Nurture Plants, Save the planet

 The planet cannot survive without plants. Plants constitute majority of food sources and play an important role in providing clean air. But we seem to have ignored or forgotten this simple truth, in our journey towards building a modern, developed world. Every morning we hear about trees being felled or large areas of farmland being diverted for other uses, in the name of development. We are getting extremely callous about polluting soils and the water sources.

Land covered with crops and trees conserves soil and water while providing food and clean air

We believe that we nurture plants, but it is the plants that nurture humans by providing food, air and a clean environment to live in. We exploit to produce more, having little regard to the soil, water and the ecology. We have been using the most unsustainable practices producing unsafe food for both humans and animals. We need to therefore pause, understand plant health and reflect on how we could grow safe food without exploiting the natural resources and the prevailing ecology and environment.

In this issue, we can see a number of positive examples of ways of enhancing plant health, producing nutritious food that enhances health of the people and innovative ways of increasing the green cover on this planet.

Nurturing plant health

Like human health, often it is a reactive response to a pest or disease incidence, rather than a proactive approach to plant health. Understanding plant health is more important before suggesting ways of maintaining health. Plants are dependent on the soils they grow and hence soil health takes precedence over plant health. Mere understanding of the soils by conventional soil testing is no longer sufficient to keep the crops healthy. We still do not test the soils for their health and more research is required to address this lacuna, opine the scientists from SRMSIT. More than genetic resistance of the plant, application of appropriate nutrients at right time, in the right dose, based on the available form, plays a crucial role in plant health. Factors that influence the crop health is yet to be understood in a holistic manner (T M Thiyagarajan et.al., p.11).

Beneficial micro-organisms can enhance the nutrient uptake and make nutrients more available by influencing root architecture. Scientists from SRMIST observed that VAM-infected Lavendula plant growth increased 8.5 times over non-infected plants. There is also some evidence that the soil bacteria can support in making phosphorous available to the plants by solubilizing the water-insoluble forms while mycorrhizal fungi help in mobilizing the immobilized nutrients from the soil.(T M Thiyagarajan et.al., p.11).

Pre-treatment of seeds with microbial agents has enormous potential in promoting healthy plants. Selective use of microbes for specific purposes can result in higher yields. Bio-priming is one of the techniques of integrated nutrient management to achieve sustainable yields in agriculture.(Deepranjan Sarkar et.al., p.22).

Another way of enhancing the microbial activity in the soils is by applying mulch. By way of mulching, scientists also observed better decomposition of fallen leaves and dead root mass, thereby increasing microbial population (Pradeep Kumar Sarkar et.al.,p.6). The root mass binds the soil, consequently, checking the soil erosion to a great extent.

Nurturing conducive microclimate will enhance plant growth. Many farmers have benefitted greatly by improving the microclimate on their farms. For instance, Madhu Ramakrishnan, a farmer in Pollachi, Tamil Nadu has been successful in reducing the temperature in his farm, owing to dense population of different plants and trees and also with live fencing.(Farmer’s Diary, p.28). The congenial micro climate in the farm, also helps faster multiplication of microbes and earthworms. It also nurtures good and beneficial relationship between plants, pests and pathogens. However, microclimate has been poorly studied in relation to crop health and there is insufficient or inadequate research on microclimate management in relation to crop health (T M Thiyagarajan et.al., p.11).

Kailash Murthy, another farmer in Karnataka, following a number of nature-friendly practices, has been able to maintain good soil and plant health on his farms (p.25). His farm which includes more than 138 species of herbs and trees, belonging to 28 families, is growing in harmony with nature, like a forest ecosystem by using only sunlight. “We don’t get health security from super specialty hospitals, but from the food diversity. That’s why, all these years, I have studied organisms under the ground and understood their ability to supply nutrients to soil.” says Kailash Murthy.

Increasing tree cover

In an era where trees are cut either from forest areas or urban areas, planting trees wherever possible is another way of increasing green cover and harvesting the benefits that trees provide to the planet. Planting a sapling to mark special occasions has become a trend, but it is simply not enough. The way the air is getting polluted, it would probably be hard to live in a few years from now. Delhi is clearly moving towards it and many urban areas are following unsustainable models. We need to plant on a war footing.

Development organisations like BAIF are doing their bit in greening the rural areas. BAIF has been popularizing a cultural festival called Hasiru Habba, the Green festival, since 2001, in all its project locations. The culture of planting trees with community participation is blended into the rural life styles, by giving a traditional touch to the event. (M N. Kulkarni, p.19).

The Government of Karnataka is also promoting biofuel species in private lands and government lands through Karnataka State Biofuel Development Board. The species such as Pongamia, Simaruba, Jatropha, Madhuca etc., have been provided to the farmers through Hasiru Honnu and Baradu bangara project, where farmers are motivated to plant these species all along the field bunds and in the uncultivable lands (M N Kulkarni, p.19). However, we need to be extremely cautious with regard to purpose and choice of plant species.

Tree planting initiative is catching up with the new age organisations too. Innovatively integrating technology with nature, SankalpTaru Foundation (p.15) enables people, with no time or space to plant trees and contribute their share towards the environment. The initiative is efficiently connecting individuals with nature and also helping rural communities in strengthening their livelihoods. Working with various organisations and corporates, SankalpTaru Foundation has expanded its green footprint to over 18 Indian states reaching close to a million healthy tree plantations.

Grow-trees.com, another social enterprise is providing a cost-effective service to individuals and companies globally to enable planting of trees (Supriya Patil, p.34). Through its web enabled services, the organization has planted over 4.5 million trees across 20 states of India, generating approximately 370,000 workdays of employment for the rural communities.

Expansion and collaboration

With rising population and more food requirements, nurturing healthy growth of plants is not a choice any more. Increasing urbanization, infrastructure development, increasing radiation and changing lifestyles are all leading us towards unsustainable living. Expanding lung spaces within cities, enhancing crop and animal diversity, adoption of sustainable practices in ecosystem management and food production and increasing tree cover across the nation are some of the ways to meet this impending challenge. It is a huge task which calls for a coordinated effort from citizens as well as various organisations, backed by supportive policies.

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