Achieving Food Security by Reducing Food Loss and Waste

Food Loss and Waste refers to food not consumed by people and is either lost or wasted somewhere in the food supply chain between being ready for harvest and used-up as consumed food.

A few startling facts to begin with :
  • Around 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted globally per year amounting to $940 billion of economic losses ( approximately INR 70 Lakh Crores).
  • One in nine people remain undernourished.
  • Food that is harvested but ultimately lost or wasted consumes about 25% of all water used by agriculture every year.
  • Food Loss and Waste contributes to an estimated 8% of annual greenhouse gas emissions(GHG) responsible for global warming.
Where does maximum Food Loss and Waste occur in India ?

The food supply chain has several stages such as agricultural production, handling and storage , processing and packaging , distribution and marketing and finally consumption.

Hard to believe but maximum food loss happens during harvest in several forms such as grain left behind by poor harvesting equipment , sieving, threshing remains , fruits and vegetables not harvested , discarded fish/meat or natural disasters damaging the yield.

During handling and storage, food gets spoilt by pests, fungus , moisture and/or disease . During processing and packaging spillage of milk, damaged fish , fruits and vegetables unsuitable for processing etc. , get wasted.

At the time of distribution, fruit and vegetables are discarded for looking ‘imperfect’ as supermarkets demand ‘fresh and attractive look’ for fresh products, food that has expired(not sold by sell-by date) and failure to meet food compliance and safety standards (example high pesticides or fertilizer content).

And finally, a lot of food that is purchased by us (consumers) , restaurants , caterers etc. are not eaten and wasted.

What foods are prone to more wastage ?

Cereals take the top spot with wheat, rice, millets being the dominant group contributing to loss .

In the roots and tubers category : potatoes , sweet potatoes , cassava (called Maravalli Kizhangu in Tamil, Kappa in Malayalam, Kavva pendalam in Telugu, Mara Genasu in Kannada and Simla Aloo in Hindi) suffer maximum loss.

Despite meat being a relatively low contributor to global food wastage in terms of volumes (less than 5% of total food wastage) it has a significant impact on climate change, contributing to over 20% of the carbon footprint of total food waste . Efforts to reduce food wastage should focus on major climate hotspot commodities, such as meat and cereals .

And why have countries not taken drastic steps to reduce food wastage ?

In India and other developing countries , costs to setup cold storage units for reducing food waste is so high that project becomes unviable or loss making. Entrepreneurs and Government agencies do not want to invest as initial costs are high and immediate short-term benefits are low.

We should also consider non-financial reasons of reducing Food Loss and Waste such as enhanced food security for our people, better waste regulations, sense of social responsibility and environmental sustainability. Governments must look at the benefit-cost ratio as a generational investment and not as a short-term return on investment.

An Interesting Example of Innovation :

The Apeel Science company has developed sprays of thin oils to coat fruits and vegetables from organic sources. These sprays originally extracted from plants such as banana leaves and peels have extended shelf life of fruits and vegetables by 30 days or more. It helps hold in water, which prevents vegetables and fruits from shriveling and controls the exchange of gases between the interior of the fruit or vegetable and the atmosphere, particularly oxygen and ethylene, to slow decay. Finally, it also blocks the ability of bacteria to spoil the food. Because this method works without refrigeration, it offers great potential benefits in countries like India with limited refrigeration.

Next Steps :

Improving food production and supply chains by having better infrastructure in cold storage , handling , efficient order forecasting and factory processes is the first big saving. Though there is no single answer to this problem, we can approach this from multiple angles such as government policies, targeted technology , consumer mindset and set realistic targets to reduce food loss and measure them continuously.

As a food consumer, how can we be socially responsible when it comes to food waste ?

Here are some thoughts :

  • Understand the massive food poverty that exists today and try move away from a careless attitude of those who can afford the food but waste them.
  • Public awareness. Spread the word, educate those around you and participate in consumer education initiatives at schools and government levels.
  • Try and reduce portion sizes of what you eat as well as what you cook. Consider starting to eat food on a clean plate and ending your food on an empty plate. Not only will this improve your cooking skills , it will also give you the satisfaction of helping create a brighter future for all.
  • Buy ‘imperfect’ looking foods . Fruits and vegetables with irregular shape, cleft or blemish may fall below high cosmetic standards , but having an aesthetic defect is not a reason for not buying or throwing away food.
  • Wasted food lands up as garbage in landfills and that is a staggering 17% contributor to methane/Green House Gas(GHG)emissions . Implement composting options at home and in the community around you.

Chennai’s Water Struggles

By Lucy Gibson

Water is key to life. Cities and towns were formed because of access to it and we humans cannot live without it.

But India is running out of water.

As of June 2019, the Central Water Commission reported that 65% of India’s reservoirs were dry. About 40 percent of India’s population, including 21 cities will have no access to drinking water by 2030 according to a report by thinktank NITI Aayog. One of which is Chennai, home to over 10 million people.

Chennai has struggled with water for years. Either there’s not enough rain, or there’s way too much. But the problem is not just one of nature’s quirks. Rapid urbanisation has swallowed up lakes and fields. Land is too expensive, apparently, to be left alone.

