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Climate Change and Plastic Pollution Threaten Soil Fertility and Food Security

Addressing the problem of plastic waste and its impact on the environment and health is of utmost importance.
by TNN Editor - 18 Oct, 2023 1624
climate-change-and-plastic-pollution-threaten-soil-fertility-and-food-security

Naheed Jehangir

Rahim Khan, a resident of Umarzai village in Charsadda district, laments the changing landscape of his 40 years in agriculture. His family has cultivated the same land for generations, tending to orchards bearing potatoes, apricots, and pears.

They once cultivated a variety of crops, from corn and wheat to an assortment of vegetables. However, over the years, there has been a noticeable decline in crop yields and the orchards have withered. Despite the introduction of modern tools and machinery, the situation has worsened, leaving Rahim Khan deeply concerned about the looming threat of food scarcity in the future.

Similarly, Fatima from Peshawar observes the soaring prices of seasonal vegetables. She highlights tomatoes, traditionally grown in warmer regions, as a prime example. Historically, they were more affordable in the summer compared to winter. This year, however, the prices have skyrocketed, reaching as high as Rs 80 or 100 per kilogram. The availability of fruits once considered local specialties has dwindled. While they can still be found in select places, the steep prices put them out of reach for many low-income individuals.

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Reflecting on the past, Rafiq, a 70-year-old resident of Badaber in Peshawar, known as Rafiq Kaka, notes that even seasonal vegetables have become a luxury. Inflation plays a significant role in rising costs, but the impact of climate change is equally significant. Optimal crop growth hinges on the right balance of water, temperature, and timing. Fluctuations in temperature and erratic rainfall patterns disrupt these delicate conditions, resulting in reduced crop yields. Consequently, the scarcity of vegetables and fruits has caused prices to surge in the market.

Rafiq emphasizes that the declining rainfall also has detrimental effects on soil fertility, contributing to the degradation and shrinkage of orchards and agricultural land. Since agriculture heavily relies on soil fertility, this poses a significant challenge.

The impact of climate change on soil fertility raises questions. In this regard, Dr. Akmal Khan, the former Director of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Climate Change and Chairman of Peshawar University's Agriculture Department, provides insights.

Dr. Khan explains that climate change has disrupted the rainfall cycle, with more changes anticipated. Summers will witness increased rainfall, while the winter rains are expected to diminish. Over the past 10 to 20 years, drought conditions typically persist from September to December. This year, September saw some rain, ushering in the winter season slightly earlier. Climate change also causes people to rely on fans until November. When rains are insufficient, crops are irrigated using tube wells or canals. However, natural rainfall has a unique advantage as it permeates the surrounding soil, providing essential fertilization. This difference between rainwater and canal/tube well water is crucial for soil fertility.

Dr. Akmal Khan underscores that 85 to 95 percent of all crops, vegetables, and livestock feed rely on water. Without fertile water or soil, yields suffer. Inadequate rainfall poses a significant threat to crops. The soil in the region contains only one percent organic matter, even in highly fertile lands, primarily due to the extensive use of urea. This depletion of organic matter is detrimental to crop production.

Furthermore, Dr. Akmal Khan notes that climate change, primarily alterations in wind patterns that raise soil temperatures, indirectly influences soil temperature—a critical factor for seed germination and growth. Changes in soil temperature, resulting from climate change, impact the timing of crop growth. These changes offer new opportunities to cultivate certain crops and vegetables in areas where they previously couldn't grow. Crop growth is naturally adapted to maintain the root-to-stem ratio, and fluctuations in air or soil temperature throughout a plant's life cycle affect this ratio and consequently, crop yields and quality.

To address these challenges, Dr. Akmal Khan recommends government planning to minimize rainwater wastage. Rainwater should be stored and used for irrigation when crops require ample water. Given that 70% of water is used in agriculture for soil fertility, this strategy is crucial for sustaining crop production.

Dr. Akmal Khan emphasizes the need for government intervention to address the availability of organic matter content in soil. Additionally, he suggests that a solution should be implemented for segregating household waste, particularly plastic. This separation would involve isolating plastics from natural materials that can be utilized for urea production.

Dr. Akmal Khan points out that our waste predominantly consists of plastic materials. The separation and recycling of plastics would have a positive impact on soil fertility.

He also highlights the excessive use of plastic, a critical issue today. Plastic waste, often found littered in fields, can break down into tiny nanoparticles that can affect fruits and vegetables, especially root crops. These nanoparticles can enter the food chain, posing risks to human and animal health. Furthermore, plastic waste is detrimental to soil fertility. Addressing the problem of plastic waste and its impact on the environment and health is of utmost importance.