Earth's vitality and the power of happiness

| 19th June 2014
These organic broad beans at Sandly Lane Farm, Oxfordshire, will soon be ready for harvest. Photo: Sandy Lane Farm.
These organic broad beans at Sandly Lane Farm, Oxfordshire, will soon be ready for harvest. Photo: Sandy Lane Farm.
Farming should not only sustain people with healthy food, writes Jigmi Y. Thinley. If humans are to survive on Earth, it must also revitalise nature and sustain vital planetary systems, instead of poisoning and over-exploiting them. And to do that farming must be organic.
Since agriculture is the foundation of all civilizations, I believe organic agriculture, as the only way of growing sustainable food, must constitute a primary thrust in any new development paradigm.

Organic agriculture is not only relevant to today's world. It is what is necessary for the survival of all living beings. The central role of organic agriculture in paving the path towards a safer and happier world cannot be overstated.

In the last one century, the culture of managing bio resources and growing food has changed dramatically in ways that are at once beneficial and harmful, praiseworthy and shameful.

It has reasons to be proud of its achievement in feeding the majority of our population that has doubled from 3 billion in 1959 to 6 billion in 1999 to reach the current figure of over 7 billion.

But it must also acknowledge that in the process it has made this world less safe, less hospitable and less capable of sustaining life and, indeed, agriculture itself.

The deeper consequences of industrial agriculture

Its share of responsibility in the deteriorating state of the earth, like all other human activities, is no less than that of industry, commerce, technology, urban expansion or ill conceived macro economic policies. In raising productivity and profit, modern agriculture has made gains at the cost of irreparable damage to the planet's vitality.

The time has come to question every standard, norm and convention governing agricultural practices even where they may generally be praised as successful.

We need to examine closely and objectively the deeper consequences of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, genetic engineering and industrial farming. We need to be honest and bold to admit the mistakes we have made or continue to make and not be fearful of the short-term costs.

Since agriculture is the foundation of all civilizations, I believe organic agriculture, as the only way of growing sustainable food, must constitute a primary thrust in any new development paradigm.

In its flourishing is the basis for human security and in its failure lies the cause for insecurity and conflict within and among nations. Without food security, there can be no other security. And without sustainable agriculture, life itself is not sustainable.

But if agriculture is itself a cause for insecurity and harms the environment, poisons water and becomes hazardous to the health of humans and other life forms, then it betrays its very purpose. Therein lies the wisdom of organic farming.

Soil erosion and loss

Agriculture is dependent on the topsoil which averages a mere foot in depth. Whereas, it takes over 500 years for the formation of a single inch of topsoil, researchers have found that human action and natural processes are causing the loss of over 24 billion tons of it each year.

According to one Cornell University study, "India and China are losing soil 40 times faster than it is replenished, while 30% of the world's arable land is rapidly becoming unproductive due to erosion."

And some 40% of world's agriculture soil is classed as either degraded or seriously degraded due to biodiversity loss, nutrient depletion, acid rain, and soil compaction.

Since agriculture is the foundation of all civilizations, I believe organic agriculture, as the only way of growing sustainable food, must constitute a primary thrust in any new development paradigm.

An 2012 article in Time, 'What If the World's Soil Runs Out?', reported that "A rough calculation of current rates of soil degradation suggests we have about 60 years of topsoil left.

"All the while, desertification is advancing to render desolate approximately 6,000,000 hectares of agricultural land each year affecting some 75% of the world's drier lands. At this rate, studies indicate that we will produce 30% less food over the next 20-50 years' against the projected demand for 50% more food production."

It is most unfortunate that agricultural practices have contributed to the development of this state of affairs that threaten the viability of agriculture altogether.

Our conventional agricultural practices using chemical fertilizers do not support soil formation. Rather, they serve as convenient substitute to, and discourage the sensible ways of replenishing and raising soil fertility.

Synthetic chemical dependence

Dependence on pesticides and herbicides has risen dramatically and continues to escalate especially in the developing countries. While the immense benefits of fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides are undeniable, their harmful effects, both of the immediate and long term nature, on soil, biodiversity, ground and surface water, air and consequently, human health, are far greater in scale.

So many factors, circumstances and interest groups have conspired to create near absolute dependence of crops and farmers alike on synthetic chemicals to make farming unsustainable.

Much of traditional wisdom has been abandoned, lost and undermined due to the myth that without chemicals, neither soil nor crop can support productive and profitable agriculture.

This myth must be shattered by bringing to the fore the growing scientific evidence that the combination of time-tested and innovative organic farming are in fact, more productive while raising soil fertility.

