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Opinion: Towards Sustainable Agriculture In Challenging Times

World Environment Day 2023 focuses on 'Solutions to Plastic Pollution' under the campaign #BeatPlasticPollution.

Opinion: Towards Sustainable Agriculture In Challenging Times

Faced with multiple and multidimensional environmental and climatic challenges, the task of feeding billions globally and over 1.4 billion people in India sustainably is both a tougher proposition and an opportunity as well to revisit and transform our farm practices and guarantee food for all. Safeguards to the environment are of paramount importance for which every possible measure should be taken to check climate degradation and to achieve the goal of net zero emission by 2070 set by the government of India.

The relationship between environment and agriculture is indispensable and intricate. Hence, every stakeholder - small or big - has a role to play. As the Environment Day-2023 is suitably themed on #BeatPlasticPollution, we need to pause, reflect and act sooner for a better future.

With plastic waste flowing into aquatic ecosystems likely to be tripled by 2040, urgent action is required to end plastic pollution, which will be the best kind of an insurance policy for today's generation and future ones. As a shift to the circular economy is being seen as a viable option to reduce the volume of plastics entering the ecosystem critically, we need to adopt a multipronged approach to create a sustainable and environment friendly food security ecosystem.

From smart pesticide container management to equipping farmers with innovative technologies and sustainable practices, nothing can be left untouched as we strive and aspire for creating a more reliable, inclusive food system and continue to provide nutritious food to the future generations, while respecting our planet's boundaries. It is certainly not an easy task to be achieved overnight but at the same time is not next to impossible as well. From transformation towards healthy dietary patterns, large-scale reductions in food losses and waste and to major improvements in food production practices as mandated by the UN SDGs and the Paris Agreement, we can achieve the most cherished goal of food security.

Innovation in technology can be the key to achieving a durable, sustainable food production system. Accordingly, we need to enable our farmers to make better use of available resources like land, water and soil whose resilience has to be preserved at any cost. If we protect the vital nutrients of land and water, our soil gets more fertile. Pollinators are saved and biodiversity becomes vibrant. Similarly, better crop protection technologies help us make the best use of existing arable land without expanding agricultural land into natural ecosystems. New crop breeding technologies fully support the aims of making food more nutritious, diets healthier and also reduce yield gaps.

As the dynamics of agro practices are undergoing a sea change amid weather fluctuations and growing need for crop diversification, we have to be very particular about making crops more efficient, increasing biodiversity in the agricultural landscape and improving soil health. The use of the right kind of technologies and practices will lead to transforming agriculture from a carbon source to a carbon sink and help support zero arable land expansion. As a forward-thinking company, we are consistent in our endeavours to develop ambitious science-based business solutions and facilitate the food system transformation within the safe operating space.

Farmers and farm workers are the most important stakeholder when we talk of devising a strategy aimed at sustainable food systems. The idea is to scale up work and impact with partners and across the value chain and create an economic system, especially as a means of continuing production in a sustainable or environmentally friendly way.

Similarly, an adequate amount of responsibility should be observed in managing agro products -from the production of seeds to the safe use, storage, and disposal of crop protection products by growers. The safe and responsible use of our products is fundamental to our ambition of being a vital role in the food chain to safely feed the world and take care of our planet. Stewardship starts before the product comes to the market. We should think holistically about new molecules and seed varieties - considering safety, environmental impact, and regulatory concerns.

A collective approach and initiatives must be in sync with the need to grow crops more efficiently, conserve existing land, improve biodiversity and most importantly integrate the vast multitude of smallholders currently holding less than two hectares into the mainstream of the developmental process. Our collective efforts should aim at helping growers intensify their yield sustainably. We need to increase their knowledge of the safe use of our products so that they can optimize their performance while minimizing potential risks.

Nurturing soil is a key component to safeguard the food system. It is estimated that 33 per cent of the earth's soils are degraded, and topsoil could run out in just 60 years. An estimated 25 per cent of the world's biodiversity lives in soil. So, the guiding principle for us should be feeding the planet but not at the cost of the earth. Regenerative agriculture is a great solution- an outcome-based food production system that nurtures and restores soil health and protects the climate.

Healthy soils not only produce more nutritious food, and give plants greater resilience to pests and diseases but also reduce farmers' input costs and increase yields. So, an aggressive campaign to create awareness among farmers about best soil management practices, crop rotation and optimization of nutrient application is the need of the hour. We should encourage farmers and other stakeholders for regular soil analysis. Similarly, crop residue management is an area we need to focus on.

Let us accelerate innovation for farmers and nature, strive for carbon neutral agriculture, help people stay safe and healthy, build cohesive partnerships and promote their sustainability objectives for an inclusive and sustainable agro ecosystem. Innovative, focussed and action oriented in our approach will go a long way in conserving soil, biodiversity and water - three key components in the food production ecosystem. If we sequester carbon, we will allow healthy soils to alleviate the rise in greenhouse gases and help mitigate today's climate crisis. Every enabling intervention should be encouraged and taken forward. The task at our hand is to ensure our farmers grow productively and sustainably by making the most of technologies and best agro practices.

(Susheel Kumar is Country Head and Managing Director, India, Syngenta. The views are personal.)

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