Between 1980 and 2010, heavy construction in the city meant that area covered by buildings increased from 47 to 402km2 while wetland areas declined from 186 to 71.5km2. The IT Corridor (a road which houses a large number of IT companies in the city), for example, was built on  Pallikaranai marshlands and the area immediately upstream of Chembarambakkam (the city’s largest drinking water tank) converted into an automotive special economic zone (SEZ).

Satellite surveys reveal what has become of Chennai’s main rain-fed reservoir Lake Puzhal. What resembled a dark blue ink-stain in 2018, was, a year later a small grey shadow of its former self.

Puzhal reservoir in Chennai, India before the drought and in its current state. Source: Independent

In 2019, Chembarambakkam Lake also ran dry; it had never dried up fully in the last 25 years. During the droughts, Chembarambakkam Lake was a cracked, windswept mud flat. The massive pipe that was supposed to carry water into the city was empty. As mentioned, the area immediately upstream of Chembarambakkam converted into an automotive SEZ. The factories use rain and groundwater for cooling machinery, washing vehicles, and mixing with paint. Water that would otherwise flow into the reservoir.

With reservoirs parched, water must be found from somewhere. Chennai’s richer residents and businesses had water trucked in from nearby states. But anyone else, those who could not afford these deliveries were forced to find, and wait with buckets, for rationed amounts from state water trucks.

Women use a hand-pump to collect water at an apartment complex whose buildings are not connected to a central water supply in the OMR district of Chennai. Source: New York Times.

And climate change is coming into play.

11 of the warmest years on record, since record-keeping began in 1901, have all occurred since 2004. Maximum temperatures have on average gone up by 1.3 degrees Celsius since 1950. With this, the frequency of heatwaves is increasing, and monsoon rains delayed, leaving millions of people without water. Environment experts note that Chennai is an example of how a situation, exacerbated by climate change, can morph into a climate emergency. A crisis that is becoming more and more frequent in today’s megacities.

Climate change is happening, there is no doubt about that. But so is mismanagement; all across the world. We cannot hide from this.

Chennai was blessed with beautiful reservoirs, lakes, and ponds. But they have been encroached by urbanisation and clogged up by silt.  The city’s watershed areas have been neglected. Reservoirs need regular desilting and more storage areas (making use of existing ponds and tanks) need to be established. Unchecked urban growth, a lack of reservoir maintenance, and overextraction of groundwater by public authorities and private landowners through bore wells. 

Water catchment areas are vanishing, and regular maintenance is needed. 

With reservoirs running dry, and huge amount of money being spent of scooping water from the sea and processing it through desalination plants, could rainwater harvesting be part of the answer?

Chennai gets most of its water each year from the monsoon rains; an average of 54 days of rain per year. As a result, in 2003 it was made mandatory that every building captured rainwater by installing a water catchment system on its rooftop. This, in theory, could go a long way. Capture the water as it comes and save it. However, many rainwater harvesting structures were either not maintained or were badly designed. In fact, a survey of Chennai’s Gandhi Nagar neighbourhood revealed that only 40% of buildings were in compliance with the obligation. 

Moreover, Chennai’s lakes need desilting.

In stark contrast to the 2019 drought, in 2015, Chennai saw devastating floods. Floods that stole at least 422 lives and caused up to $14 billion in damages. However, as a result of poor storage capacity of the lakes, such as Velachery Lake, the lakes overtopped causing much of the damage and most of the rainwater flowed into the sea; lost forever. Organisations have been pushing for lakes to be desilted for years, but progress has been slow. In a public hearing, the Madras High Court criticised the state government for having mismanaged the looming water crisis by failing to desilt water bodies.

As a result, global mismanagement and land degradation are colliding with climate change.

Chennai’s water struggles, whether this be flooding or drought, cannot be addressed until water becomes central to the city’s urban planning. And as humans we must, on a worldwide scale, reconsider how we treat our relationship with land and water before it is too late.

Choking: Pallikaranai Wetland

By Lucy Gibson

South of Velachery, a residential area of Chennai, there used to be thousands of acres of marshland called Kazhuveli. The marshland was a sanctuary for resident birds, such as the median egret, and migratory birds, such as the brown shrike that flew from its far off breeding grounds in Siberia.

Median egret. Source: Arvind Balaraman/Shutterstock

However, over the past few decades, rapid development and encroachment have caused this marshland to disappear. All that remains of the Kazhuveli marshland is its southern portions. This makes up the Pallikaranai wetland.

Pallikaranai wetland is the only surviving wetland ecosystem of the city of Chennai.

It is also a site of strategic importance for biodiversity. Towards the end of their long migration, migratory birds have but few options for touchdown, before the miles of ocean beyond Tamil Nadu, except Pallikaranai wetland. Migratory birds, including greater flamingos, have been arriving at Pallikaranai in increasing numbers. In 2016, the rare and endangered Calidris tenuirostris(great knots) were spotted in the marsh – their last sighting had been in 1950-60.