Unless organic agriculture comes in to cleanse and wean the addicted soil, crops and farmers away from such excessively dangerous chemicals and practices, we will kill the very soil on which agriculture depends. Agriculture will fail society if it does not shift to the sustainable practice of organic farming.

Oil and natural gas depletion

It was inevitable that in the 'age of hydro carbon', agriculture too should come to rely on this fast depleting source of energy as a consequence of dependence on its agro chemical products, farm machinery and transportation.

Scientific evidence suggest that oil and natural gas reserves will run out within 40 and 60 years respectively at current rates of consumption while in fact, projections for their consumption will continue to rise.

This has led some to predict that in the post carbon era, crop yields will go down to levels that may not be able to support more than 3 billion people, meaning that there would be large scale starvation and food based conflicts.

This would appear to be true especially if the principal grain exporters such as the USA, Canada, Europe, Australia and Argentina are unable to adjust their petroleum-based industrial agriculture to non fossil fuel based production methods.

Traditional and sustainable ways to raise soil fertility and reduce crop disease and loss to pests need to be revived and fortified with new approaches and methods that will take advantage of the scientific and technological advances we have made mainly on the fringes of mainstream agriculture.

Water scarcity

Water is no more in abundance on our 'water-rich' planet. More than 40% of the people on our planet are reported to be suffering this bitter truth. In 2012, FAO predicted that

"by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and that two-thirds of the world's population could be living under water stressed conditions."

Agriculture currently uses 70% of the world's water to irrigate about one fifth of cropland. While agriculture is responsible for the most inefficient use of water, its demand and share of this dwindling precious resource is increasing especially in the face of long droughts and other effects of climate change and soil degradation.

This is despite huge tracts of croplands having become fallow because of soil denudation or for lack of water as mountains lose their snow cover, glaciers disappear, lakes dry up and rivers fail to bring life to the fields they once irrigated. This led governments to heavily subsidize irrigation.

As surface irrigation sources decreased, the shift of subsidy to ground water pumps is causing rapid depletion of aquifers, which, according to the UNEP, recharge at rates of only 0.1 to 0.3% per year.

World Watch Institute informs that in some places in India and China, ground water levels are falling more than 4 meters per year while the United States draws groundwater at rates 25% greater than the natural replacement rates. Many states of the prosperous USA are thus, vulnerable to extreme water poverty in the not too distant future.

Climate distortion

This occurrence is devastating our farms and farming communities that are naturally sensitive to weather events. International Energy Agency (IEA) in its annual report states that

"Global warming is set to continue unabated with temperatures rising by 20% by 2035, putting the world on track for a temperature increase of 3.6 degrees C, far above the UN target of 2.0 degrees."

According to the journal, Geology, even if humankind manages to limit global warming to 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F), as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommends, future generations will have to deal with rising sea levels far higher than at present. What impact this will have on the approximately 10% of the worlds population living in low lying areas and agriculture is unthinkable.

As a result of global warming and for other reasons that we are yet to understand, natural disasters and extreme weather events are playing havoc on agriculture. Severe storms, droughts, flooding, pest infestations and diseases have disrupted farmer's life and livelihood around the world.

Understandably, the main victims are the poor farmers in poor countries. Least prepared, least comprehending, and most handicapped, they are unable to bear the heavy cost of adaptation and mitigation while our aid dependent governments in particular, have little capacity to help.

The unpredictable weather and disruption of seasonal patterns have made traditional wisdom and experience irrelevant. The result is further dependence on synthetic chemicals, the so called miracle seeds and strains, and the rich and powerful that have robbed them of their pride, dignity and independence.

No wonder, in one country alone, India, some 250,000 farmers committed suicide rather than face the shameful consequence of indebtedness when their crops failed.

Rising Population

According to the Population Reference Bureau, each day, almost a quarter-million people are added to the roughly 7.1 billion in existence. Statistics show that there is enough food being produced to feed the world's entire population and that the problem lies with distribution or accessibility.

But the bottom line is, given the insurmountable political, economic and logistical problems that stand in the way of compassion and efficient distribution, there is not enough food to go around.

That is why according to FAO, there are 852 million people world wide who suffer from hunger, 870 million victims of chronic undernourishment and 66 million primary school-age children who attend classes with no food in their stomach.

All the while, life supporting natural resources - "food, fresh water, soil, energy, and biodiversity-are being polluted, degraded, and depleted."

Various estimates project a need to increase food supply by three times in the next 40 years to meet the basic needs of the world's population that will have mushroomed to 11 billion people by then. How can that be done, given the circumstances under narration?

