“Upon this handful of soil, our survival depends. It will grow our food, our fuel, and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it.”—Sanskrit Vedic proverb
The Underrated Soil
While the world talks about global warming, melting ice caps, water shortages, etc., the importance of SOIL in the looming catastrophe tends to be overlooked.
Soil creates food and helps to decay waste. Water percolates and is absorbed in the soil and can filter toxins and act as a carbon vault. More than 95 percent of living organisms on land reside in the soil. Above all, soil determines the quality of food and helps preserve the ecosystem.
Still, soil continues to be underrated, and societies remain indifferent to the crisis caused by the degradation of soil. As the Bard of Cincinnati once put it, “Man has only a thin layer of soil between himself and starvation.” No wonder then that the declining nutritional content of our food is a result of our collective indifference to this nonrenewable resource.
Soil and Agriculture: The Cause and Effect
Over time, the success of civilizations has been influenced by the ability to cultivate crops, making soil the foundation of agriculture. Though agriculture sustains civilization, it is also disruptive to natural ecosystems.
Soil health is the most important foundation of agriculture. However, modern farming techniques like mono-cropping and chemical fertilizers, etc., have led to soil degradation. This has caused cyclical and systemic problems that necessitate an even higher use of inputs, leading to poor soil health and resulting in climate change as well. The cycle goes on.
While agriculture defines human civilization, in the long run, it is disruptive for plants, animals, soil systems, and water sources. Therefore, a closer understanding and a balanced approach to the detrimental disturbances of soil is necessary to sustain life systems across the globe. The need of the hour is to look at an approach that promotes sustainable and regenerative agriculture to build a healthier farm ecosystem.
Some reasons for soil degradation resulting from agriculture are:
- Mono-cropping. Growing the same crop on the same plot of land year after year depletes the soil of nutrients, results in reduced organic matter, and causes soil erosion.
- Synthetic Fertilizers. Indiscriminate use of synthetic fertilizers to boost plant productivity has also compromised soil health over time.
- Pesticide Residues. Pesticide residues accumulate in soil and decrease microbial biodiversity and impact soil microbiology.
- Mechanical Tillage Leading to Soil Compaction and Erosion. Mechanical tillage causes soil compaction and erosion. This in turn leads to poor water absorption and poor aeration, which further affects root growth in plants and reduced yields.
To tackle the burning issue of soil health, diversification approaches that are sustainable and regenerative need to be adopted in agriculture. Agricultural diversification is often misconstrued to be crop rotation as the only option. However, diversification encompasses agri and allied activities, and agricultural practices done differently.
One of the issues facing the agricultural sector of India is the dominance of marginal and small farmers. This section constitutes a significant entity, and approximately 70 percent of the farmers have below 2 ha and cultivate around 35 percent of the land.
These farmers also form a significant chunk of the rural poor in India. The small operational base makes it difficult to improve the incomes of these households merely by raising the yield of the existing crops on their holdings. Agri-diversification can play a major role in meeting the objectives of higher income, higher employment, and stabilization of incomes besides conservation of natural resources.
Agricultural diversification encompasses three situations;
(a) A shift from farm to non-farm activities,
(b) A shift from a less-profitable crop or enterprise to a more-profitable crop or enterprise, and
(c) Use of resources in diverse but complementary activities.
Agricultural diversification can lead to significant ecosystem benefits and result in addressing the issue of soil degradation. The aim of diversification is to reduce the application of agrochemicals, decrease the negative effects of intensive agriculture on soil quality, reduce soil erosion, avoid water pollution, and cut greenhouse emissions. Several strategies can be adopted in agriculture such as crop rotation, conservation agriculture, fertilization management, etc., that can result in higher crop yields and increased profitability, and build a healthier soil ecosystem with reduced environmental risk.
Some important diversification interventions are:
1) Crop Rotation. In modern agriculture, farms are often planted with a single crop year after year and tilled or left bare for long periods. Regenerative agriculture includes diverse cover crops and crop rotations.