Greater flamingos in the marsh. The urbanisation of the surroundings is clear. Source: Wikipedia

On average, solely considering avian life, Pallikaranai marsh hosts over 40,000 birds in the migratory season, and over 5,000 resident birds through the year. It also serves as a breeding ground for resident birds like the threatened black-headed ibis, and the near-threatened spot-billed pelican.

A near threatened species, the spot-billed pelican in Pallikaranai marshland. Source: Sundararajan / Shutterstock

Birds are just one element of Pallikaranai’s biodiversity. Plants, freshwater fish, mammals, reptiles that often go unnoticed, are also vulnerable to changes in wetlands and the interconnected water channels that feed them.

However, in amongst this wealth of biodiversity, is a darker and deeper problem.

An Anna University study in February 2019 noted that the marshland emitted a staggering 8.4 giga-tonnes of methane annually. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, trapping up to 100 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide in a 5-year period. While a healthy marshland can act as a much needed carbon sink, the extremely high levels of emissions today are upsetting the ecological balance of the ecosystem, as well as emitting large quantities of greenhouse gas up into the atmosphere. The study highlighted the 50-year old Perungudi dumpyard as the culprit.

Perungudi dumpyard extends onto Pallikaranai marshland. Source: Ashwin Bhat Kemthuru

In the 1970s, Perungudi dumpyard covered 19 acres, and was based in Sevaram village in Perungudi. But this filled up quickly. By the mid-1980s, the area was completely full, and the Chennai Corporation shifted the dumpyard to its present location in Pallikaranai. As a result, the marsh which originally covered 12,000 acres, had, by 2002 shrunk to 1,470 acres. Conversely, the dumpyard at Pallikaranai, which covered 140 acres in 2002, has expanded to 340 acres in 2007. This expansion is continuous even today.

The Chennai Corporation dumps 2,000 tonnes of waste into the marsh daily. As Perungudi dumpyard extends out into the wetland, the water has become increasingly contaminated by toxins found in the rubbish.  This has resulted in leaching of heavy metals in the marsh, including chromium, lead, iron, manganese, cobalt, nickel, copper, zinc and cadmium.  Water quality analysis indicated the presence of mercury, lead, and cadmium in quantities four times over permissible levels.

Thankfully, the MOEFCC under the National Action Plan for Conservation of Migratory Birds in Central Asian Flyway, the Pallikaranai marshland was prioritised. The State government declared it would commence the eco-restoration of Pallikaranai during 2018-2023. But there has been no suggestion of moving the Perungudi dumpyard, nor has Pallikaranai been added to the Ramsar site list which would gain it international predominance

With limited progress the toxins are leaching in. Since wetlands are common property it is essential that this trend be quelled to prevent the further destruction of Pallikaranai’s ecosystem.

There is scope for recovery, but only if the degradation is stemmed now.

The Restoration of Arasankazhani Lake

By Lucy Gibson

Arasankazhani Lake lies about 26km from Chennai near Chemmancherry-Perumbakkam, at the base of the Sithalapakkam hills. It is just one of the lakes that the E.F.I. have successfully restored; this article will focus on how this was achieved and the benefits this restoration has brought.

Prior to restoration, Arasankazhani’s waters had been polluted by illegal sand-mining, heavy silting and was covered with weeds and water hyacinths which choked the lake and the life bodies it contained. Its densely populated surroundings, overlooked by schools, colleges, IT parks and tall apartments threatened Arasankazhani. Additionally, the roads which wrapped themselves around the area of the lake had also previously been used by local residents as sites from which rubbish could be thrown into the lake’s waters. As many examples can show, at this time, Arasankazhani’s 39 acres represented the negative impact humanity can have on nature.

Now, however, Arasankazhani also represents humanity’s impact in a different light; that with time and determination nature can be restored.

This is the story of how the E.F.I. restored Arasankazhani to its former glory.

Having first been approached by residents from the neighbourhood, and having received permission from the Government, Arasankazhani Lake was restored in two phases, first in 2012, and then in 2014. Volunteers of E.F.I., with the support of residents, removed the rubbish and weed growth from the Lake’s waters. The removal of weeds, means that sunlight is now able to reach native aquatic plants, and prevents the depletion of dissolved oxygen in the water, which in turn allows fish stocks to thrive. Moreover, the removal of rubbish, prevents microplastic pollution, as well as the leaching of heavy metals and toxins into the water body.  

After removal of rubbish, focus was given to creating outer and inner bunds, wind barriers, and a large central G-shaped island.

The G-shaped islands on the lake with an outer and inner mud wall that is fenced by plants are an innovation, ensuring water circulation in the lake. Planted with ‘Vettiver’ grass, for example, as well as bamboo, Pongamia, pinnata, and neem, these islands recreate and establish habitats for birds, pond turtles, and other native living species, thus restoring biodiversity to Arasankazhani’s waters. The North-western part of the lake was also de-silted to increase the water holding area.

G-shaped islands on Arasankazhani Lake. Source: E.F.I.

Moreover, the creation of foreshore plantation bunds were designed to prevent lake encroachment and to restrict residents from dumping rubbish in the lake. On the bunds, around 500 palm seeds were planted, their roots stabilising the soil and strengthening the bunds alongside waterbodies; thus preventing breaches from waterbodies and soil erosion.

