The eco-friendly way of farming

MA Obaydullah and Muhammad Shafiullah | Published: July 06, 2018 22:43:20


Spinach seedlings grown with (from left) chemical fertilizer, powdered horse manure, vermicompost, and nothing

Agriculture plays an important role in the economic development of Bangladesh, and farmers have pursued a traditional system in agriculture for quite a long time or since time immemorial, so to speak. However, in course of time, green revolution emerged in our country in the 1960s with the slogan of “produce more food”. Within a couple of years, farmers received “package technologies” of HYV (high yielding varieties) seed-fertiliser-irrigation. With the adoption of these technologies, farmers started to use chemicals (pesticides and artificial fertilisers), and they began to have more production. Most of the newly-developed inputs and technologies were subsidised, even for free for some period at that time. After a couple of years, farmers as well as policymakers were being warned of significant yield reduction and large-scale negative impact on human beings, domestic and wild animals, and the environment, such as degradation of soil quality, contamination of groundwater, increased costs of production, health hazards, etc. And yet the use and the prices of chemicals (pesticides and artificial fertilisers) are increasing in every passing year. Therefore, questions arise on how long the process of exploiting land and other natural resources by using chemicals (pesticides and artificial fertilizers) should continue. We must find an alternative way before the situation goes beyond control.

In practice, agricultural farming in Bangladesh is caught in a vicious circle because of the use of chemicals (pesticides and artificial fertilisers). The major barriers that have been found in this small study are as follows: a government philosophy that organic farming has a negative impact on food security, excessive promotion of hybrid seed in the name of the availability of good quality seeds, allocation of budget to subsidise the cost of chemical inputs, insufficiency of organic inputs, farmers’ poor knowledge, increase in the area under HYV, sales promotion by dealers and companies of pesticides and artificial fertilisers, regulation of pesticide marketing, lack of consumers’ awareness, lack of media campaign, problems of organic product marketing, etc.

Still there are positive points that make us hopeful that the organic method of farming is possible in Bangladesh. Researchers have pointed out that organic agriculture could be a way to food security for small and marginal farmers as well as large-scale consumers. Now, it is also realised at the policy level that “we are at the crossroads to review whether the current use of agro chemicals is appropriate.”

This piece of short study will focus on “vermicompost” in an attempt at exploring ways to protect natural agricultural resource base from further degradation and ensure long-term sustainability in the agricultural system. With the concept of sustainability of agriculture, most developed countries are practising “organic farming”, where strict standards and regulations are maintained. Developing countries have been pursuing organic farming for local consumption as well as for export, and farmers are trying to reduce the indiscriminate use of chemicals (pesticides and artificial fertilisers) in agriculture that is very often described as “eco-friendly” farming.

The Palashipara Samaj Kalyan Samity, a national non-government organisation (NGO) currently working across the districts of Meherpur and Kushtia for over three decades, has taken an initiative to set up model farms towards the “eco-friendly” model of agriculture so that real farmers can get inspired in this sector and pursue “eco-friendly” farming processes on their own plots of land. Let’s take vermicompost as one of those processes that are being cultured by the NGO in the region.

Vermicompost 

Vermicompost uses earthworms to turn organic waste into very high-quality compost. This is probably the best way of composting kitchen waste. Adding small amounts of wet kitchen scraps to a large compost pile in the garden day by day can disrupt the decomposition process so that the compost is never really done. But it works just fine with vermicompost.

As quoted by John Murray (1881) in The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms with Observations on their Habits, Charles Darwin says all the fertile areas of this planet have at least once passed through the bodies of earthworms.     

Worm casts — the best soil there is        

Vermicompost consists mostly of worm casts (faeces) plus some decayed organic matter. In ideal conditions worms can eat at least their own weight of organic matter in a day. It seems they don’t actually eat it — they consume it, sure enough, but what they derive their nourishment from is all the micro-organisms that are really eating it. And yet – a mystery! — their casts contain eight times as many micro-organisms as their feed! And these are the micro-organisms that best favour healthy plant growth. And the casts don’t contain any disease pathogens — pathogenic bacteria are reliably killed in the worms’ gut. This is one of the great benefits of vermicomposting.

Worm casts also contain five times more nitrogen, seven times more phosphorus, and 11 times more potassium than ordinary soil, the main minerals needed for plant growth, but the large numbers of beneficial soil micro-organisms in worm casts have at least as much to do with it. The casts are also rich in humic acids, which condition the soil, have a perfect pH balance, and contain plant growth factors similar to those found in seaweed. There’s nothing better to put in your garden!

