Sustainable farming

29 Sep 2020

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The writer is author of Before She Sleeps.
The writer is author of Before She Sleeps.

AS the recent rains in Sindh have proven, climate change is now a reality in Pakistan. Flooding has destroyed houses and crops, negatively affecting livelihoods and food security. Ironically, agriculture has contributed to climate change, with poor use of resources harming the very environment it depends on. But Pakistani farmers can play a large role in battling climate change by switching to sustainable farming techniques, thereby increasing productivity while conserving water and respecting the environment.

For 60 years, farming in Pakistan has relied on an agricultural system that is no longer tenable. The government, buoyed by the Green Revolution of the 1960s, concentrated on irrigation, building numerous tube wells that drained natural aquifers; encouraged the use of imported fertiliser, local herbicides and pesticides; and promoted the modernisation of farms, using tractors and other machinery reliant on polluting fossil fuels.

This has resulted in massive resource degradation. Land is less fertile due to the overuse of chemicals, increase in salinity, and disturbance of the uppermost soil layer, which can no longer protect the nutrients beneath. Irrational government policies clash with sensible crop planning and patterns, eg mandating that rice be grown in northern Sindh, sugarcane in southern Sindh, and cotton in Punjab, regardless of climate or water availability. Flood irrigation uses up valuable water that we simply will not have access to in the future.

Today’s corporate agriculture industry, based on a model of products pushed by multinational companies, only worsens the situation. Hybrid seeds tie us to the corporations that trademark them. Drip irrigation is costly and impractical. Chemical fertilisers are expensive imports. Soil testing is costly and hard to oversee. More mechanisation would cause mass unemployment for millions of agricultural workers. Industrial-scale agriculture cannot work for the thousands of Pakistan’s small farmers who own five acres of land or less.

Pakistan’s agricultural system is no longer tenable.

Enter a new movement: paradoxical agriculture, a concept propagated by Asif Sharif, an agricultural businessman. On a visit to the Amazon rainforest, he realised that here was a thriving ecosystem with no artificial inputs from humans. Could this paradox be made to work in commercial farming? Could age-old natural techniques transform our agriculture system entirely? Focusing on soil restoration, water conservation and sustainability, Sharif theorised, could wean us off flood irrigation, imported fertiliser, pesticides and tilling.

While running his family farm at Pakpattan, Sharif travelled the world and sought out conservation- and sustainability-focused innovative solutions. He devised a system of crop intensification/conservation agriculture in a project with Cornell University and the FAO. By growing rice in raised beds instead of flooded paddies, they successfully reduced the need for water by 70 per cent. He did not accept financial assistance for the project.

Sharif champions multicropping: no-till farming that retains soil health without inundation or leaving it exposed to the air. He introduced sugarcane nurseries to hundreds of farmers in Punjab: instead of planting full sticks of sugarcane, farmers nurture smaller pieces of stalk containing the nodes from which new buds and leaves emerge, using far less water to grow the crop until it reaches maturity. Mulching is also one of his favoured practices to restore the soil’s nutrients and keeps its pH level balanced. It delivers a consistent source of moisture straight to the root systems of the crops. It is so effective that it can be used with sugarcane, one of the most water-intensive crops. In Pakistan, vegetable crops grown with mulch did not need irrigation for six months.

Commercial mulching as a business would create many jobs, as it is labour-intensive, but it would also bring training and skill, education and investment into that rural labour force. Mulch is locally produced and would reduce our reliance on expensive fertiliser imports. Mulch can be made from agricultural waste — banana leaves, straw and stalks from fodder and cereal, debris from sugarcane. At present, agricultural trash is burned, which harms the environment. Wide-scale mulching would reduce water usage, diesel and electrical consumption in tube wells, as well as the use of chemical weedkiller.

Our soil, our labour and our water are our most valuable resources; nobody understands this better than Pakistan’s farmers, large and small. Another agricultural revolution in Pakistan is long overdue, one that takes into account the climate emergency and respects natural processes that regenerate, not exploit, our environment. We can then envision a future where the rivers flow at higher strength into the sea, desertification slows, and extreme storm and rain conditions reduce.

The writer is author of Before She Sleeps.

Twitter: @binashah

Published in Dawn, September 29th, 2020