Modern farming must be weaned off chemical use to avert a food crisis

Modern farming must be weaned off chemical use

Chandran Nair says the use of pesticides and fertilisers damages our health, as well as the planet's

For most people in the developed world, food security is not an issue thought about on a daily basis. But this may soon change. In recent years, food prices have risen sharply and have become much more volatile.

All of this has not gone unnoticed. Many governments and militaries have been increasing their stockpiles of food. Even investors are getting in on the action.

But almost nothing is being done to address the actual problem: global food supplies are under enormous pressure from an expanding world population and a burgeoning global middle class encouraged to overconsume.

The resulting practice of producing more food through industrial and chemically intensive agriculture is putting a densely populated world on a collision course with catastrophic food crises.

This is not the first time the world has been on the brink of such a disaster. In the 1960s, world population grew exponentially, food prices were rising and countries such as India seemed on the brink of mass famine. Thankfully, the green revolution massively increased agricultural output through the use of hybrid crop strains and modern farming techniques.

But while the green revolution saved millions from starvation, there was nothing "green" about it. It left crop yields dependent on the liberal use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. And by averting the crisis of the 1960s, it sowed the seeds of the present one.

The broad-based dependence of today's agriculture on chemicals often comes as a shock to the uninitiated. The agrochemical industry is worth an estimated US$125 billion a year worldwide - and that may double within the next five years.

Fertiliser use has increased by a factor of five worldwide since 1960. It has increased by a factor of 55 in China, where 1.3 million tonnes of pesticides are also used every year. This dramatic overreliance on chemical inputs has put the global agriculture industry at huge risk.

For one, they are running out. But even if the global supply of agrochemicals wasn't in doubt, a large-scale reduction in their use would still be imperative. They severely harm human health. The nitrate in chemical fertilisers that leaches into the nearby surface water and groundwater also affects the wider environment.

Perhaps even more significant is the impact that the overuse of agrochemicals is having on our ability to produce food. While their use during the green revolution dramatically increased yields, the irony is that their continued overuse has actually been making farms less productive.

We have waged what has amounted to chemical warfare on huge swathes of the earth's arable land. As a result, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that a staggering 25 per cent of the world's total land mass is highly degraded - including half of India's land and 37 per cent of China's.

The primary beneficiaries of the green revolution have not been the farmers, but the large food and agrochemical companies. Farmers, for their part, are locked into a mechanism in which they pay more for seeds of high-yielding crop varieties and the chemical fertilisers they require. Many have been reduced to subsistence as a result.

This is a big factor in the mass migration of people from the countryside to the cities in countries all over the world.

Reversing this trend is vital if Asia is to feed itself without destroying its farmland in the process. The conclusion, then, is clear - the benefits of agrochemicals are in the past, and today they are doing much more harm than good. A return to less chemical-intensive farming could change all this.

Agricultural outputs might fall temporarily, but alternative methods of crop rearing, such as the "system of rice intensification", have achieved similar yields without the need for chemical inputs.

Needless to say, this method has faced intense opposition from many organisations set up in the wake of the green revolution, but has been catching on in Asia. Vested interests have disseminated half-truths about all forms of agriculture that did not adopt industrialisation and "chemicalisation", by scaring the world into believing alternative practices would leave the world unable to feed itself.

Much will have to be done to rectify the current situation.

Fewer chemicals will probably make farming more labour-intensive. But again, this does not have to be a bad thing. In crowded Asia, less chemically intensive agriculture will open up an entire sector of new jobs.

At a time of persistently high global unemployment, putting people back to work while also ensuring the planet's food security seems like a pretty good deal.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Modern farming must be weaned off chemical use to avert a food crisis