The planting of native saplings along the lake to create a small, forested area also brings great benefit, reducing flood risk potential through infiltration.

Today, the restoration efforts have yielded positive results and residents have stopped dumping rubbish into the lake. Additionally, species which originally considered the lake their home, can thrive again. More than 40 species of birds can be spotted enjoying its waters, including the Grey heron and three amphibian and four reptile species also all got their homes restored in a natural way.

The lake’s unique G-shaped island keeps waste away from nesting birds. Source: Navmi Krishna K.

Arasankazhani Lake was given a new life, and provides a fine example of collaborative conservation by local residents, the government, academics, and the E.F.I.

Adambakkam Lake and the (Beautiful) Blue Devil

By Lucy Gibson

In the city of Chennai, Tamil Nadu, lies a water body by the name of Adambakkam Lake, a lake which gives its name to the nearby locality of Adambakkam. However, due to a neglect which extends for nearly a decade, this once pristine lake which was a lifeline to thousands of agriculturalists, now resembles a swamp. Moreover, the much discussed revival plans, considering the fixing of the lake boundary to prevent further encroachments, and the laying of walk pathways to encourage recreational activities remain on paper.

The woes of Adambakkam stem largely from three sources: encroachment, sewage, and rubbish. As a victim of encroachment, both residential and commercial, Adambakkam Lake which only around 25 years extended over approximately 86 acres, has now shrunk to just 6 acres. Additionally sewage from the nearby St Thomas Mount is now let into the lake. Finally, Adambakkam Lake is choked by the dumping of rubbish in its waters at a pace at which nearby environmental organisations, such as the E.F.I. struggle to control.  

Water hyacinth and rubbish on and in Adambakkam Lake. Source: New Indian Express.

Together these three sources of trouble amount to an additional problem – water hyacinth.

Untreated sewage from stormwater drains and houses adjacent to Adambakkam Lake contaminate the water, leading to the formation of a thick cover of water hyacinth and invasive weeds on the lake surface. This only adds to the problems facing Adambakkam Lake.

Water hyacinth, with its beautiful flowers and shapes of leaves, is in fact, often referred to as the “(beautiful) blue devil”. This is because it is actually an incredibly harmful invasive weed which drains oxygen from the water body.

Eichhornia crassipes (water hyacinth). Source: Wikipedia.

When left uncontrolled, water hyacinth will cover lakes and ponds entirely. This dramatically affects water flows, as well as blocks sunlight from reaching native aquatic plants which often die. The decay processes deplete dissolved oxygen in the water; as a result of this, fish stocks become significantly depleted and the water body becomes a prime habitat for mosquitos.

Water hyacinth often invades bodies of water that have already been affected by human activities.

But Adambakkam Lake is significant for another reason: it represents one of Chennai’s remaining water bodies.

Since the beginning of the 20th century Chennai has witnessed a steady decline and deterioration in water bodies and open spaces; it is estimated that more than half of the wetlands have been converted for other uses. Chennai had about 150 small and big water bodies in and around the city, but today the number has been reduced to 27. Adambakkam Lake remains an important water body, but in its current state, offers little.

Due to its plain terrain, Chennai lacks a natural gradient for free run-off. This necessitates an effective storm water draining system. The sewage system in Chennai was originally designed for a population of 0.65 million – it is now much below the required capacity. In 2020, there were 10,971,108 people living in the city of Chennai, making Chennai by all accounts a megacity (a city with a population of more than 10 million residents).

In theory, Adambakkam Lake ought to offer a much needed place for flood water to drain into during the monsoon. However, due to the water hyacinth occupying the areas in and around the lake many people fear that there is now little space for flood water to drain and Adambakkam Lake can offer little protection.

The situation does not seem to be improving.

In 2020, the Water Resources Department planned to restore the original storage capacity of Adambakkam Lake, as well as strengthen the bund and improve the lake with recreational facilities – at a cost of ₹3.5 crore. However, progress has stalled. Historically, previous plans back in 2014 for example, have also been postponed; in 2014 this was due to a lack of funds.

Residents now are calling for the waterbody to be restored and desilted before the monsoon season to prevent flooding in the surrounding localities. There is a threat of flooding in areas such as Adambakkam, Thillai Ganga Nagar and Nanganallur during the northeast monsoon.

The longer projects are delayed, the further the encroachments. Desilting, however, would lead to an increase in groundwater level.

There is an urgent need to desilt, deepen and fence Adambakkam Lake.

Sampangi Lake: The Tale of how a Lake became a Stadium

By Lucy Gibson

In the heart of Bengaluru, the state capital of Karnataka, lies the state-of-the-art Sri Kanteerava Stadium. However, just behind this stadium is a small, largely ignored for the majority of the year, water body. A water body which is now the only remnant of what, only a century ago, was one of the city’s largest and most prominent lake, Sampangi Lake – 35 acre lake boasting trees, open spaces, a source of water and a livelihood.

Bengaluru has been an urban settlement since the mid-16th century, although settlements have existed even prior to this. Due to lacking access to large rivers, the city’s water came from a networked system of storage reservoirs, primarily lakes. In fact, the importance of lakes for Bengaluru can be recognised from the city also being called ‘kalyananagara’ (city of lakes).

