A.,2007. Land Reform and Sustainable Development. New York: Anthem Press.
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