Agrochemicals - Sustainability Challenges
By: Dr Anand Singh *
The shift of agriculture from subsistence agriculture to use of agrochemicals in the mid-20th century was a mixed-blessing, not a “curse-in-disguise” for humanity. Agrochemicals refer to inorganic fertilizers and pesticides. With the use of agrochemicals, a substantial increase in the quantity of food production was observed; however, the changes in nutritional quality were also felt and complained about by older generations. The excessive use of agrochemicals, that drove the “Green Revolution”, without providing adequate carbon source also led to reduced soil fertility and it is getting affected adversely even today. We are losing arable land at the rate of 10 million hectares per year globally, and in these agrochemicals have played a major role. It is evident that a plateau has reached to improve the crop yield through agrochemicals. But on the other hand, agrochemicals have an adverse effect on beneficial microorganisms and earthworms that are very useful in renewing the natural fertility of the soil.
Higher uses of agrochemicals also require frequent irrigation. This requirement of agrochemicals has already put severe pressure on the ground and surface waters over the past years; with this the shortage of water is expected to affect at least 52 percent of the global population by 2050. Widespread use of fertilizers and chemical pesticides is now a necessity for the growth of high yielding hybrids. Overuse of pesticides has also led to the development of pest resistance against several economically important crop pests. The practices that became vogue in
the mid-20th century have raised sustainability issues for agriculture itself, humans, cattle, and the environment including soil, water and air. According to United Nation Environment Program (UNEP) and
the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 3 million people are suffering from ‘acute pesticide poisoning’ and approximately 10 to 20 thousand people die every year because of this, in the developing countries
In the last decade of 20th century and beyond, the global community has woken up due to the harmful effects of the overuse of agrochemicals and are looking for “economically viable, socially safe & environmentally sustainable” alternatives to boost farm productivity and to feed the growing population which is estimated to become 9.8 billion in 2050. The advent of several technologies in the agricultural space such as: gene editing; information and communication tools; virtual and simulation chemistry; microorganisms; precision agriculture; traits for fertilizer use efficiency; and their integration to boost farm productivity will be able to mitigate the sustainability challenges caused by agrichemicals usage from over a half-decade.
Leading private players in the agrochemicals sector like Syngenta, Dow-DuPont, Bayer-Monsanto, Agrium, Yara International, and other technology-driven companies are focusing on areas such as: novel delivery mechanisms using optimized dosages of agrochemicals; combination of different active ingredients, both chemical and biological, for better efficacy; biological growth promoters such as plants and pest control agents; and genetic engineering tools and technologies that increase the ease of introduction of desired traits into key crops.
The commercialisation of microbial products such as bio-stimulants, bio-pesticides, and plant growth promoters, etc. is done by the companies e.g. by either collaborating with those working on biological growth promoters or by investing in their in-house R&D for product development. The commercialisation is increasing and it will mitigate environmental and health concerns. The practices of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), Integrated Crop Management (ICM) and Integrated Nutrient Management (INM) focus on the rational use of pesticides, nutrients and efficient cropping cycles. The stakeholders in the agrochemical industry are also making effort to adopt IPM, INM and ICM in order to make agriculture sustainable.
Additionally, the technological advances in genetic engineering (GE), can also introduce traits of interest such as: drought and salinity tolerance; increasing nitrogen; water use efficiency; and resistance to different crop pests in crops with precision. In 2017, seventeen million farmers from 24 countries have planted genetically engineered crops in 189.8 million hectares. The majority had disease resistant traits and therefore they did not require additional use of agrochemicals. The area under GE crops is expected to increase in the future and this will help to optimise the use of agrochemicals. In the long run, this will lead to a positive impact on humans, livestock and environmental health. The thrust towards the use of precision technologies, either for detection of soil, water, nutrient stresses or for identification of pests & diseases, assessing plant growth, and real-time recommendations coupled with novel delivery mechanisms of agrochemicals, will make their use sustainable.
Sustainability demands increased crop productivity or uniform/stable productivity which has at least been maintained at current levels over time. But now the question in front of everyone is...Is it possible for these integrated technologies and approaches being adopted to be profitable and highly productive through the economic use of water, energy and nutrient inputs? The large-scale mixed farming systems that are less reliant on external supplies of energy, nutrients and fodder are already in practice in developed countries and surely they will make their way towards the developing countries in the near future.
The availability of a plethora of technologies for agriculture is a boon for farmers globally, however, their access and adoption is a factor of safety-conscious consumers and favourable regulatory regimes that lead to discovery, development and commercialisation of novel technologies in the agriculture sector. A favourable regulatory environment, like that of North America, not only leads to improved access, but also to new products and technologies that will shift the current farming practices to more sustainable ones in agriculture, in general, and particularly in the agrochemicals sector. This also needs to be linked with capacity development for efficient use of technologies where governments and private players need to play a major role to make the use of agrochemicals sustainable.
* Senior Manager, Life Sciences Advisory, Sathguru Management Consultants Pvt. Ltd.