Responding to earlier articles on soil, Diana Schumacher writes:
Agreed! I have a small garden, a large compost bin and the worm population is gradually building. E.F.Schumacher was at one time president of the Soil Association and became a champion of worms in the family.
EFS took over the Soil Association presidency from its founder, Lady Eve Balfour (right), who was a farmer and also a scientist. She was conducting soil experiments on her farm in East Anglia somewhere when she asked to see him ( I have vivid recollections of his description of that first meeting).I believe that EFS left the royalties of the first edition of Small is Beautiful to the struggling Soil Association and this helped to put the charity on its feet and get established.
The alarm bells have been ringing for quite some time now. Reports after reports warning of a continuing degradation of India’s soils – the foundation of assiduously built food security and more importantly the healthy well-being of the country — have been conveniently swept under the carpet.
Added to this monumental blunder of allowing the wilful devastation of land resources in the name of economic growth lies the threat awaiting in the form of climate change. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) — the global body which governs the international agricultural research centres — has conclusively established that agriculture, livestock and deforestation together account for 41% of the greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).
Intensive cropping patterns, unbalanced nutrient application, injudicious use of pesticides and mining of groundwater has turned the soils sick. What is not being understood is that a sick soil cannot produce a healthy generation.
In August 2016, a report of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), estimated that nearly 30% of the country’s land – more than 4 times the size of UK – is faced with desertification. That desertification continues to prevail in semi-arid regions of Rajasthan and in some parts of Haryana was quite well-known but the fact that desertification had encroached on more than 50% of the land in states like Jharkhand, Gujarat, Goa, Delhi and Rajasthan is more worrying. Even the hilly states of Jammu & Kashmir, Arunachal Pradesh and other states of northeast India as well as Orissa are now fast getting into a desertification spiral.
This report comes two years after the 5th National Report on Desertification, Land Degradation and Drought in 2014 had warned of nearly 45% of country’s total land, 146.82 million hectares of the total 329 million hectares, suffering from various degrees of land degradation, including water erosion (93.68 million hectares), wind erosion (9.48 million hectares), waterlogging (14.30 million hectares), salinity or alkalinity (5.94 million hectares), soil acidity and other complex reasons . . .
Studies point to some 5.3 billion tonnes of soil getting eroded every year, much of it from water and wind erosion. Of this, 29% was permanently lost to the sea, 10% was deposited in reservoirs, reducing their storage capacity and 61% got shifted from one place to another. While this results in tremendous loss in productive capacity of soil, it also helps in expanding the area under deserts. The more the green cover is lost to deforestation and urbanisation, the more is the barren land exposed to soil erosion. In Haryana, for instance, accompanied by strong winds shifting of sand dunes have often resulted in cultivated lands being encroached upon.
The priorities of successive governments have been in complete contrast to what has been spelled out in the numerous environment documents since the 1st Plan
Beginning with the 1st Five Year Plan, the thrust has been on ‘land rehabilitation’ thereby showing that the planners were seized of the crisis that was expected to build up in the years to come. Numerous Ministries and departments, including the Department of Land Resources, Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change; Ministry of Agriculture; Ministry of Water Resources; Ministry of Rural Development had framed a number of policies wherein the effort was to contain soil degradation . . . (but) over the years the Ministry for Environment, Forests and Climate Change has been on the forefront of bringing in policy directives that actually have undermined the protection, conservation and rehabilitation of land resources. Recent changes introduced silently by the environment ministry, tribal affairs ministry and the mines ministry to redefine forests in a bid to bypass the forest and environment clearances required for mining companies, needing several thousand hectares of mineable area, is one such example . . .
If the soil is unhealthy, you may be sure your food is also unhealthy
It has often been said that you are what you eat. And what you eat depends on how healthy and nutritious the soil is. After all the plants derive their nutrition from the soil, and if the soils are unhealthy be sure your food too is unhealthy. Ask any farmer the difference between an organically-rich healthy soil and a chemically farmed soil, and he will tell you how enriching it is to work with nature. Healthy soil not only supports biodiversity – more bees, more earthworms, more birds – restricts run-off and erosion, and is also is also a storehouse for soil nutrients and carbon.
