Soil degradation: A matter of concern

“Where is soil? We have already poisoned it,” a veteran environment journalist pointed at the present crisis that haunts soil, the basis for all life forms on earth. The point in discussion was how human activities like deforestation and urbanisation have accelerated land degradation.

Mining of natural resources, waste dumping and chemical-intensive agriculture are some of the activities that have put soils under pressure. The nature of mining process leads to a cha-in of actions – deforestation, soil and water contamination, loss of biodiversity – resulting in soil degradation and destruction.

While extraction of resources and related activities make soil lifeless, every gram of unsegregated and untreated waste we dispose is harmful too. That the smell of rotten garbage has begun haunting city dwellers after  villages in the periphery – which are the cities’ dumping yards – started overflowing and became unmanageable leading to health problems, indicates the gravity of the situation.

Agriculture is another factor that influences soil biota. Deforestation to bring more land under cultivation, mono-cropping and chemical-intensive farming practices have led to land degradation.

Though soil constitutes the foundation of agricultural sustainability and healthy ecosystem function, it has been ignored for long. We should understand that only fertile and productive soils can produce wholesome, nutritious food.

As per an estimate of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), more than 23 per cent of world’s agricultural land has become non-arable. The problem is more acute in India.

According to estimates of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, about 120.40 mha of the total geographical area of 328.73 mha is affected by various levels of land degradation. About 5.3 billion tonnes of soil get eroded every year. Of this, 29 per cent is permanently lost to the sea, 10 per cent is deposited in reservoirs reducing their storage capacity. With this, about 54 lakh tonnes of soil nutrients get washed away.

At the same time, indiscriminate use of chemical inputs and water has made soil saline. Increased silt and weeds due to the overuse of chemicals has led to the creation of dead zones in rivers and seas.

But, all is not lost. Many individuals and organisations are trying to revive soil. One such effort, which has now gained momentum in the country, is legume farming. Farmers, who have realised that humus (orga-nic matter) enhances soil quality and improves plant immunity, have opted for green manure to improve soil health and thus fertility. This practice reduces the growth of weeds, infestation of diseases, and enhances the organic component of soil.

It also raises microbial activity of soil, increases the water holding capacity and reduces salinity. Stress on crop diversity, proper mulching, and use of appropriate crops play an important role in nourishing soil. Farmers have realised that cover crops help build a balanced ecosystem and develop the right kind of micro-climate for the plants.

Soil cannot be looked at in isolation, regardless of all the problems that are linked to it. We should connect it with food, water, climate, biodiversity and life. Soil also contributes to climate change mitigation.

The present poor state of soil has also forced the research fraternity to shift its focus – from improved yield and increased varieties to the conservation of natural resources.That 2015 is the International Year of Soils brings more significance to the World Soil Day being observed on December 5 (today). The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN, under the theme “Soils: a solid ground for life” this year, is making all efforts to create awareness am-ong people about the multiples roles soils play to support life.

On this occasion, the Status of the World’s Soil Resources Report, the first ever global assessment of soils and soil change was released at the FAO headquarters, Rome. The report concludes that the majority of the world’s soil resources are in only fair, poor or very poor condition.

Yes, it’s time we link granites that make beautiful kitchen tops and attractive flooring to acres of barren lands. It is important for the government and people to understand the significance of healthy soils to achieve food security and nutritional goals and work towards preserving and restoring sustainable eco-systems to ensure soil revival.

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