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Healthy Planet, Healthy Plants, Healthy Lives

Why we all need to support the UN and celebrate 2020 as the International Year Of Plant Health

The growth story of Indian agriculture has been quite impressive. From foodgrains production of about 50.8 million metric tonnes (MT) in 1950-51, the scene has dramatically changed over the past seven decades. The food grains and horticultural productions in 2017-18, as per final estimates, have touched 285 and 300 million MT, respectively. This is mainly ascribed to development of high yielding crop varieties, use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, enhanced irrigation facilities and a plethora of support measures in crop production processes by the government. However, these Green revolution technologies, as they are often referred to, have led to serious environmental consequences. In many instances, the ecological damage has been irreversible and threatens sustainability of such agri-food systems. The impacts of a changing climate make the situation all the more serious and demands urgent policy actions to address and solve these challenges.

It is in this backdrop, declaration of 2020 as the International Year of Plant Health (IYPH) by the United Nations is indeed very timely. As observed by the UN General Assembly, the year offers the global community to raise awareness on plant health protection that can help “end hunger, reduce poverty, protect the environment, and boost economic development”.

Climate change is, perhaps, the most extreme challenge Indian agriculture is facing today and has to deal with in future. It is projected that the annual requirement of food grains would be about 400 million MT by 2050 against the current levels of production, for an increasing Indian population. Moreover, India having sizeable small and marginal farmers (86 per cent of total land holdings) could be the worse sufferer, if appropriate mitigation and adaptation measures are not strategised and implemented. The policy framework has, therefore, focused on all such activities that can make Indian agriculture climate-resilient. The nutrition dimension has also been rightly added in view of large-scale under- and malnutrition in the food system. The entire agri-food system has to be made sustainable due to constraints of natural resources and the continuing threat of climate change.

Pest and disease incidences in crops are functions of ambient temperature and humidity. Therefore, crop-pest or crop-disease interactions would have significant ramifications with variabilities in weather conditions in this era of climate change. It is thus well-argued that “protecting plants from pests and diseases is far more cost-effective than dealing with full-blown emergencies” (FAO, 2019). India has been a sufferer to many invading insect pests, diseases, weeds, etc. in the last so many years. It would be in the long-term interest of the country to have a preventive approach rather than protecting the crop, by often resorting to costlier and not environment-friendly agro-chemicals. In view of the declaration of IYPH- 2020, we analyse the current status and argue for a framework of government interventions and public awareness generation. In fact, IYPH offers an excellent opportunity for all actors in agriculture productions and protection ecosystem to successfully join hands together and make Indian agriculture ecologically sustainable.

Pest and Nutrient Management

The use of chemical pesticides over the years has led to adverse ecological impacts. This is mainly due to over- and inappropriate use in many instances and even, use of spurious chemicals, in others. The harmful impacts of these chemicals on beneficial insects and organisms including pollinators and natural pest enemies are disastrous. The use of appropriate chemical pesticides at recommended dosages is often seen inevitable where there is a pest-load above the economic threshold level. Integrated pest management (IPM), particularly, the biological control of pests has already been recognised as an approach which would lead to favourable socio-economic and environmental consequences. Similarly, integrated nutrient management (INM), besides providing desired nutrition to the plants, could make the soil and the crop plant healthy. As harmful chemicals and inorganic fertilisers are at the heart of global environmental concerns, integrated pest and nutrient management must take primacy in India’s policy agenda.

Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, in his Independence Day-2019 address has appealed to the country to lessen the chemical load in Indian agriculture. It is in this spirit, agricultural research and development machinery should devise solutions and technologies that would protect the plant health as well as the environment.

Promotion of Organic Farming

There is a growing interest and demand on organic food products in Indian market. While we advocate for IPM approach for intensive agricultural systems, in areas where certification by approved agencies or even participatory group certification is feasible, an organic food system would not only be healthy and safe, the agricultural products may also fetch better market value with appropriate linkages in the value chain. Low external input sustainable agriculture and natural farming practices, besides organic farming, are gaining ground in many parts of India. In fact, Government of India has put a policy push for such practices that would enhance the soil organic carbon and carbon sequestration through its mission on sustainable agriculture. Scientific validation of these practices and promotion through the national agricultural research and extension system would prove extremely rewarding. In the long run, promotion of location-specific sustainable farm practices like conservation agriculture, zero tillage, mulching, composting, etc. would lead to a healthy harvest of farm produce for an ever-increasing health-conscious Indian population. All these would also be in sync with the Swasth-Bharat (Healthy India) mission of Government of India.

