Who would have thought that the humble soil beneath our feet, was the lynchpin for tackling many of the national conundrums we face in India! From farmer sustainability, to national food security; the water crisis and climate change – the health of our soil plays a pivotal role in them all!
Sadly, modern agricultural practices largely orient around the application of synthetic and chemical pesticides and fertilisers – adversely impacting the soil health & productivity and doing untold damage to our finite soil.
As a result, farmers are both the perpetrators and the beneficiaries when it comes to the state of soil health. It is therefore vital to work closely with them to see, not only the damage being done by current agricultural practices, but the benefits that await them if only they can revert to more traditional and natural methods of farming.
The State of India’s Soil
The truth of the matter is, that India’s soil has become so contaminated, stripped of its carbon, and depleted of all the precious nutrients, microbes and natural goodness, that we are facing a situation where the soil productivity required to grow food, will literally, run out. Scientists estimate that with current rates of soil degradation (along with erosion) we’ve only got about 50 years of topsoil left.
Depleting organic matter in soils is a grave concern globally, as it negatively impacts crop productivity (due to depleted nutrients required for growing crops), and reduces moisture holding capacity of soil. It is perhaps one of the most pressing issues of our time – one that receives very little ‘press time.’
What Needs to Be Done to Improve Soil Health?
Healthy soil is a blessing for any country, as it can alone improve crop productivity and profitability for today and generations to come. Firstly, it is important to know what the soil needs, as its need differs from region to region. Location specific interventions need to be identified, designed and implemented to build soil health, oriented around five principles for soil enrichment:
1. Increasing Organic Content of Soil – Practices like mixing well decomposed Farm Yard Manure or compost, increasing the use of vermicompost, mixing crop residues in the soil and reducing tillage operation all help increase organic content levels in the soil.
2. Soil Mulching – Growing inter crops or using previous crops as mulch, helps to retain moisture for a long time and also promotes nutrient recycling which benefits soil.
3. Optimising Soil Structure to Facilitate Porosity, Air & Water Flow – Adding crop residue, Farm Yard Manure, vermicompost or silt, along with low or zero tillage optimises the structure of soil so that both water and air flow more easily. Also reducing the use of heavy machinery helps to maintain or improve the soil structure and also increases the water holding capacity of soils.
4. Optimising Water Resources – Improved soils will help to reduce the water requirement, and sustain crops during times of water scarcity. By increasing soil moisture and adtoping efficient irrigation practices farmers can reduce water use and decrease the load on water supply bodies.
5. Adoption of Natural or Organic Farming Practices – Reducing the consumption of chemical fertiliser and pesticides helps in soil regeneration, enriching it with essential microorganisms. These microorganisms play a crucial role in decomposing organic matter, thereby enhancing nutrient availability for crops. Embracing natural farming practices, such as harnessing biofertilizers, composting, maintaining crop diversity, minimising soil disturbance, and recycling nutrients, goes a long way in fostering soil regeneration – leading to improved soil health and crop productivity.
Farmer Welfare – Riding on the Back of Soil Health
Although the intensification of agriculture led to enhanced food production in India, it has unwittingly led to a decline in productivity, environmental health, and soil quality – resulting in impaired ecosystem services and also a loss in overall yield and profitability.
With so many Indian farmers being small, marginal landholders, crop productivity can be the difference between sitting above or below the poverty line for many. Whilst research highlights a direct correlation between soil health and crop yields, resulting in gains for each farmer, opportunities also lie in waiting in the area of carbon credits for soil organic carbon – providing an alternative income stream for farmers.
Corporate interest in reducing and offsetting greenhouse gas emissions has grown exponentially. With more than one-third of the world’s largest publicly traded companies now committed to net-zero goals, carbon credit offsets provide an avenue for them to achieve these targets.
Soil carbon credit as a ‘nature based’ offset, has already begun to gain traction in countries like the US and Australia, however, there are many challenges that impede its take-off around the world. Despite this, it continues to provide an exciting opportunity for the future of India’s ‘hand to mouth’ farmers who, by reverting to more natural and regenerative farming practices, and improving the health of their soil (and crop productivity), can potentially earn via ‘carbon farming’.
Soil health is not only the foundation for farmer sustainability and food security, but also provides a much needed ‘carbon sink’ which is the need of the hour to manage India’s carbon footprint. The importance of carbon sinks like soil, plants and the ocean, has never been greater. The Earth’s soil absorbs roughly a quarter of all human emissions each year, but it remains under threat from increased demand for food production, pollution and climate change.
Lastly, soil of good health produces food of good nutritional quality which ultimately leads to good human health – something we can all relate to. It is time to prioritise soil health – for the healthy food we eat, for our farming brothers and for the future sustainability of the country.
Views of the author are personal and do not necessarily represent the website’s views.
Chandrakant Kumbhani is the Chief Operating Officer leading the community development interventions at Ambuja Foundation. He has been working with ACF for the last 11 years and has over 20+ years of experience in the development sector. His interest areas are water, agriculture-based livelihoods and community-based institutions.