As well as critical drinking water sources, Bengaluru’s lakes were crucial to the livelihoods for several communities, including brick-makers, farmers, pastoralists to name a few. Oral histories indicate that the lake acted as an urban commons, supplying water for drinking and domestic uses, as well as supporting horticulture, fishing, brick-making, laundering, and pastoralism. Given the interconnection of the people with water-bodies, it is not particularly surprising that a lot of importance was attached to them and annual festivals celebrated them.

This is the story of how a beautiful lake, which supported several different communities, became a stadium.

In the late 19th century, the city was divided into two jurisdictional regions: the British Cantonment and the native city, or Pete, governed by the Mysore kings. Sampangi Lake offered an important water source for both zones due to its central location and it was protected as both Cantonment and Pete were dependent on it.

However, after 1898, the Hesarghatta reservoir began to supply water to the British cantonment. As they were no longer dependent on the lake for water, Sampangi became seen as valuable for a very different reason: aesthetics and recreation.

As a result, to maintain the ‘aesthetics’ of the lake, local livelihoods such as brick making were banned, under the claim that this created unsightly pits, and entry to the lake became guarded, restricting the access of local communities of fishers and washers. These communities migrated away from Sampangi Lake, and new communities (who practiced livelihoods which were not dependent on the ecosystem services from the lake) immigrated to fill the gap.  

Moreover, British polo players went further, asking the colonial government to drain the lake so that they could play polo on the lakebed. Although 49 horticulturists (Vanhikula Kshatriyas) petitioned the Mysore king to prevent this, and despite the king writing in favour of the horticulturists, the lake was drained and used to play polo. At the end of 1937, the 35 acre lake had become a small tank.

The remains of Sampangi Lake: A small, square, water body. Source: JRL Explore

Sampangi Lake no longer represented an essential water source for the city. Its reclamation and conversion into a built-up space was catalysed by urbanisation and a changing perception of the lake’s utility. As Bengaluru grew into a 20th century city, aspiring from modern identity, what was previously Sampagni Lakebed became the Sri Kanteerava indoor sports stadium.

Sri Kanteerava Indoor Stadium. Source: Urban Institute

In present day Bengaluru, the landscape around Sampangi Lake bears little resemblance to its former social and ecological importance. As mentioned, only a small rectangular tank remains due to its centrality to the Karaga festival, the city’s oldest festival which is celebrated by the Vanhikula Kshatriyas horticulturists. Only once a year, during Karaga does the water body become a focal point, a site of celebration, visited by thousands. 

The pattern observed in Sampangi Lake, where aesthetic and recreational perspectives are prioritised over utilitarian uses, continues today. Many other lakes with Bengaluru have also been impacted by urbanisation. They now form bus terminals (previously Dharmambudhi Lake), and hockey stadiums (previously Akkithimmanhalli Lake).

Yet, Bengaluru still needs water for its resilience. Now such large,  the piped water from distant rivers can no longer supply all of the city’s needs.

But all is not lost.

Citizen movements across Bengaluru have begun to focus on protecting and restoring their lakes. In some neighbourhoods, where sufficient water supply is a persistent challenge, community wells, once ignored, are now protected, and maintained. Moreover, mass citizen protests have gained significant victories for the city’s green cover, including reversing the decision to build a steel flyover, which would have destroyed thousands of trees.

In order to build socially inclusive and ecologically sustainable cities, we must consider stories such as that of Sampangi Lake, and understand that the sustainability of these resources depend largely on their accessibility as an urban commons, with utilitarian and recreational value for all to enjoy and protect.

Renew the Land with Regenerative Agriculture

Guest Contribution: Meena Iyer

By 2050 , our world population is likely to hit 10 billion people and creating a sustainable food future is one of our biggest challenges. Regenerative agriculture refers to safe, efficient techniques aimed at boosting yields and helping our agricultural lands survive the climate change onslaught with an end goal of building greater food security for our planet.

With regenerative agriculture , we can achieve several wins : increased profit for farmers , greater resilience to climate change and more importantly valuable environmental benefits by restoring our soil’s health and water needs . Here , we will be looking at some of the important factors that affect practices around regenerative agriculture :

  1. Regenerative versus Degenerative Agriculture
  2. What is Biochar and Recycling of Carbon in Soil

Land degeneration and its impact on agriculture

Over the years , clearing out forests for agriculture and over farming/overgrazing methods have resulted in the depletion of our soil quality as well as reduced agricultural capacity from our farmlands . Out of the 11% of earth’s surface devoted for agriculture , FAO estimates that 25% of all cropland suffers from high soil degradation mainly due to soil erosion . Endless rows of single crops(called as monocultures) are planted and harvested year after year and chemical fertilizers adopted to improve production to meet the exponential food demand. These degenerative methods have not only reduced Agri-productivity but has created an imbalance between nature and humans with far reaching consequences such as extreme poverty among farmers.

When humans tamper with nature , nature will not return easily to its original condition .