Soils are predominantly rich in three major nutrients – nitrogen, phosphorous and potash. In addition, it also provides 16 micro-nutrients, including iron, molybedenum, calcium and zinc. But because of intensive farming practices, like having a continuous cropping pattern of wheat and rice, interspersed with potato and vegetables, like we see in Punjab, the organic content in the soils have been exhausted. In Punjab and for that matter in other Green Revolution areas, the organic matter in the soil has almost come down to 0.1 %. This means farmers are left with no option but to apply more of chemical fertilizers to produce the same harvest they used to produce five years back.
Excessive use of chemical fertilizers, especially nitrogen in the form of urea fertilizer has led to nutrient imbalance in the soils
Moreover, the effective uptake of nitrogen by plants from the urea that is applied does not exceed 30%. Rest of the chemically applied nitrogen seeps underground causing contamination of groundwater. The problem got compounded with agricultural universities recommending more application of chemical fertilizers as the way forward to meet the nutrient deficiency arising from intensive farming. At no stage did the universities and the extension officials of the State Department of Agriculture advise farmers to take up integrated farming practices that include the application of organic manures and green compost in adequate proportions.
Continuous application of chemical fertilizers along with mechanized farming has compacted the soils. In many places, a solid layer has been formed almost a foot below the surface thereby restricting the spread of plant roots. Organic cultivation practices on the other hand turn the soil porous, which allows for an enabling environment for soil microbes. One indicator of a healthy soil is the percentage of earthworms visible in the soil. The more the number of earthworms, the healthier is the soil.
A soil health card for every farmer
The thrust on making available a soil health card for every farmer suffers from the same deficiency in approach. It is designed primarily to ensure that farmers apply balanced doses of chemical fertilizers. I would have preferred a soil health card that measures the organic content in the soils and accordingly makes suggestion on how to improve the strength and structure of soils. At a time when chemical fertilizers, especially nitrogen fertilizers, have been found to be acerbating greenhouse gas emissions leading to climate changes, the emphasis should be on reducing its application.
I have always advocated subsidizing organic manure, bio-pesticides and working out a separate price policy for organic produce which incentivizes organic farming
It is important to understand the political economy that promotes chemical fertilizers and pesticides. It has been generally accepted that fertiliser subsidy is the major determinant of land degradation. Although there have been efforts to reduce subsidies on chemical fertilizers, especially phosphorous and potash, but still due to political reasons and lobbying by farmers groups, it has not been possible to cut down subsidies on fertilizers in a desirable manner. This makes organic farming systems unattractive to farmers. Numerous studies, both nationally and at the international levels, have conclusively shown that business as usual is not the right approach. To provide healthy food, protect environment and ensure proper soil management, the time is ripe to radically overhaul the crop cultivation practices. An international study – backed by World Bank and United Nations and involving more than 400 scientists globally – called IAASTD in short – has shown that crop production by non-chemical practices goes up steadily and is the only sustainable path ahead.
Studies have shown that 1% reduction in fertilizer subsidy reduces land degradation by 3%.
This is a startling analysis and should be driving the national agricultural policies, including the research priorities. While population density and poverty ratio, the coefficients of both are statistically significant, are normally also thought to be responsible for land degradation, a study done by Mythili Gurumurthy (2015) show that these two variables cannot be held as reasons for land degradation. The results of poverty ratio-land degradation link also corroborate the results of other studies that poor are victims rather than cause of land degradation.
Feeding the soils with organic manure, and laying out a well-working drainage system, which increases water use efficiency are required to protect soil erosion as well as to maintain soil fertility. But more importantly, policy makers have to understand that rebuilding the soil health is a precursor to meeting the food requirements for a growing population in the future, and at the same time a healthy soil is a determinant for a healthy population.
Take the case of China. Hit by a significant drop in food production this year in the wake of rapid urbanization, it has now vowed to protect arable lands. China aims to retain at least 124.33 million hectares of arable land in 2020, with no less than 53.3 million hectares of high-quality farmlands, news agency Reuters reported. In India, nearly 45 % of the cultivable land is faced with degradation and the country has still to wake up to the looming threat.
“Farmland should be protected the way we protect pandas,” stated a spokesperson for the Chinese government. India too should launch a nation-wide programme to save and protect soils the way it protects tigers. #