Diminishing croplands

World Watch Institute maintains that "Increases in food production, per hectare of land, have not kept pace with increases in population, and the planet has virtually no more arable land or fresh water to spare. As a result, per-capita cropland has fallen by more than half since 1960, and per-capita production of grains, the basic food, has been falling worldwide for 20 years."

This is not to speak of the soil degradation due to loss of fertility and erosion, which, according to a study for the International Food Policy Research Institute, compels, an estimated 10 million hectares of cropland worldwide to be abandoned annually.

An equal area is 'critically damaged' each year by salinization in large part, as a result of irrigation and/or improper drainage methods'.

Sadly, much of the replacement to meet the increased production needs come from the world's forests at a rate of some 130,000 square kilometers each year, the clearing of which is a big contributor to climate change.

If this trend continues, WWF predicts that the world will have no more than 10% of forests remaining by 2030. And agriculture, ironically, will have been the primary cause.

Dying Ocean

As the ocean comprises 71% of the planet and supports 80% of life on the planet, it is only natural that we should see it as an alternative agriculture base that ought to produce more. But human indiscretion has not spared it as well.

Today, fragile ocean ecosystems have been grossly abused and are not only threatened but dying due to pollution including agriculture chemical runoffs, excessive overfishing and acidification which has increased by 30% since the industrial revolution.

Fish stocks are collapsing to such an extent that according to a BBC report in September 2012, "Global fish stocks are exploited or depleted to such an extent that, without urgent measures we may be the last generation to catch food from the oceans."

A report from Science notes that world fish stocks may run out by 2048. Much less than offer itself as an alternative food source, the ocean too, like the dying soil, is also a helpless victim robbed of its bountiful capacity to give.

Organic farming is far more than not using chemicals

These eight reasons alone make clear why agriculture as we know it cannot go on. The 5th report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirms much of the distressing trends. These provide convincing arguments for organic farming.

But how might we understand organic farming when many dismiss it as irrelevant and old fashioned?

Organic agriculture means very much more than just not using chemicals, it is a whole system of working intelligently and with deep understanding of nature.

It is not about returning to primitive, inefficient ways of farming. It is about discovering and innovating more effective and efficient means to ensure that organic farming, as already proven empirically, is as productive as conventional agriculture while it can be far more.

It is about building on traditional wisdom, learning from our recent experiences and mistakes, living in symbiosis with nature so as to help sustain the flow of nature's bounties.

It is about employing the best of science, technology and minds to ensure that agriculture, the foundation of civilization remains firm, progressive and resilient. It is about sensible, sustainable agriculture.

In truth, there is no choice - if we are to survive

I believe one of the world's biggest mistaken notions is that going organic is a choice. But from the perspective of food security and sustainability, there is no choice. The simple cause of survival demands it and necessitates it.

There is no doubt that humankind has the ability to feed everyone on earth healthily and sustainably. No one need go hungry or live in grinding poverty. Just as sustainable farming is an ecological imperative, it is fully viable economically.

The good news is that more and more people, on becoming health conscious, are switching to organic food and are willing to pay more for it. And as the world-wide middle income population grows, demand will rise.

It is reported that within a little over two decades, the worth of global market for organic food has grown to about $60 billion from its humble beginning with North America and Europe as the principal consumers.

This is attributable to rising consumer awareness and fairly aggressive marketing efforts. However, with the economies of these regions being in the doldrums, there is the possibility of the market being over-supplied.

This raises the concern that it may lead some of the producers to switch back to conventional agriculture. But it is expected that this condition will be short lived and that the Asian market, in particular, will grow rapidly with others following suit.

In the medium and long term, the market for organic produces and products is bound to undergo huge expansion.

Farming to revitalise nature

Our commitment to organic farming must not be compromised by the volatilities of the market. It must stay true to the long-term interest of the farmers and of society.

And it must remain mindful of the reality that the ultimate well-being, happiness and the very survival of the human race together with all other sentient beings will depend on organic agriculture.

The Royal Government of Bhutan on its part, will relentlessly promote and continue with its endeavour to realize the dreams we share - of bringing about a global movement to transit to organic agriculture so that crops and the earth on which they grow will become genuinely sustainable.

And so that agriculture will contribute not to the degradation but rather to the resuscitation and revitalization of nature.



Jigmi Y. Thinley is Chairman, Gross National Happiness Centre, Bhutan, and former prime minister of Bhutan.

This article is based on a Keynote Address at The College of Bio-resources and Agriculture, National Taiwan University, April 2014.



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