Regenerative farming aims to improve soil health by deploying techniques such as :

  • ‘no-till’ agriculture by minimizing soil disturbance and reducing amount of tillage. The advantage with minimal tilling is that organic matter remains in the soil creating room for beneficial micro-organisms and improve soil fertility.
  • Using cover crops which are plants grown to cover the soil after farmers harvest the main crop.
  • Crop rotation using perennial and native plants so that farmers can grow and adjust foods based on the local climate and conditions.

The famed Japanese farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka and author of notable book ‘The One-Straw Revolution’ is extremely relevant even today for his agricultural philosophy around ‘Do-nothing farming’. His principles on regenerative farming are that agriculture is just not the means of producing food but an aesthetic and spiritual approach to life . When humans tamper with nature , nature will not return easily to its original condition . Hence farming methods need to be approached holistically, by being a part of nature and understanding the relationship between soil , the micro- organisms(insects/bacteria/fungi) in the soil that promote the richness of the organic matter and minimizing changes to the natural landscape.

Clay ball seeding

Masanobu Fukuoka is also famed with pioneering the natural farming technique of scattering clay seed balls to revegetate barren lands . Seeds that are compatible with local weather and soil conditions are mixed into clay balls to protect from insects and other seed predators and moisture stored in clay balls due to fluctuations in day/night temperatures creates the necessary environment for clay-ball seeds to germinate. When the season comes, the seeds germinate, and the roots sink deep into the soil in search of underground water.

Did you know :

Guerilla gardening :

As the name suggests , guerilla gardening is a form of a protest gardening where gardeners provoke change by sowing and raising plants in abandoned sites, areas not been cared for , or even public property. Social networking groups and volunteers come together for a variety of purposes such as community improvement, better aesthetics by planting flowers with attractive appearance, physical and mental well-being benefits as well as land conservation.

Guerilla gardeners have used clay seed bombing as an interesting method to improve reforestation by using orthodox seeds ( that are native, viable seeds that survive drying and/or freezing) and use of modern technologies such as drones for spreading seed bombs. Read this interesting article on how IISc scientists in Karnataka used unmanned aerial vehicles covering nearly 10,000 acres of land with seed bombs.

Hydroponic gardening :

Hydroponic farming is a technique that uses no soil but grows plants in a mixture of water and nutrients and very popular in urban areas and regions with extreme climates. India has seen a dramatic increase in hydroponic farming using 95% less water than traditional farming methods.

See the source image

Carbon recycling and leveraging Biochar

How do we recover the loss of soil organic nutrients and enrich soil ? Replenishing carbon is the key as carbon holds moisture and provides for chemical bonding that allow nutrients to be stored within plants. An alternative approach involves various ways of converting agricultural residues or household wastes into Biochar.

What is Biochar ? Biochar not only reduces need for chemical fertilizers but enriches soil, reduces soil acidity and thus contributes to higher yields from the soil .The many benefits of biochar for both environment and agricultural systems make it a promising tool for regenerative agriculture.

Food for thought :

India has committed to the Paris agreement on climate change and keep global temperature rise ‘below 2 deg C’ , reduce emissions intensity by 33-35% of year 2005 levels by year 2030.The onus is on each one of us to think green, motivate ourselves and our youth to be involved in initiatives that help create ‘greener’ gardens , understand and monitor climate-induced changes in our natural landscapes, support green technologies that adapt to climate change and propagate a healthy and sustainable way of living. Do we want to turn up as a guerilla gardener or try some balcony gardening at home and improve our ‘green-thumb’ skills ?

Oh Deer! Threats to Loktak Lake and the World’s Only Floating National Park

By Lucy Gibson

Loktak lake is considered the lifeline of the State of Manipur. It is the largest natural freshwater lake in the north-eastern region of India and plays an important role in the ecological and economic security of the region. Large populations, both human and non-human, living in and around the lake depend on the lake’s resources for sustenance.

Loktak Lake is famous for phumdis (naturally-occurring masses of floating vegetation formed by the accumulation of organic debris and biomass with soil) which are a specialised habitat for many biota. Phumdis is the most important part of Loktak Lake’s habitat, and its thickness varies from just a few centimetres to two metres thick.

Phumdis rings of Loktak Lake. Source: Third Eye Traveller

These numerous floating lands cover a variety of habitats and therefore they can sustain rich biological diversity. In terms of flora, approximately 233 species of aquatic macrophytes belonging to emergent, submergent, free-floating and rooted floating leaf types have been reported in the lake. A total of 425 species of animals have been recorded including a number of rare animals such as Indian python, sambhar and barking deer. It is the breeding ground of several riverine migratory fishes and continues to be vital as a fish habitat. In addition, Loktak Lake provides refuge to thousands of birds, including migratory birds who have travelled far from different parts of the northern hemisphere beyond the Himalayas.

However, of most interest to this article is the largest of all the phumdis. One which covers an area of 40km2, is home to Keibul Lamjao National Park.

Keibul Lamjao National Park is the only floating national park in the world.

Keibul Lamjao National Park. Source: Indian Tourist-Spots

Located in the southern part of Loktak Lake, Keibul Lamjao National Park is a unique floating wildlife reserve and the only natural home of one of the world’s most endangered deer, the brow-antlered deer (Cervus eldi eldi), locally called Sangai, that was once thought to be extinct.

