Sustainable Agriculture in Pakistan: The Case for Considering Biodiversity
Agriculture covers 40% of the Earth’s liveable land. The encroachment of natural habitats for land cultivation is the biggest threat to biodiversity today. Biodiversity, in turn, is crucial for agricultural production. The support provided by biodiversity includes the provision of nutrition for crops and the provision of insects for pollination and plague reduction. The cultivation of more farmland, for instance, may cause a loss of natural habitat for microorganisms, leading to a lack of nitrogen in the soil and lower productivity of crops. Thus it is crucial to preserve, support and utilise biodiversity when planning for a durable and productive farming system.
This article will discuss the importance of biodiversity in Pakistan in the face of its growing loss and propose solutions for sustainable agricultural practices.
Impact in Pakistan
Pakistan is particularly vulnerable to the depletion of biodiversity. This is due to a long history of widespread destruction of the country’s natural ecosystems. Almost all ecosystems in Pakistan are threatened today. Ten such ecosystems that are particularly important for their specie-richness and uniqueness, including the Indus delta and coastal wetlands, are threatened with habitat loss and considered a critical concern for conservation.
Coupled with deforestation and changes in habitat quality, the domestic livestock population is the principal cause of the depletion of rangeland and forests in Pakistan. With a rate increase of 2% each year, the livestock population has depleted Pakistan’s forage production to a third of its potential. This loss of vegetation cover is further exacerbated by agricultural activities and has caused soil erosion in major areas of Balochistan, Northern Areas, NWFP, Barani lands and Suleiman Rod Kohi. Around 11 million hectares of land in Pakistan suffer from mass soil erosion, leaving less and less land cultivable.
Wetland habitats also suffer from degradation due to the diversion of water from rivers and excessive pumping of the wetlands. The aggressive use of artificial irrigation for agriculture destroys agroecosystems through salinity and waterlogging. As water is drained from the surroundings, the land is left arid and saline. This water is inefficiently supplied to the cultivable land, rendering it waterlogged. This is another example of how the destruction of natural habitats for agriculture renders land unusable for cultivation.
Despite such expansive use of land for cultivation, Pakistan is startlingly underproductive in its agriculture. Almost all cultivable land has been cultivated. Unfortunately, Pakistan sports one of the lowest productivity per hectare globally. This is because the goal of agricultural practices in Pakistanis is to produce the largest possible amount of food at the least possible economic cost in the short term. The conservation of biodiversity is not even a factor of consideration for most farmers in Pakistan as they do not perceive it to be essential for good output. Such short-terminism has led to a collapse of the ecosystem services, causing a dependence on external inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides to maintain productivity.
Risk Management and Resilience in Agriculture
There are two models of agriculture, the risk management model and the resilience model. Pakistan predominantly applies the risk management model whereby plants excessively rely on fertilisers, and natural soil processes play a minimal role in nutrition. Natural pest control is rarely utilised, and instead, herbicides are used. This makes the system highly vulnerable to price fluctuations as there is no sufficient buffer. Any price hike, shortage of fertilisers, herbicides or pesticides directly impacts the crop output and, in turn, its price in the market.
On the other hand, the resilience model optimises natural processes and biodiversity to reduce risks. This may include organic farming permaculture, agroforestry and agroecology. Permaculture is a movement whereby energy and resources are utilised as effectively as possible before they leave the system. It aims “to use natural energies (gravity) to move the water around, reduce water loss (windbreaks), and gather and store nutrients (earthworks and strip farming).” Agroforestry is a management practice which requires the intentional integration of trees and shrubs into farming. Agroecology utilises natural processes to aid in sustainable agriculture.
An example of the resilience model is the use of the root system in grasslands to benefit the resilience of agriculture.Roots can improve nutrient uptake and decrease environmental losses such as nitrate leaching. In fact, waterlogging and soil erosion, which are particularly problematic in Pakistan’s context, can be improved by promoting this system. For example, in a rice-wheat cropping system, legumes can be planted for short durations in the summer. They can improve soil fertility as legume roots are thick and long enough to extract water and nutrients from deep grounds.
Admittedly, the short-term productivity of the resilience model is lower than the risk management model. However, it provides a higher capacity to cope with disturbances such as diseases and unsuitable weather. Eventually, the lower costs due to less reliance on external aids will compensate for the lower yield.
Even the short-term yield can be countered with genetically engineered high yield variety (‘HYV’) crops. Some argue that HYVs reflect a loss in biodiversity within the agro-ecosystems. However, when looked at holistically, the environmental costs are higher for low yield, land-inefficient systems. Low-yield systems use up more land and encroach on natural habitats for the same degree of productivity. This increases greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion and loss of biodiversity.
It is important to note that using a high yield system is not recommended in the way it is currently practised. It must be accompanied by strict land zoning, strategic yield-enhancing loans, provision of expertise, conditional access to markets, and restructured rural subsidies. Subsidies that promote unsustainable agriculture should be reduced. Efforts should be made to promote markets for agricultural goods that are biodiversity-friendly, to encourage the diversification and subsequent trade of these products. Additionally, the State should partner with farmers and incentivise them to practice more environmentally friendly agricultural methods. This can be made possible by providing them with the training, education, consultation, and financial aid required to manage and conserve agricultural biodiversity.Management can be provided at a local level by providing knowledge of sustainable farming systems to local people.The aforementioned goals can be reached by forming sustainable partnerships, especially where there is a lack of resources.
Sustainable partnerships can take the form of development plans involving the State, farmers and other interested parties. The farmer may decide which measures to employ for improved biodiversity. These measures will depend on the incentives available from the State, as discussed above. According to the geographical location of the farm, the soil type, and the farmer’s ambition, the highest possible level of conservation of biodiversity may be decided. In particular, other stakeholders, e.g. water managers, must be taken into conferral.
The excessive reliance on external inputs such as fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides must be discouraged. Farmers must be educated about the ecological process, which can help relieve the dependence on external inputs. This can either be attempted by reducing the external inputs to a minimum possible requirement, or the system may be started without any external inputs, only to be gradually added where necessary. Thus, even if their use cannot be eliminated, an optimum level may be reached.
To conclude, biodiversity is essential for productive, sustainable, and low-cost agriculture in the long run. When short term productivity is prioritised and natural habitats are destroyed to produce more food, the benefits of biodiversity whittle until excessive reliance on external inputs makes the entire system unsustainable, unproductive, and costly. Pakistan is an example of an agricultural country with one of the lowest yields per hectare globally. Thus, to practice sustainable agriculture and preserve biodiversity, the State must facilitate the transition of its farmers from a risk management model to a resilience model. This model must be accompanied by incentives and policies by the government that promote sustainable agriculture and discourage environmentally unfriendly practices. Farmers must be involved in the policy-making process and equipped with the tools and knowledge required to make better decisions for their crops. Only then can we get closer to our goal of sustainable agriculture and conservation of biodiversity.
Andrew Balmford et al. “The environmental costs and benefits of high-yield farming.” Nature sustainability vol. 1,9 (2018): (“Balmford”) 477-485.
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