Category Archives: health

Protect the soil the way we protect tigers: Devinder Sharma


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.

Devinder Sharma sends us his 2017 paper, Protect the soil the way we protect tigers.

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. #





Sustainable farming requires nutrient-rich soil with a complex organic structure

Receiving news of the extensive research undertaken by Mark Measures and the forthcoming workshop led the writer to remember Winin Pereira and Rashneh Pardiwala who recognised the importance of good soil structure.  

Winin Pereira’s paper Energy & Lifestyles was originally prepared for the Traditional Science Congress, held at Varanasi in October 1998 (updated November 1998).It noted some causes of soil acidification adding that sustainable farming requires that all crop ‘wastes’ be returned to the soil. If this is not done, soil erosion will increase, the soil’s nutrients will be mined and the land will require additional synthetic fertilizer. However, the soil organic matter, soil biota, and water-holding capacity cannot be replaced by applying fertilizers. This may result in serious degradation of fertile farm land which will ultimately make the land barren. soil erosion and water runoff, which would ultimately reduce the overall productivity of the land forest clearing erosion flooding (water runoff)

From Western Science to Liberation Technology he notes that Warli farmers tried synthetic fertilizers.out but soon abandoned them. They said that the fertilizers damaged the soil and that larger amounts were required each year. In consequence, they use very little, and then not every year. use of Sesbania bispinosa, and later ref to rui (Calotropis gigantea) leaves as a green manure. The leaves have very small percentages of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus they use it widely and it is evidently effective in improving crop productivity.

A couple of years later another colleague, Rashneh Pardiwala, completed her doctoral research with distinction at Edinburgh. Professor Grace wrote: “She has worked on the loss of carbon dioxide from heather-moorland soils, using a site near Edinburgh which is fairly typical of the peaty spoils which are widespread in northern Britain. The context of her work is the impact of climate warning on the flux of CO2 from the soil to the atmosphere (11.10.00).

And today soil-related references in an article from the Shenzhen Daily caught my eye

When landscape designer Wang Xin, with a degree in landscape botany, realized he could no longer stand being an office drone, he left his job, rented two plantation sheds in the suburbs and started farming from scratch. After a rough start he has learned valuable lessons going back to his university and visiting colleagues in Tochigi Prefecture, Japan, to study the most modern organic farming techniques. In July he prepared all-natural organic matter to enrich the soil. his fertilizing formula has been perfected through years of research in collaboration with Beijing University of Agriculture to simulate the formation of the fertile dark forest soil in Northeast China, known for its high crop productivity.

Logically, the true foundation of organic farming lies in soil content: if the soil is right — if it is a living organism with a complex organic structure — the outcome is safe and tasty food farmed without the need for fertilizing chemicals, according to Wang. But that is not the only objective. Wang hopes to build a production model that rehabilitates the soil itself. On regular plantations, the soil can degrade within a matter of years after being over-exploited. “For organic farming to become truly sustainable, revitalizing the soil is key. I am certain that in three to four years, the soil that I have been reviving will only be healthier,” he said.

The strawberries from his organic plantation in the southern outskirts of Beijing are believed by his clients to be “the best in China.”

As part of Mark Measures’ Churchill Study Fellowship (Soil Management for Sustainable Production and Environmental Protection), he travelled to the US and Europe in 2017-18, visiting researchers, advisers and farmers. His final report (January 2019):”Soil Management for Sustainable Food Production and Environmental Protection” can be downloaded here (pdf).

In the next post, farmers, growers and advisers are invited to his one day workshop

A workshop on soil nutrient and fertility management

Mark Measures has found over 30 years of being at the forefront of organic farming in the UK that it really does work, is commercially viable and provides effective solutions to many of the problems facing food, farming, the environment and society.

He recognises that though organic farming does not have all the answers, it goes further than any other farming system to address the problems that face agriculture and society in a finite world and  provides the best basis for the future.

Organic farming is rooted in principles that put the concept of a holistic view of the world (linking the health of the soil, plant, animal and humankind), into practice through soil management, crop rotation, recycling and minimising inputs. Organic farming causes less pollution, enhances wildlife, reduces the use of finite resources and produces quality food.

Mark Measures Associates is a consultancy business that provides information, advice and support to farmers and landowners, commercial businesses, research projects and policy groups wishing to manage, develop or support organic farms.

As part of his Churchill Study Fellowship Mark travelled to the US and Europe in 2017-18,  visiting researchers, advisers and farmers.

His final report (January 2019): “Soil Management for Sustainable Food Production and Environmental Protection” can be downloaded here (pdf)






Berlin protesters criticise government prioritisation of large-scale farming as damaging to health and the environment








In January, organisers said that an estimated 35,000 protesters, backed by a procession of farm tractors, marched in Berlin for environmental protection and against the industrial agriculture lobby.

Police put the number of demonstrators at over 12,000.

While the Grüne Woche (Green Week) international agricultural fair was taking place in the German capital, the protesters criticised government policy which prioritised large-scale farming, deemed damaging to health and the environment, to the detriment of small farmers and bio-growers.

The Conservative Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner has received “an unequivocal message” from the street, said Saskia Richartz, spokeswoman for the protest organisers.






More than 100 organisations took part in the colourful march, with 171 tractors descending on Berlin from several parts of the country. The ministerial quarter around Brandenburg Gate remained partially blocked for several hours before the protest broke up peacefully.

“We can’t feed the whole world if we reduce industrial agricultural production,” the agriculture minister commented, while admitting that the sector needs to be “more efficient and respectful of the environment”.





French scientists: “A higher frequency of organic food consumption is associated with a reduced risk of cancer”. Not so says thinktank.

A reader has drawn attention to an e-mail received from the Center for Food Safety about a French study that had followed (nearly) 70,000 adults for five years, most of them women. It found that “the most frequent consumers of organic food had 25% fewer cancers over the course of their lives than those who never ate organic food. Those who ate the most organic fruits, vegetables, dairy products, meat, and other organic foods had a particularly steep drop in the incidence of lymphomas, and a significant reduction in postmenopausal breast cancers.”

If the findings are confirmed, promoting organic food consumption in the general population could be a promising preventive strategy against cancer” – the summarised conclusion and recommendation of the study which was published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA, October 2018).

Frank Hu, who heads the Harvard University Nutrition Department, will agree with the need for further research, having written in the same JAMA issue “Organic food intake is notoriously difficult to assess, and its self-reporting is very prone to confusion through positive health behaviors and socioeconomic factors” – fair comment.

Incredibly stupid’ and ‘biologically impossible’ is the far from fair or disinterested response of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH)

ACSH is a thinktank on record as having received funding from many industries, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, Coca-Cola, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Dr Pepper Snapple Group, Procter & Gamble, Syngenta, 3M, McDonald’s, Bayer Cropscience  and Altria.

The thinktank describes the findings of the French scientists from the Sorbonne’s Research Center Epidemiology and Statistics, National Institute of Health and Medical Research, National Institute of Agronomic Research, Research Team in Nutritional Epidemiology, Bobigny, Department of Public Health, Avicenne Hospital, Bobigny and the Centre for Cardiovascular Research and Nutrition, Aix Marseille University, as ‘incredibly stupid’ and ‘biologically impossible’.

In a New York Times report, Dr Julia Baudry, lead author of the French study, said that the magnitude of protection surprised the study authors. “We did expect to find a reduction, but the extent of the reduction is quite important”. She noted the study does not prove an organic diet causes a reduction in cancers, but strongly suggests “that an organic-based diet could contribute to reducing cancer risk.”

The French study was entirely paid for by public and government funds.