The Sangai, also called the dancing deer, is has uniquely distinctive antlers which can measure up to 100-110cm in length. The home range of Sangai in the park is confined to 15-20km2, in the south-western part of the lake where the phumdis is thick. The vegetation of phumdi is also critical source of food plants for the Sangai, such as Zizania latifolia and Saccharum munja.

Sangai – Brow-antlered Deer. Source: Our Breathing Planet

A census conducted in 2000 in the park showed that there were just 162 deer. With reports of unbridled poaching, and their home, Keibul Lamjao National Park, at risk, the Sangai population is feared to drop and they find themselves on the IUCN Red List with population numbers decreasing.

The Sangai’s home is at permanent risk of flooding, which can be attributed to the construction of the Ithai Barrage, and the resultant effect on the thickness of phumdis. The construction of Ithai barrage has led to changes in hydrological regimes, thereby affecting ecological processes and functions of the wetland. This has disturbed the natural cycle of floating and sinking of phumdis which is used to maintain the National Park and therefore the growth of vegetation on phumdis and their thickness are decreasing. The concern is that at some stage the phumdis may not be able to support the number of Sangai in Keibul Lamjao National Park.

Additionally, the construction of Ithai barrage has caused the inundation of agricultural lands and the displacement of people from flooded lands. Water quality of Loktak Lake is also decreasing as a result, as pollutants from towns and agrochemicals from farming drain into the water.

The rise of human settlements on the lake contributes to the depletion of phumdis and pollution. Source: Third Eye Traveller

Over time, public awareness, and local support for have evolved for conserving the Sangai and concerted actions have been initiated to stop encroachment of the park and security arrangements have been made to stop poaching. This fact was soberly presented in a children’s magazine called Chandamama, which gave a first-person narrative by the affected Sangai itself.

“‘Thanks to these youngsters who live nearby’, he said. I was happy and felt indebted to the youngsters for saving our lives.

My friend added that these people really loved and respected the Sangai deer. They believed that killing the Sangai was an unpardonable sin. According to a Meitei legend, the Sangai are the link between humans and nature. So, killing us would mean breaking a bond.

My friend informed me that people concerned about animals like us have formed a group. They teach others to protect animals, too.

The news that people are trying their best to save the phumdis, deer like me, and the Loktak Lake, infuses new hope in me. ‘How nice of them!’ I thought”.

Time to Act: Vembanad Lake

By Lucy Gibson

Vembanad Lake is India’s longest freshwater lake. With a lake area covering approximately 250 km2 and with a catchment area covering 14,000 km2, Vembanad Lake, located within the state of Kerala, is included in the list of wetlands of international importance, as defined by the Ramsar Convention for the conservation and sustainable utilisation of wetlands.

Home to more than 20,000 waterfowls, such as spot billed pelican and oriental darter, and Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary, located on the eastern banks, Vembanad Lake is an ornithologist’s paradise. Set within lush woodland, this site is also a favourite to migratory birds (such as the Siberian stork, flycatchers, and larks) who flock in their thousands from miles away. Flying along the Central Asian Flyway, migratory birds travel from their northern breeding grounds, some as far away as Siberia, to their wintering grounds in the Indian subcontinent.

Indian Paradise-Flycatcher. Source: eBird
Great Egrets. Source: Kumarakom Houseboat Club

Additionally, over 1.6 million people live on the banks of the Vembanad Lake and are directly or indirectly dependent on it for their livelihoods. Major livelihood activities of the people living on the shores include agriculture, fishing, tourism, inland navigation, and coir retting.

Fishing in Vembanad Lake. Source: Kumarakom

However, as Vembanad Lake is fed by seven major rivers plus many streams and canals, all of which flow through densely populated urban areas (for example, the major city of Kochi, 12 municipal towns, and approximately 100 villages) the possibility of occurrence of pollutants and microplastics in the lake sediment is high.

Plastics wastes are of significant environmental concern due to their longevity and worldwide distribution. India is one of the major plastic consumers in the world, generating approximately 5.6million tonnes of plastic waste annually. Vembanad Lake is one of the most polluted water bodies in India with microplastics (<5mm in size) ubiquitous and abundant in sediment samples from across this water body in a recent study.

Microplastic contamination poses a grave risk to aquatic fauna. LITTERBASE, a database which presents the distribution of litter across the world, and its interaction with wildlife, notes that ingestion is the most frequently observed interaction, followed by entanglement.  When microplastics are ingested by the benthic fauna and zooplankton, this can trigger the contamination of the whole food web. 

Additionally, a study revealed by the Kerala State Pollution Control Board highlighted the concerning  presence of heavy metals and pesticides in Vembanad Lake, such as zinc, nickel, and copper, as well as benzyl benzoate and benzene propanoic acid which have application in the pharmaceutical industry. This also poses a major health hazard to ecosystems and to humans via trophic transfer.

Vembanad Lake holds a rich population of black clam and other clam species. Annually, 31,650 tonnes of clam are fished from the lake for local consumption, as well as prawns, crabs, and fish which are staples proteins for local residents. Potential microplastic and heavy metal contamination, therefore, becomes critically important, posing threat to the local fauna and the health of local residents through ingesting plastics and toxins.