Worms seem to be the great promoters of vegetation, which would proceed but lamely without them, by boring, perforating, and loosening the soil, and rendering it pervious to rains and the fibres of plants, by drawing straws and stalks of leaves and twigs into it, and, most of all, by throwing up such infinite numbers of lumps of earth called worm-casts, which, being their excrement, is a fine manure for grain or grass.

These are not the usual big burrowing earthworms that live in garden soil. Described as red worms, tiger worms, brandlings, angle worms, manure worms, or red wrigglers, they occupy a different ecological niche, living near the surface where there are high concentrations of organic matter, such as on pastures or in leaf mould, or under compost piles.

Two breeds are used in vermicomposting: Eisenia foetida or Lumbricus rubellas. Many garden centres now supply them, and in most countries, they can be bought by mail order from worm farms. Some sellers advertise special high-performance breeds or specially developed hybrids, but do not believe them – they will be one of these two breeds. There is no such thing as a hybrid worm.

1,000 worms (1 lb) will be required to start a worm box, maybe twice that if we want to process our garden wastes too — they breed very fast in the right conditions but starting with more will give the system a good start.

Worm populations double each month. In ideal conditions they can reproduce much faster than that: 1 lb of worms can increase to 1,000 lbs (one million worms) in a year, but in working conditions 1 lb will produce a surplus of 35 lbs in a year, because hatchlings and capsules (cocoons or eggs) are usually lost when the vermicompost is harvested.

Mature redworms make two or three capsules a week, each producing two or three hatchlings after about three weeks. The hatchlings are tiny white threads about half an inch long, but they grow fast, reaching sexual maturity in four to six weeks and making their own capsules. Three months later they are grandparents!

This rapid breeding rate means the worm population easily adjusts to conditions in the worm box according to the feed supply and the proportion of worm casts to feed and bedding — their casts are slightly toxic to them, and as the box gets “full” they’ll either leave, if there’s anywhere for them to go, or they’ll die off.

This is an important consideration — if we only want the vermicompost for the garden it does not much matter if the worms die off, as long as we will have kept some aside to set a new box going. It also makes it easier to harvest the castings, and we will have a higher proportion of pure castings.

But if we want to produce excess worms as well, to extend our worm system, for sale as fishing bait, or to feed to poultry or fish (they really thrive on worm-feed), we will need to separate them from the vermicompost before the proportion of castings gets too high.

Bangladesh has seen the horrors of unsustainable farming practices, such as industrial monoculture as well as heavy use of artificial fertilisers, pesticides and preservatives (mainly formalin). This has led to substantial costs imposed on human health – including chronic diseases as well as reproductive sterility – as well as the health of the economy – healthcare costs, loss of labour productivity, import costs (of chemicals) – and the environment – loss of soil fertility, pollution and deforestation.  Increasingly, consumers are aware of these risks posed by food and industrial farming practices. Environmental degradation, and in general climate change, is slated to be the biggest challenge humanity has hitherto faced. This problem is more acute in climate-stressed regions of the world, especially Bangladesh. While Bangladesh’s historical contribution to global environmental degradation has been miniscule, the country must now do its part to preserve, maintain and protect the environment within its borders.

‘Eco-friendly’ farming holds a key to achieving this commitment. Vermicompost currently cultured by the Palashipara Samaj Kalyan Samity provides a glistening case study of the viability and success of such green farming practices in Bangladesh. Vermicompost rivals commercial fertilisers in terms of nutrients and represents a low-cost, environmentally sustainable process of improving soil fertility as well as recycling of organic matter (including food leftovers/waste). It will revolutionise Bangladesh’s agriculture sector and allow farmers to reduce their costs and improve profits. In fact, farming practices in Bengal have historically been in tune with the environment. Green farming will allow Bangladeshi farmers to return to their roots. In addition, vermicompost, along with other ‘organic farming’ practices have the potential to reduce Bangladesh’s fertiliser import costs and save a substantial amount of the country’s precious foreign currency. In conclusion, green farming practices will benefit Bangladesh’s agriculture, public health, balance of payments and the like, as well as improve the growth and health of the overall economy.

Dr. M. A. Obaydullah is a consultant at the Asia Foundation. Email: obaydullah@gmail.com.

Dr Muhammad Shafiullah is an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Nottingham Malaysia. His research interests include environmental and natural resources economics. Email: shafiullahm15@gmail.com.

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