The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which consists of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets, was announced in 2015 to address many global challenges such as poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, unrest and injustice. How can these goals and objectives be reached in the agricultural sector?
We have heard various discussions about the ill-effects of industrial farming and various farming methods that can be adopted as remedies. Among them, what is ecological farming? According to Dr. Lionel Weerakoon, an expert agro-environmental scientist, it can be stated as follows.
Many years ago ecological farming was what we really had. Here the farmer was also a part of the environment. Farming was also part of the environment. Ecological farming is also known as agroecology. For our convenience we call it ecological farming. Actually, we see that only the farmer is farming. But nature also does farming. For example, Sinharajaya, Kanneliya, Ritigala and the mangroves around the lagoons in areas like Negombo are not man-made. They are naturally occurring. This is farming by nature. Accordingly, let’s examine the principles of natural farming by nature.
According to Dr. Weerakoon, what is built in ecological farming is a combination of the principles of natural ecosystems and the principles of traditional farming through the analysis of current science. Accordingly,
For example, when you walk into a jungle, the first thing we observed is complexity. Some plants are tall, some are short. Plants like aphids grow on other plants. And there are thousands of trees. There is a lot of complexity.
There are different types of animals in a natural forest. As well as birds and animals like beetles and toads. A great variety can be seen.
That can be called as interdependence. For example, one plant is allowed to stand on top of another plant. And no one removes from the environment. If so, it is rarely found naturally. Furthermore, predators and parasitoids have reduced disease-causing pests as well as insect damage.
When we grow a single crop, diseases develop quickly and Insects damages can be observed. But it is not so in a natural ecosystem. No diseases and insect damage. So there are no losses. Every ecosystem has relationships and inter-relationships.
- Recycling of matter
Leaves, branches, stems, fruits of a plant all decay. Microorganisms decompose it all over time. When decomposed/decayed, these become small pieces. Plants parts are converted into elements (mineralization). Generally, a plant needs 16 elements. The microbial decomposition process mentioned above releases all the elements required by plants into the environment. Then the next plant growing in that place absorbs all these nutrients through the root system. Again, when the plant decomposes, these nutrients are released into the environment/soil by the microorganisms. This is a cyclic process. Several types of microorganisms are found in soil that contributes to the decomposition process. Examples include bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, protozoa. All these live together like a dense settlement in the soil. Among these, fungi and actinomycetes are particularly active in the decomposition process.
According to Dr. Weerakoon, this theory is actually replaced in organic farming and ecological farming. However, today the microbial activity has decreased because, the use of modern machinery destroys the microbial habitats. Also, due to the use of chemical fertilizers and herbicides, their reproductive activities are hindered and they stop. According to recent surveys, the microbial population in Asia has decreased by 50%. Even their appearance has been changed. If the micro-organisms can be managed in the right way, ecological farming can be done properly. It is the essential part of this farming, Activation of microbial activity and their utilization. Then a good harvest and a more harvest can be obtained.
A number of key features of ecological farming can also be noted.
There is no need to apply anything from outside in this farming. That means, there is no dependency. Such systems do not expect anything from the outside. For example, organic farming does not require fertilizers. Insecticides and herbicides are not expected. Therefore, this is a completely independent farming system.
For example, let’s say that this farming is interrupted by a forest fire or a flood. Then temporarily farming suffers. But they come alive again. These systems have the ability to recover from any disturbance.
If ecological farming can be carried out in a sustainable manner, a harvest can always be obtained every day. Also foods with different flavors and properties could be obtained through ecological farming. None of the applications from outside but can generate revenue. And the environment can be protected. That means, the environmental pollution caused by the use of the toxic substances has stopped. Therefore, health problems can also be reduced.
As mentioned above, the principles of ecological farming can be stated. The same principles are used in traditional farming. Taking ‘Chena’ as an example, ‘Chena’ is a traditional farming method. But now it has been destroyed. In traditional farming, a farmer always planted crops according to the location of the land. Not cultivated plants after leveling the land. Generally, the higher the slope of a land, the lower the water in the soil, Therefore crops such as corn, pumpkin, and maize are grown on the upper part of the land. Similarly, coming down the slope is more humid than up. Then chillies, tomatoes, pulses, potatoes etc. are cultivated in that land. Further down the land, short-term paddy varieties are cultivated. Thus the system has 10 to 15 types of crops at the same time and such system is also called as a mixed cropping system. The complexity and diversity mentioned above can be seen in this mixed cropping. Also, in Sri Lanka, like many other countries, agro-ecosystems are built using these principles.
There are a number of ways to build an agro-ecosystem. They can be listed as follows.
- Crop diversity
For example, there are about 30 to 32 types of plants in a Kandy Garden (Kandyan Forest Garden) which is created by a farmer. It is a world recognized gardening system. It contains different types of spices, vegetables and potatoes etc. Another thing is the location of the plants. It contains horizontally and vertically growing crops. Crops like jackfruit and coconut are vertically growing crops. And almost all vegetables are horizontally growing crops. Similarly, if we consider a garden in the dry zone, there are hundreds of plants in that type of garden.
A forest plantation always includes a tree. Then forests with trees are considered as farming here. ‘Chena’ cultivation is an best example for agroforestry.
- Crop rotation
In here Crops are selected in such a way that they can utilize the resources available and can be taken from the system. Here the crops are shifted so that the sunlight received by the different layers and the nutrients present in the different layers of the soil are used. In this way, when several types of crops are grown in the same farm, the harvest can be obtained at different times. Then the income can also be increased. In the same way diseases of crops are also controlled.
- Use of mulch
For an example, in the case of rubber cultivation, various mulch plants are grown under rubber. Centrosema, Calapagonium, Pueraria are some examples for such mulch plants. Mulch farming sequesters nitrogen from the soil and delivers it to the crops. Also, because the mulch crops are grown around the cultivated land, rainwater is prevented from falling directly on the ground. Then the soil degradation and washing off of essential plants nutrient will be reduced. The other thing is that the emergence of weeds in the land is controlled.
- Push pull method
For example, desmodium (a plant from the sedum family) is grown to control armyworms that visit maize fields. In addition, grasses such as Braccaria and Pannicum are planted around the maize plantation. What happens is that the armyworm fly flies across the field, but is repulsed by the odor from the desmodium, then the fly moves to the grass plants which are around the maize field. After they start completing their life cycle from there. They pierce the leaves of the grass plants to get food. There, the glue coming out of that grass plant is toxic to these flies. Then the flies will die. Although maize and grasses are in the same family, the grasses are toxic to armyworm fly.
Finally, farming, which is said to have existed in the past, is a system that protects the soil and enriches the soil. But in recent times, the use of toxic herbicides such as glyphosate has destroyed many of the plants that naturally fertilized the soil. And these toxic chemicals have been the cause of many diseases today. However, ecological farming in Sri Lanka is currently being implemented to some extent and in the future, farmers should be encouraged and given space to engage in more environmentally friendly methods of farming.
From a discussion on ecological farming by Dr. Lionel Weerakoon, an expert agro-environmental scientist