Strengthening The System

India has faced major invasive pests and weed attacks in the past with most recent being the fall army worm that attacked and damaged crops (mainly maize) in parts of Karnataka. There have been reports of crop damage from this polyphagous pest in other states as well. However, the Government in consultation with various research organisations including CGIAR system and stakeholders has taken steps in preventing widespread damage by Fall Armyworm. There have been reports of serious pest and disease infestations (like panama wilt; date-palm weevil, etc.) in the vicinity of India and parts of the globe. The invasive locust species (particularly the desert locust) may create devastation, if information on trans-boundary swarm movements is not shared between neighbouring countries with India. Monitoring such invasive pests and an early warning system would therefore be essential to protect domestic species of plants and thus, their health as expected by the IYPH.

The entry of pest species into Indian territory has mostly occurred due to inadequate quarantine at border points or sea/air-ports. There is need for constant vigilance for any possible invasion of pests and weeds through a robust institutional mechanism and technological interventions. India has 108 plant quarantine centers located at major sea and airports as well as trans-border railway stations. The phytosanitary measures at these check points must be done with all seriousness while dealing with agricultural imports to India. Any laxity on the part of these Quarantine officials would otherwise lead to a catastrophic situation. Proper capacity building and training on standard operating procedures; updated pest data base, etc. must be imparted to these officials.

The standards and norms, as developed by the International Plant Protection Convention (India is a signatory to this) and FAO need to be implemented in spirit by all stakeholders involved in agricultural trade. This will prevent and control the spread of pests and diseases which otherwise create avoidable barriers to trade.

As in many developed countries, India must have a sound Biosafety Policy with focus on early warning systems and risk-analysis models. Improvement of existing facilities at border points with latest technologies for irradiation; fumigation, etc. and knowledge- and intel- sharing between relevant officials would be much desirable.

Investments in Research and Innovation

To lessen the harmful chemical load on the environment, breeding for resistance against biotic stresses (insect pests, diseases etc.) is a very potent scientific tool. Breeding for biotic resistance/tolerance is now possible through transfer of specific resistance genes from wild relatives/ land-races to an existing high-yielding crop variety. Marker-assisted backcross breeding has now become very effective, besides other molecular and genomics technologies. Development of GM crops, has not gained momentum because of regulatory and other concerns in many parts of the world, India not being an exception. In such a scenario, higher investments in research and innovation to find solutions to make plants healthy while ensuring better productivity will give value-for-money. Participation of the private sector has to be ensured in the process. The outreach of research activities would be equally essential.

Need For Massive Awareness

Be it the farmer or the agricultural researcher and extension official or the trader and even, the people responsible for policymaking, all must be made aware about the need for a healthy and sustainable food system that would have least adverse environmental impact. Travellers moving in and out of the country should always be cautious while bringing plants or plant products across borders. Government should launch massive awareness campaigns through electronic, print and social media to spread the key messages of healthy plants responsible for a healthy living. School children must be involved in the campaign to imprint the values for coming generations. Mann-Ki-Baat, the monthly radio broadcast of Prime Minister Modi could be a very good medium to spread the above messages on living on the planet with healthy plants. NGOs; media professionals and civil society organisations should be actively associated with this initiative.

The Green Revolution technologies have certainly helped India achieve self-sufficiency in food production. The negative environmental externalities in all these years, however, drive the system to take a path that would make Indian agriculture sustainable in the years to come. India is a signatory to all the conventions emanating from the Rio summit- namely, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), United Nation Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Being an important party to global-climate action, India must commit to making the food and agri-systems environmentally sustainable. International Year of Plant Health (IYPH- 2020) brings that opportune moment, where India is poised to take the lead.

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Dr Padhee is Country Director-India of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) based in New Delhi and Dr Rajender is Minister (Agriculture) in the Embassy of India at Rome, Italy.

Views expressed are author's own