Soil health crisis: Urgent reforms needed for sustainable agriculture

Scientists believe healthy soil is both crucial and critical for achieving sustainable development goals (SDGs).
Last Updated : 05 July 2023, 20:01 IST

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India’s soil conditions have not triggered any debate on news channels; war, politics, and elections are more important subjects (especially during prime time). But the country’s political cognoscenti need to regularly keep discussions on the health of the nation’s soil in the headlines, because healthy soil is critical to the subcontinent’s human health. This is not all.

Scientists believe healthy soil is both crucial and critical for achieving sustainable development goals (SDGs), never mind New Delhi’s self-sufficiency in food production.

So how does one analyse key features of Indian soils and assess the government’s preparedness to meet soil-linked SDGs?

The soil’s nutrient status needs to be checked through its soil organic carbon (SOC) content, and here lies the biggest problem. In India, the organic content in the soil is inordinately low—almost around 0.54%—so it is safe to conclude that the majority of Indian soils are low in major and micronutrients.

Let me toss some figures here. Research reports suggest over 70% of soils in India suffer either from soil acidity or soil alkalinity. Worse, almost one third of the country’s total geographical area is fairly close to land degradation. And this has happened because several plant nutrients have turned malnutritious. India now genuinely needs new technology that can push efficiency levels in all kinds of farms, both big and small.

And there is a lot more to be done.

The government has taken a few measures: the national soil health card mission is firmly in place amidst a rapidly changing agricultural research ecosystem. Scientists are promoting smart and remote sensing, even robotics, to help farmers. Bhoochetana, the unique public-private partnership, is setting a unique trend to help farmers become self-reliant. But this is still falling short.

A little over half of the soil in India is affected by varying degrees of degradation because of heavy chemical and fertiliser usage, poor irrigation management, and some extractive agricultural practices. All of this, in turn, has affected three prominent nutrients in the soil: potassium, phosphorus, and nitrogen, all of which are required for healthy vegetation. On farms, plant and animal residues decompose to produce macronutrients required for the growth of vegetation. And then, a healthy mix of nutrients improves the quality of agricultural products. This is necessary because India is also the 13th most water-stressed country in the world, with 256 of its 700 districts exceeding the safe limits for groundwater extraction.

Whose job is it to maintain such standards?

In India, 55% of the soil has always been low in nitrogen. And then, 42% are deficient in phosphorus, and 44% are deficient in organic carbon. Farmers often get worried about the low nutrient quality of their farms and heavily use chemical fertilisers. India is the world’s second-largest producer and consumer of fertilisers after China, and the farmers are always over the moon when their crop yield increases. What they do not notice is that the fertilisers toxify the soil and groundwater. In fact, nitrogen pollution in surface and groundwater in India has reached alarming levels, but the nation just cannot shift away from chemical-based agriculture. In the green fields of Punjab, a state that triggered the Green Revolution, repeated studies have proved there is very low nitrogen content. Three-quarters of Punjab has overexploited its groundwater resources. Yet, the state government has not taken any major action.

There’s pressure to increase the productivity of existing cultivated areas. Everyone wants to grow more, and they routinely misuse the soils, creating total fatigue due to the over-mining of nutrients.

The New Delhi-based National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) says India’s annual soil loss is about 15.35 tonnes per ha, resulting in a loss of almost 9 million tonnes of nutrients and crop productivity. This is not all. Major rainfed crops routinely suffer an annual production loss of 13.4 million tonnes due to water erosion. It amounts to a loss of Rs 205.32 billion, according to NAAS.

There are more crisis zones. Waterlogging is one of them. It causes salinisation and damages soil, resulting in an annual loss of 1.2 to 6.0 million tonnes of grain. Moreover, the nation’s huge tract of fertile soil also gets affected due to diversion for non-agriculture purposes. So what must be done?

India needs a radical reimagining of farming and some sustainable practices in big crop states like Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, and Punjab. The Centre must ensure some drastic changes in these three states and, at the same time, highlight practices in the northeastern states that continue the traditional organic systems of farming. Seven out of ten states with the highest organic matter are in the northeastern parts of the country. Sikkim became the world’s first region to have fully organic farming more than six years ago. In these states, the soil remains unharmed from the use of chemicals. As a result, the organic content of the soil is higher than in other parts of the country.

India knows the importance of increasing the quality of its soil; it has already pushed for traditional and organic farming methods such as intercropping and zero-chemical farming. A few states—Andhra Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh included—have started experimenting with it at the local level. The mandarins of the agriculture ministry know it is not easy to get into a totally natural agricultural system and check the soil’s degradation unless the country’s entire food ecosystem is completely overhauled. And even if it is done, there will be low yields in the initial years. Are Indian consumers ready to shell out more cash for better-quality agricultural products?

Forget the consumers for the time being, is the government ready for such sweeping farm reforms?

(The writer is a Rajya Sabha MP and Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism, and Culture)

Published 05 July 2023, 17:27 IST

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