A Futuristic Viewpoint Towards Agriculture, Society and Environment

“By 3 methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection which is the noblest; Second by imitation, which is the easiest; and third by expectation, which is the bitterest.” —   Confucius

The above quote truly sums up what most millennials of the twenty-first century have been experiencing in various ways since November 2019. The advent and spread of the Coronavirus disease, more popularly referred to as ‘Covid-19’, has truly destroyed and transformed our former definitions of ‘NORMAL’ to something way more different than any of us at any given stage or level of life could have ever imagined. Before proceeding ahead, it is important to understand a brief overview of the Covid-19 disease.

The novel coronavirus outbreak was first documented in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China in December 2019. As of present times, it has been confirmed on six continents and in more than 100 countries.    The general overview of Covid-19 as explained by the World Health Organization (WHO) states that: “Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by a newly discovered coronavirus. Most patients infected with the COVID-19 virus tend to experience mild to moderate respiratory illness and recover without requiring special treatment. However, older people and those with underlying medical problems like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer are more likely to develop serious illness. The best way to prevent and slow down transmission is to be well informed about the COVID-19 virus, the disease and complications it causes and how it spreads. Protect yourself and others from infection by washing your hands or using an alcohol-based rub frequently and not touching your face. The COVID-19 virus spreads primarily through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose when an infected person coughs or sneezes, so it’s important that you also practice respiratory etiquette (for example, by coughing into a flexed elbow). At this time, there are no specific vaccines or treatments for COVID-19. However, many ongoing clinical trials are evaluating potential treatments.”

Broadly speaking, Coronaviruses are a large family of zoonotic viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to severe respiratory diseases. ‘Zoonotic’ means these viruses are can be transmitted from animals to humans. There are several coronaviruses known to be circulating in different animal populations that have not yet infected humans. COVID-19 is the most recent to make the jump to human infection. Though the Common signs of COVID-19 infection are similar to the common cold and include respiratory symptoms such as dry cough, fever, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulties, in more severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure, and death. According to current data, time from exposure to onset of symptoms is usually between two and 14 days, with an average of five days.

Two other recent coronavirus outbreaks have been experienced. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) of 2012 was found to transmit from dromedary camels to humans. In 2002, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV) was found to transmit from civet cats to humans.

Although COVID-19 has already shown some similarities to recent coronavirus outbreaks, there are differences. SARS cases totaled 8,098 with a fatality rate of 11 percent as reported in 17 countries, with the majority of cases occurring in southern mainland China and Hong Kong. The fatality rate was highly dependent on the age of the patient with those under 24 least likely to die (one percent) and those over 65 most likely to die (55 percent). No cases have been reported worldwide since 2004.

Let us take a futuristic viewpoint on agriculture, society and environment in light of all these Covid-19 figures and facts.

In a conference of Global Health Security, an international panel of experts undertook a comprehensive assessment and benchmarking of health security and response capabilities across 195 countries. The purpose of the project was to address risks from infectious disease outbreaks that could lead to international epidemics and pandemics and measure response capabilities for each nation. The hope was that the GHS Index would lead to quantifiable changes in national health security and improve international preparedness.

The GHS Index measured indicators across six broad categories:

Prevention: Prevention of the emergence or release of pathogens.

Detection and Reporting: Early detection and reporting for epidemics of potential international concern.

Rapid Response: Rapid response to and mitigation of the spread of an epidemic.

Health System: Sufficient and robust health system to treat the sick and protect health workers.

Compliance with International Norms: Commitments to improving national capacity, financing plans to address gaps, and adhering to global norms.

Risk Environment: Overall risk environment and country vulnerability to biological threats.

Hence, keeping the above parameters in mind, we could try some of these solutions for a better tomorrow and holistic growth and well-being.

In this period of lockdown where most of us are trapped within our homes, we could educate and train young minds to understand the importance of a healthy diet and healthy habits as one of the key stepping-stones towards a resilient future. Today major cities in India as a rule practice 2-way segregation of garbage before disposal i.e. organic/decomposable waste and non-organic/ not decomposable waste. The organic waste can be utilized to provide compost and nutrients for plant growth. This practice could be furthered into housing society level, then further to city, state and national level to ensure more cultivation of crops and foodstuffs. This will also ensure that we use less of harmful, fertilizers and pesticides that subsequently make way into the food chains at various levels in organisms. Today with the advent of various farming and gardening techniques, it is rather clear that a large land and soil are not required for growing food. Techniques such as vertical gardening which utilizes less space, Hydroponic farming are the future of farming to cater to reducing the land size and growing food needs.

Also, as a future measurement, there should be a regulation of rules from micro to macro levels about the green cover requirement in houses, buildings, etc. depending on size and parameters and plants to be grown. We should also encourage future entrepreneurs and industrialists amongst the young crowds who come up with inventions and innovative solutions, which establish a balance between environmental welfare and sustainable development and welfare.

