Israel Environment Bulletin Spring 1996-5756, Vol. 19, No. 2

SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURAL DEVELOPMENT

by Prof. Uri Mingelgrin
Chief Scientist, Ministry of the Environment

Introduction

Agriculture has a significant impact on environmental quality. On the one hand, it links the farmer to the natural environment, protects cultivated "green" areas from encroachment by urbanization and industrialization, and provides an environment-friendly method of disposing such wastes as the organic component of municipal waste, sludge and effluents. On the other hand, modern agriculture can cause irreversible damage to the environment. Improper use of pesticides, careless use of effluents or saline water for irrigation, poor cultivation and uncontrolled grazingall are examples of agricultural activity which may adversely impact the environment.

Negative agricultural practices may lead to reduced soil fertility, damage to flora and fauna, increased runoff, and contamination of groundwater and surface water sources. To reap the fruits of modern agriculture while avoiding its dangers, a sustainable development policy for agriculture must be formulated, which will include the following elements.

Minimization of Pesticide Use

Integrated pest management, which integrates biological control, proper soil cultivation, seed recycling and use of pest and disease-resistant species along with chemical pesticides, should be promoted. Two reports have been published in Israel on the subject: one, published in 1990, on integrated pest control; the other, published in 1994, on reducing methyl bromide use. The recommendations of both reports were adopted by the Ministry of Agriculture and should be adopted as national policy.

Sophisticated and efficient use of chemical pesticides, by such means as controlled release or efficient dispersion systems, should be an integral part of sustainable agriculture. Farmers should be encouraged to adopt pest control methods which reduce reliance on toxic chemicals and support the development of durable species, selective toxicity pesticides, and irrigation and pesticide application methods with minimal risk. In addition, the possibility of imposing levies on farmers or consumers using conventional pesticides to compensate for the environmental damage caused by these toxic materials should be considered. Transferring the cost of the damage to the polluter or user will serve as an economic incentive to switch to environment-friendly methods of pest control.

Agricultural Use of Recycled Water and Waste

Effluent reuse for irrigation is not only a solution (if only partial) to Israel’s water scarcity problem, but is also the most environment-friendly solution to the problem of effluent disposal. This, of course, is conditional on the level of effluent treatment required to make effluents suitable for agricultural use. Efforts should be invested in adapting irrigation methods to use with recovered water and in formulating regulations and guidelines for management methods which will ensure proper irrigation practices.

Potable or marginal water should be used efficiently and in a manner which will prevent environmental damage. Sustainable agriculture should concentrate on technologies which make water use more efficient, such as intensive greenhouse agriculture, rain-fed irrigation and more efficient irrigation methods.

The organic component of household waste or sludge may provide an important additive to agricultural lands, after compostation or other appropriate treatment.

Desertification

Desertification is one of the major dangers confronting the world today. In many countries, and especially in areas adjacent to deserts, soil fertility has decreased while desertification has increased. In Israel, desertification may present a potential danger if means are not taken to promote proper agricultural methods. Prevention of desertification should be a national goal, which may be attained through the development and adoption of suitable crops and agricultural methods, as well as through afforestation and soil reclamation.

Summary

The costs of achieving sustainable agriculture are much lower than the costs of repairing the damages caused by improper planning and implementation. Implementation of the proposed program on sustainable agricultural development is an issue of national importance, not only from the environmental aspect but from the economic aspect. In order to fulfill this program, steps must be taken to encourage sustainable agricultural practices, through such means as education, guidance and government incentives, on the one hand, and investments in the improvement of technologies and management methods, on the other hand.