As a result of houseboat tourism and sewage discharge, the water quality has declined with low dissolved oxygen levels and high biochemical oxygen levels. This has affected aquatic life: as per the latest fish survey report, Vembanad Lake only has 98 fish varieties, when just a decade ago, there were 150 species.

Sewage pipes from houses drain out into the water body. Source: A. Sanesh

Polluted by plastic, various organic and household waste, industrial activities and anthropogenic activities like land reclamation, Vembanad Lake’s incredible environment is at risk.

Concerted efforts in improving and monitoring waste management programs, emphasising the three ‘R’ principle of reduce, reuse, and recycle for plastic management, may reduce the abundance of plastics and microplastics in the lake. Additionally, the findings of Yunus et al.’s study (2020) on the effects of COVID-19 lockdown on surface water quality showed that the pollutant level of Vembanad Lake decreased considerably when industries and boating were suspended. They argue that now is the time to act, based on the Ramsar Convention framework, to reduce the environmental damage to the Vembanad Lake ecosystem.

This Solution is Less Pollution – How Smart Shopping Can Sustain Our Waters

Guest Contribution: Meena Iyer

The impact of Covid-19 and the lockdown it triggered has deeply changed our lives with an increased focus not only on our health and safety but also on the planet and the people around us. This blog highlights how making sustainable choices when we buy products makes us more responsible consumers with a positive impact on the environment around us. 

Cattle are reared to provide meat and dairy with cattle hide(skin) processed in tanneries and used in leather goods production. This blog focuses on the impact of pollution on our water bodies, mainly from tannery waste, and what interesting and bio-friendly alternative leather choices we as consumers have. Our shopping experiences can be enhanced when we know our choices are safe for the earth. The considerations mentioned here are :

  • Leather Traceability 
  • Sustainable Sourcing 
  • Impact of Tannery Waste on Waterbodies 
  • Bio-friendly Alternative Leather 

Traceability of Leather:

Knowing the materials that make our leather products, such as apparel/footwear/handbags or belts, and the ability to trace the raw materials from the slaughterhouse to the finished product is called traceability. This process is fundamental to assess the sustainability of the leather supply chain. Tanning is a process where the hide is treated primarily with chemicals and convert to finished leather. Safe and effective treatment of tannery waste is critical as the effluents are commonly discharged into water bodies, and the potential effects on native water communities can damage the environment.

Sourcing of leather from certified tanneries would ensure environmental best practices in all leather production areas, such as usage of chemicals in the tannery process, wastewater management, related greenhouse gas emissions, and leather traceability. 

Think about this …

India’s lakes, rivers, and water bodies are stretched to breaking point due to multiple factors around the effects of climate change, population surge, and pollution, to name a few. Several positive steps have been taken, and one of the notable ones is the cleaning up of our Ganges river basin. Industrial waste discharged from the nearby cities into the Ganga river constitutes around 20% to its pollution. Due to industrial waste’s toxic and non-biodegradable nature, the negative impact on water is very high.

Analyze from the picture below the threat of pollution to the Ganges from industrial waste(including waste from tanneries), municipal sewage, among others that are hurting India’s lifeline.

Bio-friendly Alternative Leather: 

Did you know that several leather-intensive Fashion, Automotive, and Furniture companies embrace the ‘away from the cow’ approach and look at environmentally friendly options? 

Retail/Fashion/Apparel Industry:

  • Currently, the most widely used leather alternatives are plastic materials. PVC is the most commonly used alternative due to its low prices, but it is an environmentally damaging as plastic releases toxins throughout its lifecycle. Mushroom Leather is made from edible mushrooms cultivated on recycled sawdust and, at the end-of-life can be fully compostable. Pineapple Leather made from wasted pineapple leaves are not only an extra source of income for the farmer, but the residue left behind from the waste is used as fertilizer back into the pineapple fields. Bio-Fabricated Leather is an alternative, and so is metal-free tanning, as the conventional tanning process has potential carcinogenic effects due to the usage of chemicals like chrome.

Automotive Industry:

  • Leather car interiors are gradually losing momentum in the global automotive and transportation industry. More vehicle manufacturers are opting for synthetic fabrics as alternatives for leather materials, both due to a decrease in leather supply and lower costs. Car manufacturers are looking into sustainable leather operations and supply chains, mirroring the apparel industry’s major trend.

Furniture Industry:

  • For the most part, Furniture companies are still embracing the traditional leather business, again focusing on sustainable leather supply chains and operations. Some innovations in the space, such as Enspire Leather, which makes leather from scraps and can recycle unused leather it sells, has partnered with La-Z-Boy and Timberland to create more environmentally friendly products.

Food for thought:

Though one may argue cattle hide is just a by-product of the meat industry and has excellent durability, provides maximum comfort as finished leather, and is cost-effective than the bio-friendly leather options, it is imperative for us to think about the social, health, and environmental impact due to usage of leather. Is this a sustainable solution for our waters? So, as informed consumers, we should be smart, look at eco-friendly options, and think before we buy. Our future generations will thank us for our sustainable choices that we make today.