Riding the green wave into the future

How much do you love chocolate? A lot, we bet. Probably enough to walk an extra mile on the treadmill to burn off that extra chocolate square you ate after breakfast today. And coffee? Whether you like it or not, you are probably – like most adults everywhere in the world – dependent on that cup of morning joe to kickstart your day, probably with a chaser shot sometime in the afternoon to keep the body running. And you can’t really spend 3 hours strategising at Starbucks without springing for at least one Mocha Frappuccino, can you? As ubiquitous as coffee is with working populations globally so is the humble banana. A quick snack, a post workout energy boost, a staple in kitchens and pantries and bakeries, the banana truly rules the world. Wondering what connects banana to coffee and chocolate? How about this banana-coffee-chocolate cake then? Lovely recipe but if you want to taste that cake, now might be a good time to stop reading and start baking. Because the planet may be running out of banana. And chocolate. And coffee.

It is not just these three plants though. There are many other foods at risk of vanishing from our diets. Yes, climate change is partly to blame. Equally at fault is our treatment of Mother Earth. Indiscrimate pesticide and chemical fertilisers use in agriculture around the world has robbed soil of its ability to sustain life, further increasing the use of chemicals, further reducing soil’s fertility. These chemicals run off into groundwater and water bodies, rendering water unfit for consumption and cultivation, further straining Earth’s food output. We are staring at a global population of close to 10 billion people by 2050. This calls for our planet’s food production systems to be working at peak and optimal efficiency not and well into the future without straining our environment any further. In fact, we need to be looking at optimising food production while reducing the planetary cost of food production.

And yes, optimisation needs to happen on the consumption and distribution aspects too. Food waste – over 30 percent of all food produced globally goes wasted – costs us $940 billion annually while accounting for 8 percent of all greenhouse gases generated. Add in the fact that 70% of all freshwater on the planet is consumed by farming and the cost of food waste is simply untenable. And this waste is happening inspite of the fact that more than 11 percent of humankind is severely undernourished. Just reducing the gap between food production and food consumption alone can reduce the environmental impact of food production drastically.

That alone won’t serve for the future though. We need to drastically up our food production capacity. But we need to do this without harming nature more. And we need to do this while allowing nature to continue replenishing itself.

This is where sustainable agriculture comes in. There has been a lot of media attention justifiably devoted to sustainable agriculture lately. Propelled originally by individual success stories, sustainable agriculture is increasingly becoming mainstream.

The industrialisation of food production around the world in the 20th century saw us becoming more and more reliant on monocultures, chemicals, and modern production practises, including mechanisation. With more seemingly efficient practises, global farming especially saw a drastic departure from age-old practises. This efficiency and corresponding increase in food production has come at a very heavy environmental cost though. Monocultures have killed or severely affected biodiversity across the planet. Land erosion is rampant. Water and soil are polluted to unusable levels. A lot of our forests have given way to agricultural land. In fact, deforestation accounts for 12% of all human emissions. More than 50000 hectares of rainforest were cleared in Brazil in 2019 alone, directly responsible for the raging fires in the Amazon that captivated global attention in August. The need to protect our planet from this reckless demand for food production is what led to the increased focus on sustainable agriculture.

Sustainable agriculture uses farming practices that use nature and natural processes more than mechanical interventions. Water use is optimised to minimise wastage and overflows. Use of chemicals – fertiliser and pesticide – is minimal and natural alternatives are preferred. Intercropping – planting different crops together that enjoy a symbiotic relationship with each other and the soil – is routine when it comes to sustainable agriculture. Sustainable farming also involves plant rotation – planting different crops in the same field – to minimise nutrient depletion from the soil. Microbes play an important part in sustainable agriculture, replacing pesticides with natural pest control advantages.

Sustainable agriculture naturally expands into sustainability in all other aspects too. Waste management and composting are obvious corollaries. More importantly, sustainable food production also advocates fair pricing and livable incomes for our farmers. After all, if our farmers can’t survive, where will our food come from, no?

Increasingly, sustainable agriculture is seen as chemical-free, organic agriculture. But when you consider the need to ensure 10 billion people can be fed, is sustainable agriculture the long-term solution our planet needs? Critics believe sustainable agriculture will lead to lower crop yields and higher land use, leading to food shortages the world over. However, lower yields are not a long-term affliction. As soil recovers from the chemical overuse it has endured for so long, yields will improve. Sustainable agriculture will result in more fertile soil over time, leading to naturally improved yields. With crop rotation, more food can be harvested from the same land. With increased biodiversity and a return to ancient farming practises, we can not only reduce the demand for monocultures, we can also return to producing foods that are local, reducing the need for distribution channels and the consequent losses arising from those.

In the short-term, we can always supplement sustainable farming with the advantages of modern science to find a midway solution to ensure continued access to food for our planet today.

Soil has natural microflora making it fertile and ensuring good yield and productivity. Reduced agricultural productivity today is because this microflora is rapidly vanishing from our soil because of the abuse we’ve subjected it to over the past few decades especially. We need to reverse this so the lost biological fertility of our farm soils is replenished. Biodiversity & microbial populations of soils has time and again been found to be directly linked to good yields and better crop quality. This is why sustainable agriculture is even more important because it can help soil regain its lost fertility. Improved soil quality, in turn, will ensure that farm yields are better, thus ensuring sustainable agriculture becomes a real global solution for the future of food.

And while you do your bit to guide our Earth into that more sustainable future, may we suggest you reward yourself with an extra slice of that banana-coffee-chocolate cake from the recipe we shared earlier. And you know where to find us if you want to send a whole cake our way.

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