Cover cropping refers to the growth of beneficial plants during times of the land being left bare, or being combined with the primary crop. Crop rotation refers to growing different sets of crops across fields, rather than planting the same year after year. This practice builds soil health, encourages carbon sequestration, and helps soils to maintain microbes year-round. These practices reduce soil erosion, improve the water holding capacity of soils, and reduce compaction and nutrient leaching.
2) Fertilization Management. Fertilizers are a key component in farming. They have a direct impact on crop productivity and the quality of the environment. Therefore, it is important to have a balanced approach to fertilizer application. Modern farming is over-reliant and reckless in fertilizer use and this can lead to economic losses and contamination of ground and surface water. More so, the soil health is affected due to over-application and in turn, the degraded soil requires more fertilizer to compensate for its lower fertility. The ultimate goal for the farmer should be to have a balance and ensure adequate nutrients based on crop requirements and the soil’s natural ability to provide nutrients.
3) Non-farm Diversification. The idea of having an alternate revenue stream for the farming community is to insulate them from the vagaries and shocks of dwindling incomes in case of adverse events. The transition from pure agricultural work to other associated activities like dairy farming, poultry, livestock, fisheries, horticulture, etc., can be beneficial in tackling issues of employment, supplementing incomes, and reducing the risk from extraneous circumstances.
4) Diversification toward high-value crops (HVCs). High-value crops are crops that provide higher net returns per hectare to the farmer than staple commodities. Diversification toward high-value crops shows a pro-small farm holder bias. With smallholders playing a proportionally larger role in agriculture, they should look to diversify their cropping pattern to high-value crops. This will increase farmer incomes and reduce environmental degradation. These high-value crops simultaneously place a reduced load on soil systems and help in long-term sustainability targets of the agriculture sector. These dual benefits are a major positive for the farming community. Compared to cereals, the HVCs yield higher income and generate more employment, particularly for women. The HVCs also use less water and therefore conserve this precious resource.
Achieving Sustainability through Local Participation
The crucial challenge for India’s agricultural development is to ensure that small and marginal farmers can gain adequate remuneration from farming and contribute to the country’s increasing demand for food.
S M Sehgal Foundation is a rural development NGO in India working to improve the quality of life of rural communities. Under its Agriculture Development Program, it promotes sustainable livelihoods in India by building the capacities of farmers, including women farmers, through improved agricultural practices and new technologies that increase crop yields, conserve water, and improve soil fertility. They work in tandem with small-holder and marginal farmers to facilitate the adoption of advanced and sustainable agricultural practices that include soil health management, climate-smart interventions, crop production management, input-use efficiency, small farm mechanization, water-efficient irrigation techniques, horticultural development, livestock management, and the use of information and communication technology (ICT) in agriculture.
Strawberry Farming, an Alternative to Economic Gain
S M Sehgal Foundation funded and implemented a development project in district Mahendergarh in September 2021.
This was a demonstration of a new intervention to convince farmers of the village through learning by doing. As part of the program, the project team provided 5,000 strawberry saplings to a farmer, Khagesh, who planted them in half an acre of his field in October 2021.
In his five acres of land, where he used to cultivate onion, mustard, wheat, and millet, he took up commercial cultivation of strawberries.
Khagesh harvested the 5,000 strawberries plants four times a month in January as well as in February, with an average yield of 10 kg per harvest. He marketed the produce in local markets of Narnaul and Nangal Choudhry, where there is a high demand for them. The strawberries fetched a good price of INR 300 per kg, which altogether amounted to INR 1,25,880 per season. After observing the success of this intervention, about six farmers of that area made plans to shift to strawberry cultivation in the very next season.
Mini-Sprinkler Saves Water and Input Costs
In December 2021, a CSR-supported development project implemented by S M Sehgal Foundation began in Dewas district, Madhya Pradesh. The project promoted modern agriculture methods through crop demonstrations.
