Sustainable agriculture calls for technologies and agronomic practices which are both sensitive to the environment as well as profitable to the farmer. Achieving these two (sometimes conflicting) goals simultaneously can be challenging. Fanciful concepts like organic farming or zero-budget cultivation, though theoretically ideal for promoting sustainable agriculture, may not be the best choices for India to adopt on a large scale. Indian agriculture faces its own unique set of problems, and the size of the average landholding in the country remains the key deterrent to sustainable farming.
The need of the hour is to explore ways and means to enhance the overall productivity of farm operations. A way out is to combine the modern productivity-boosting technologies, including environment-resilient crop varieties and animal husbandry techniques, with our traditional knowledge and norms of living in harmony with nature. Given the history of our agricultural sector, that should be doable, and it will be a key first step in our move towards sustainable farming.
Many irrigation techniques use unsustainable quantities of water, to the point where it may one day become a non-renewable resource. India cannot afford this approach. Promotion of rainwater harvesting and the economical use of water through systems like sprinkler and drip irrigation is essential. Large amounts of land are also cleared to generate farming space, leading to deforestation and desertification. It destroys habitats, requires massive amounts of energy, and kills trees that would otherwise sequester carbon dioxide. That accelerates the process of global warming and climate change, leading to further environmental fragility. It ends up becoming a vicious cycle.
The way out is straightforward. Widely practiced mono-cropping and unchanged cropping cycles need to give way to diversified farming practices involving a judicious mix of agriculture, horticulture, animal husbandry, fisheries and agro-forestry. Cropping sequences should include land-restoring and soil fertility-enhancing crops like legumes and quick-growing vegetation. That will facilitate the transition to a healthier and more sustainable soil. Policy should also aim to gradually replace chemical fertilizer with its biological counterpart, as that is more compatible with the basic structure of the soil.
A simple but systematic approach is needed.to face the new realities. For example, a greater use of farmland manure in combination with fertilizers and popularization of the novel system of integrated disease and pest management involving the planting of disease-resistant crop varieties and the deployment of the natural predators of pests could be considered. Placing fertilizers at the right depth near the plant roots and a rational use of pesticides are also among the large number of other feasible options for promote sustainable farming.
The centrality of agriculture in the economy of both Maharashtra and India cannot be overestimated. The key is to ensure that we are moving in the direction of multidimensional sustainability. Practices like stubble burning will reverse decades of agricultural progress. They need to be minimized/eliminated at the earliest, and farmers throughout the country educated on why agricultural sustainability matters so much not only in their own long-term interest, but also that of the nation.