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Vol. 19 No. 2 - April 2013

Global Challenges And Role Of Environmental Botanists

By: C. R. Bhatia*

The major problems, the human society faces globally are, water, food, energy, and economic security. In addition, most developing countries, including India, face the problems of poverty, growing population, employment, inequality and clean environment. Above all, there are the uncertainties of climate change that could further aggravate these problems.

Science and application of the scientific knowledge alone can contribute towards amelioration of the above problems. A balance between population, consumption, waste, use of natural resources, and environment would be necessary for the survival and well being of the human societies. Plant scientists are better off than others because of their collective knowledge of plants that are the primary producers in the food chain, as well as indicators of the healthy environment represented by the area under forest cover. Plants use the solar energy and carbon- di-oxide – two free resources and convert them into carbohydrates, proteins and lipids. These are either consumed directly as food by humans or after conversion into milk, meat and eggs through animals. Primary productivity of plants, both in natural as well as agro-ecosystems, depends on the availability of suitable land, water, temperature and soil nutrients. Ever since the humans domesticated the plants, and started cultivating them, they have attempted to enlarge the harvest. Development of hybrid maize, semi-dwarf wheat, rice and sorghum are the classical examples. Application of nitrogenous fertilizers, pesticides to control insect pests, pathogens and weeds and mechanization of farm operations helped in realizing the enhanced genetic potential of the crop genotypes. The increased productivity led to higher income for the farmers, rural jobs and prosperity. The increased availability of cereals, kept the food prices moderate, providing easy access within the purchasing capacity of the poor. The improved production technology – so called Green Revolution, also prevented cutting down the forests to bring additional land under cultivation which would have been unavoidable to meet the food demand.

The green revolution technology also led to inadvertent environmental degradation of the resource base in some areas. This included erosion of top soil due to the extensive ploughing, depletion of ground water due to excessive use, contamination of soil from pesticides, and of water bodies with the nitrates from fertilizer runoff and ill effects of the pesticides on human health. Therefore, sustainability of the production technology has been questioned.

However, in future, we have to produce additional food to meet the demand of rising population that is still growing at annual growth rate of 1.6 - 1.7. The increased amount of food must be produced on the same, finite land area, with depleting soil, water and energy resources, without further damaging the resource base and the environment. Hence, the question, what the Environmentalists/Botanists can do?

Plants are very sensitive to environmental perturbations. After the end of the second world war, following the use of nuclear bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, plants were extensively used in USA and elsewhere to monitor the biological effects of radiations. Simple experiments using barley seeds or a specific clone of Tradescantia were extensively used. The same can be easily used for monitoring the radiation effects from telephone towers and micro-wave ovens. Specific plant genotypes can be developed for monitoring other environmental perturbations. Extensive field experiments were also carried out to decontaminate soils or growing crops that will not accumulate radio-nuclides resulting from the nuclear fallout.

As the former Prime Minister of India, late Indira Gandhi said “Poverty is the worst kind of environmental pollution”. The first priority in India should be to reduce poverty by enhancing plant productivity. Increased output is not possible without increased inputs and better management. Collective wisdom of the Environmentalists/Botanists can provide:

  1. Location specific solutions, such as change to high value crops, and value addition to the produce at village level.
  2. Proactive identification of environment damaging practices.
  3. Develop technologies to prevent and reverse the adverse environmental impact on the resource base.
  4. Enhance carbon sequestration through increased green cover to add soil organic matter.
  5. Means to reduce green house gases, including methane and oxides of nitrogen.
  6. Increasing photosynthetic, water and nitrogen use efficiencies by plants.
  7. Enhance trapping of solar energy through human designed artificial leaves.
  8. Create greater social awareness of the environmental problems. To some extent the environmental impact can be reduced by reducing wastage and consumption.

Let us start an electronic brain storming on “What Environmentalists/Botanists can do to improve the global issues of water, food, hunger, malnutrition, energy, poverty, environment and climate change”.

Former Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, Govt. of India, Navi Mumbai (India), <[email protected]>

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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