Abbas Sheikh is a farmer who took up a mini-sprinkler system, which he used to irrigate his 1.09 acres of land. The mini-sprinkler saved him about 30 to 50 percent of the water he typically used, which could now be used for the timely irrigation of other crops. He no longer needed to prepare drains in his field to remove the excess, wasted water, occurring as a result of flood irrigation. Thus he saved on labor costs. In addition, due to the mini-sprinkler, Abbas saved three to four hours of his time irrigating the crop, because his motor for lifting water from the bore well ran for less time, thereby decreasing the risk of its malfunction and reducing maintenance costs.
In addition, a mini-sprinkler creates a micro-climate around the crops that is more conducive to plants and less favorable to pests, leading to a reduction in their population. This in turn translated to a reduction by about half in the cost of pesticides. In the case of onion, a major crop in this area, it saves INR 2,000 to 2,500 per acre in input cost due to pesticides, particularly by reducing damage due to the insect, which eat the leaves of this plant.
Global crop production is facing the challenge to increase crop yields while at the same time reducing negative environmental impacts (Smil, 2000; Tilman, et al., 2010). Increases in yield are especially needed in areas with rapid population growth and increasing food demand, such as in Africa and Asia. Increases in resource use efficiency and decreases in nutrients and pesticides from agricultural land to the wider environment are needed because of their detrimental effects on the environment (Rockström, et al., 2009; Steffen, et al., 2015), especially in developed and rapidly developing countries. Also, the quality of agricultural land is threatened by a diversity of human actions. These lead possibly to physical, chemical, and/or biological degradation of the soil (Karlen, et al., 1997; Cassman, 1999; De Long, et al., 2015), which further puts pressure on the aforementioned challenge.
Agricultural diversification can improve crop productivity and deliver multiple ecosystem services by adopting more diversified cropping systems through crop rotation, multiple cropping or intercropping in arable crops, intercropping in orchards, and agroforestry. Diversification also aims to reduce inputs of energy and agrochemicals and decrease the negative effects of intensive agriculture on soil quality, water pollution, greenhouse gases, soil erosion, and loss of biodiversity. If coupled with sustainable soil management strategies, adopting cover crops for green manure or fodder, conservation agriculture (reduced tillage, crop diversification, and residue management), organic farming, and fertilization management, also contribute to increased yields, profitability, and resilience to climate change, environmental risk, and socioeconomic shocks in the long term.
The goal is to understand the benefits and environmental and socioeconomic barriers of crop diversification. A consolidation of the research in this field will show the value of these new developments and indicate directions for further research. With a better understanding of the different ecosystem services that a diversified agricultural system can provide, practical implementation can be fostered. If economic barriers are primarily standing in the way of a more sustainable agroecosystem, economic analysis is needed to evaluate how the situation could be changed and which policy measures would be needed and appropriate. Ultimately, the goal is to achieve a sustainable ecosystem in terms of soil quality, fertility and pollutants, soil structure, water availability, soil carbon sequestration, reduction of erosion rates, mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, and economic profitability.
Crop rotational diversity is important to provide insect, weed, and disease control, build soil health, and has many other benefits such as enhanced crop productivity, and environmental and economic benefits. Planting rotations that involve cover crops can produce a large root system that holds the soil together by producing a new source of fresh organic matter after roots decay. This organic matter provides a habitat suitable for earthworms, which form tunnels in the soil for large soil pores, subsequently enhancing water infiltration. Organic matter also helps to form new soil aggregates, which is important because it holds the soil together and therefore prevents the risk of soil loss due to erosion during high-intensity rainstorm events.
Agricultural diversification is a structural transformation that requires a policy environment and an action program. This requires investment in rural infrastructure and upgrading of skills.
Diversification of agriculture can meet the objectives of sustainability and lead to higher farm incomes through adjustments that look to benefit the small farm holder. This calls for macro policies, activities, and extensions to determine the pace of diversification in the countryside. While the food security of India cannot be jeopardized in the long run, a balance in sustainable agri-practices is the need of today.