Environment at the Center of Agriculture Debate

Representational Image: Environment and Agriculture
Representational Image: Environment and Agriculture

Environment degradation and natural resource insecurity plays a significant role in geopolitical tensions and social instability world over. Though often underestimated, environment insecurity is one of the prime causes, directly or indirectly, of global events such as refugee crisis, civil wars, rise in populism among others.

The UNHCR reports that natural disasters have displaced more than 26 million people since 2008. The refugee crisis is in fact marred by an environmental element, wherein natural resource scarcity, poor resource management and unstable agricultural practices are some of the main precursors. Syria serves as a case in point here. In the years leading up to the war, Syria experienced its most extreme drought in recorded history which later catalyzed political unrest ahead of the 2011 uprising.

Before the uprising, in 2007-2008, the Fertile Crescent (Iran, Iraq, Syria among others) experienced severe drought which created widespread crop failure and impelled mass migration of nearly 1.5 million farming families to urban centers, in Syria. Adding to this were the State’s unsustainable agricultural policies, which ensued groundwater depletion- which is important for over a third of Syrian agriculture. Even though the government tried to alleviate this, yet the 2005 law which necessitates a license to dig wells was never enforced. The Khabur river system, Euphrates and Tigris, in North-Eastern Syria as a consequence dried up. With rainfall below normal for over a century, increasing demand for the resources and emphasis on agricultural produce- Syria got embroiled in a cycle of unsustainable practices. These practices- land redistribution and irrigation projects, quota systems, and subsidizing fuel, endangered Syria’s water security and made it even more susceptible to droughts. However, this is not the first time as Syria has been subject to periodic droughts. In 1950s, 1980s and 1990s too it experienced the droughts but somehow, the nation could not recover from 1990s famine.

The association between environment and agriculture extends far beyond Syria. Over-reliance on certain geographical landscapes for agriculture can often aggravate environmental issues, sometimes even creating new ones. However, this is a two-way relationship with environmental conditions also influencing agriculture, thereby effecting agricultural commodity prices (10% of traded goods globally). Rising temperatures, rise in sea levels, changing monsoon patterns etc. all hold significant sway over agricultural goods and their prices.

Notably, agriculture is the single largest employer in the world. Any anomaly in this sector means effecting lives of more than a billion people (almost 20% of world’s labor force) who are formally employed in agriculture and another billion engaged in subsistence farming. This gets exacerbated further in present times more so as the population is transitioning towards higher product activities by leveraging technology and innovation.

Efforts then need to be made to increase resilience of rural communities and develop sustainable agricultural production. Furthermore, governance provisions also need to be established for pastoralist communities, livestock ranching, shifting cultivation etc. As such there is now a need for resource-sharing frameworks which discuss investments, skill development, and most importantly environmental stewardship.

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