World Soil Day: Time is now to save India's soil

Soil underpins many national crises we face—from water to the environment to health to rural poverty. As a nation, we need massive, radical action and a stance to improve the health of the soil

Updated: Dec 6, 2022 10:51:43 AM UTC
Image: Shutterstock

With crisis after crisis hitting the headlines—from water to climate change to the state of our health—it’s difficult to digest yet another one breathing down our necks. But India’s latest ticking clock, the health of its soil, is begging for our national attention.

Whilst it is certainly not a ‘sexy’ subject, and perhaps difficult to understand how it directly relates to most of us—residing in cities and barely ever getting our hands dirty in the soil—declining soil health is the most pressing issue we are facing, in India and globally. After all, the soil is where food begins, and surely we can all relate to that.

As the primary ingredient in food production, without it, we face yet another era where our food security is decimated.

Secondly, soil underpins many of the other national crises we face—from water to the environment to health to rural poverty—if we can turn things around with our soil, we will see ripple effects across these other grave challenges as well.

What’s the problem with our soil?

Soil erosion and degradation in India are rife.

Whilst the Green Revolution catapulted us out of the grips of famine, its long-term practices unwittingly led to the rampant use of chemical fertilisers, monocropping, heavy irrigation, the use of bio-engineered high-yielding seeds, and many other unsustainable agricultural practices. The result is degraded soil—contaminated, stripped of its carbon, and depleted of all the precious nutrients, microbes and natural goodness so vital to delivering bumper crops for farmers, and providing wholesome nutritious food for our ‘bursting at the seams’ population.

Additionally, soil erosion is eating away our topsoil. The culprits? Wind and water—with water contributing to 90 percent of the problem. India’s heavy monsoonal rains detach soil particles and generate run-off water, moving over the soil surface and taking everything with it. The problem is exacerbated by rampant deforestation, leaving soil ‘naked’ and without the protection of vegetation, which impedes erosion in several ways.

It’s an alarming situation, with scientists estimating that with current rates of soil degradation and erosion, we’ve only got about 50 years of topsoil left. Soil is a finite resource and we are simply running out of soil and time.

It’s time to rethink our food systems

At the root of the matter is our unsustainable agricultural system.

As the population continues to grow, dietary preferences change, and farmers struggle to lift themselves out of poverty, there are increased pressures on our limited land resources. But our current methods of enhancing yields are digging our own grave on the soil front. We need to revolutionise farming, veering away from the application of inorganic inputs to boost yield and reverting to natural or organic farming (once prevalent in India) that works in harmony with the overall environment.

It requires a massive, sustained effort to rewire our farmers and orient them in this direction. It is a challenging task, given their remote location, subsistence existence, often risk-averse nature and lack of education. But as a country, we need to take massive action to generate a more sustainable food system—one that contributes to food security and nutrition for all in a way that safeguards the economic, social, cultural, and environmental base of agriculture.

Soil – At the root of things

When you dig into the matter, you begin to understand the critical importance of soil in the grand scheme of things, and the fact that it lies at the root of many of our most pressing problems. In the state of India’s health, the environment, food security, climate change, and the ever-looming water crises, soil plays a critical role in everything.

Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of freshwater use in India, with most farmers flood-irrigating crops. Whilst this practice in itself contributes to soil sodicity and the leaching of nutrients into underground aquifers when soil is degraded, that water is wasted. It trickles right past the root system of crops, defeating the very purpose of its application in the first place.

The relationship between soil and human health cannot be ignored. Modern seed varieties have half the micronutrients of older seed strains, with agribusiness giants breeding high-yield seeds that can survive on degraded soils. But soil is a major source of nutrients in our food, also acting as a natural filter to remove contaminants from water. Instead, modern agriculture is increasing the amount of heavy metals, chemicals, and pathogens in soil, negatively impacting human health.

The role of soil in tackling climate change cannot be ignored. Accelerated soil erosion removes organic matter from the soil and leads to the emission of greenhouse gases. In contrast, improved agriculture practices can remove carbon dioxide and methane from the atmosphere.

Turning things around

It’s not too late to turn things around—but only if we act now. The solutions are at our fingertips if only we can bring the urgency of this situation to the fore. The state of soils can be improved with better agricultural practices. Farmers—both the victims and the perpetrators—lie at the heart of the problem and the solution.

By empowering farmers to better understand the state of their soil via regular soil testing, they can adopt better practices to improve soil health. With the right information, they can make informed decisions to increase organic content and minimise the application of chemical fertilisers. The adoption of organic or natural farming—once so prevalent in India’s ancient agricultural history—is the need of the hour. Whilst there are many hopeful efforts across the country, taking an ‘organic’ approach to the kind of ‘food production revolution’ we require, will not work.

Also Read: Agritech startups have arrived. What will it take to scale impact and profits?

Here as a nation, we need massive, radical action and a stance to lead at the fore on this pressing issue. India’s current unsustainable food production systems require transformation, and for that, we need widespread promotion of an alternative path for farmers. One where soil health is protected, food is more nutritious, water is optimised, and ecosystems are nurtured—so that farming, and the precious soil it relies upon for the production of food and fibre, survive to meet the needs of generations to come.

The writer is a CEO of Ambuja Cement Foundation.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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