Today world over, the government machinery is putting up a stiff fight against this COVID-19 virus. As this is an unprecedented challenge globally, all of us have to work hard to strengthen the hands of the government. Lock Down acts as an important component of the strategy and there is not much choice for the government on that front.

Lockdown has harmed the economic growth of the country, especially in the field of agriculture and also posed as a major threat to food security. For an agrarian economy like India, farmers are an important and indispensable line of warriors ensuring food security during this crisis time. Agricultural producers are particularly hard hit with returns on produce varying from one-third the usual or a complete loss. In several districts, inter-state trade in commercial crops or proximity to urban areas provides market access and better prices. Hence in the present situation, despite the best intentions of the Government, opening all the local markets and Mandis and making them operate on a full-fledged basis is not an easy task. Providing a warehousing facility for the farmer within his village or area of sale is another challenge. The Government needs to look at supporting established digital platforms to scale up on an emergency basis and provide an outlet for the farmer’s rabi produce immediately. Some of these platforms have been doing a good job in the last few years. However, they need a big push from the Government in a crisis like this so that they can provide new solutions to the farmers.

As a long-term measure, Government will need to build storage facilities in villages, which farmers can use to store the output and get finance against warehouse receipts. Encouraging investment from private, corporate, educational and religious sectors in village-level warehousing and purchase of agricultural output directly from farmers is a much-needed reform. Today one potential solution to this problem is sturdy and ergonomic yet flexible and convertible structures. As housing and storage problems continue to rise the world over, homes and spaces made from recyclable materials arranged in the most beautiful yet space-savvy and innovative methods can act as a solution for reducing slums, cramped spaces in cities and also for creating portable storage spaces in agricultural lands, and also can help in combating the growing problems of garbage disposal. Some examples of this include homes with a foundation made of waste plastic bottles in place of the conventional clay bricks, box trucks converted into homes.

In the field of commercial farming and case of agricultural practices on large lands, Mechanization of agriculture and investing in tools needs to be promoted and encouraged so that dependence on manual labor can be reduced. This will also make it easier for the digitization of agricultural operations and can be accomplished by policy support from Government to enterprises that lease machines or provide specific services to meet agricultural requirements.

The first challenge for the farmers is harvesting of the Rabi crops like Wheat, Rice, Pulses, Mustard, Maize, Fruits and Vegetables followed by the task of selling them. Due to non-availability of labor harvesting has come under severe stress. The market linkage for the farmer is broken due to the lack of transportation and markets. He is not able to sell what he has managed to harvest. This has to be fixed first by using safe transport and delivery systems with all health and safety parameters followed so that the farmer has enough income or cash in hand which helps him to clear his debts, support his family and plan for Kharif crop. Also, to ensure a continuous supply of food to the population. An immediate consequence of this should make the government wary and alert to a possible sharp spike in the price of vegetables and other commercial crops due to large scale changes in cropping patterns. Today though most granaries can safely claim large buffer stocks in paddy and wheat (making food grains shortage due to poor harvest is unlikely, at least this year) The case of commercial crops and vegetables is more complicated. The decision to plant these is largely dependent on estimated price in the upcoming season based on realization price earnt in the previous season. This, in turn, means that farmers are likely to shift to another crop thereby substantially affecting and altering dynamics of supply and prices. This, in turn, may culminate into food inflation which will, in turn, result in a crisis of payments. The downward trend of business in many sectors will mean that there would be fewer profits and less cash. The same should not happen to the agriculture sector. Many people connected with the agricultural sector are suffering from a lack of cash flow while their fixed costs are continuing. Many innovators and entrepreneurs who have set up startups in the last three years to provide Agri tech solutions to the farmers are now facing a major disruption in their businesses and there will be very high mortality among them unless financial institutions help them. To combat this issue, the govt should set aside some amount as a revolving fund so that it can provide support to the startups continuously in times to come.

Agricultural companies need sufficient working capital facilities so that their operations are not constrained. Banks may have to take this up on an urgent basis.

Banks themselves are going through a rough time. There is a need to ensure that despite all these difficulties the farmers have access to credit for their crops. Banks must make special products and processes to make this happen in a timely fashion in a situation where lockdowns are likely to stay for some time to come. This is not an easy task, but it must be done. Modern digital technology can play a huge role in this.

In times to come, if education returns to the classroom culture, we should also make agriculture and environmental studies an important and indispensable subject for all students irrespective of age, class, caste, creed, gender, field, or any other barrier along with the so-called marks scoring subjects to inculcate a love for nature and environmental health among all citizens and also to teach other virtues which can be learnt on farmlands such as perseverance, emotional and physical strength and tenacity, awareness, sensitivity, the dignity of labor, and also to understand the journey of each food crop to our meal plates. Now is the time to redefine the word ‘Normal’, or else some years down the line we may be taking our next generation to a museum to see a tree.

-Aishwarya Nair (One of the prize winners of Covid-19 Article Writing Competition in the 25-34 years age group)

Picture Credits: Genebank-ICRISAT

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