Efficiency the End Goal

 Dr. Ranil Senanayake explores the significance of planning for inflexible thresholds in agriculture

In layman’s terms, sustainable agriculture refers to food security. The Chairman of EarthRestoration Dr. Ranil Senanayake defines this as the ability to produce optimal crops from a plot of land over time.

“The word of the hour is ‘optimal’; there is a difference between planning for optimal output and achieving maximum output,” he explains.

He believes that allocating resources to produce maximum output introduces the risk of impeding productivity and damaging ecosystems. Targeting optimal output could help identify a balance within systems to ensure stability and sustainability.

Ecologist Sir Gordon Conway defined sustainability as “the ability of a system to maintain productivity in spite of a major disturbance such as [those] caused by intensive stress or a large perturbation.”

Senanayake points out that every living being on Planet Earth can be classified as an agent with fixed thresholds – i.e. the minimum or maximum level of a condition that can be withstood. For example, the human body can endure certain temperatures – the lower bound leads to hypothermia and intense heat causes heatstroke.

He elucidates that life operates between fixed thresholds but “our future is decided by an economic system – a model that has similar attributes but is not quite the same.”

“An economic system lacks fixed thresholds,” Senanayake explains, noting: “They can be moved either way by means of discounts and other financial instruments. The drawback of the economic development process is that a system with flexible thresholds is used to plan for one with inflexible thresholds.”

He weighs in on the debate regarding how what’s bad for life may be what is needed to improve the economy, stressing that we must identify the ideal model with a sustainable balance.

Nowadays, new production methods use 10 times more energy to produce the same volume of edible energy. Traditionally, half a kilocalorie of input is needed to generate a kilocalorie of output. Senanayake notes that “a minimum of six kilocalories is needed in the modern context, all from fossil sources.”

Fossil fuels are considered to be the main source of energy, be it to operate machinery or produce fertilisers and pesticides. Given this scenario, withdrawing subsidies for these sources should be considered.

At the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference, the Sri Lankan delegation presented a position paper highlighting the inevitable dangers of climate change, noting the operating temperature of chlorophyll is 37°C.

In a context where the temperature is on the brink of surpassing fixed thresholds, agricultural productivity will be severely impacted. “This is the reality that many nations are still unprepared to face,” Senanayake warns.

Soil ecosystem research, community centred production and using microorganisms are examples of responses demonstrated by Cuba, following the embargo imposed by the US. The population rallied and discovered endemic systems of production and protection to maintain farming activities.

For instance, farmers planted the roots of crops that were impregnated with the ideal microorganisms to inoculate the soil around plantations.

Additionally, using colloids to provide essential nutrients to plants; radiation as a means to increase soil ecosystems’ efficiency and effectiveness; nanotechnology to apply fertilisers and pesticides to improve crops; and developing new hedgerow architecture in the agricultural landscape, to facilitate a certain level of control over the harmful effects of climate change are a few options that could be considered by countries.