“To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.”
~ Mahatma Gandhi
Since more than 90 percent of the food grown for human consumption is produced on soils, the ecosystem of food production on the planet depends on healthy soils to a great extent. The quality of soil used for production of food for people and animals is often neglected as the world turns toward large-scale agriculture.
With the exponential growth in world population that is estimated to expand to a whopping 9 billion by 2050, the demand for agri-produce will always be on the increase. With agricultural land in short supply, to create enough food will require a substantial increase in yields using sustainable means. Thus, we must look at the concept of “healthy soils” as an essential cog in the food cycle wheel.
“Soil health” can be defined as “The state of the soil being in sound physical, chemical, and biological condition, having the capability to sustain the growth and development of land plants.”~ John Idowu, et al.
Another definition of soil health is “the capacity of soil to function as a vital living system, within ecosystem and land-use boundaries, to sustain plant and animal productivity, maintain or enhance water and air quality, and promote plant and animal health.” ~ Doran and Zeiss, 2000.
Fallacious thinking or understanding about the way forward for increased food production has been led by large-scale agriculture, large farms and conventional farming methods.
- Large-scale agriculture. A U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report estimates that small family farms produce more than three fourths of the world’s food and these farms are less than 2.5 acres each. Nine out of ten of the world’s 570 million farms are managed by families. The answer to sustainable food security and in eradicating hunger lies with these farmers/ farms.
- Large farms. Studies show that while mechanization at farms results in better efficiency, they tend to lose out on agri-chemicals and diversity. Smaller and diversified farms yield almost double the food per acre than the larger ones.
- Conventional farming methods. Studies have shown that farms that concentrate on building soil health yielded only less than 10 percent than conventional farms. The gap was insignificant. Sustainable agriculture dependent on maintaining soil health would help tackle the issue of growth in food demand.
The way forward
The way forward from the looming food crisis, where we can provide our booming world population with healthy food, is to look at a sustainable soil ecosystem. A healthy soil is the foundation of the food cycle and has a direct impact on food quality and quantity. Healthy soils have the regenerative capacity to support food-growing plants through nutrients, adequate hydration, and oxygen and root support. The concept gaining ground is “regenerative agriculture.” The technique looks at a rehabilitative approach to farming with emphasis on soil health as well as water management and optimum use of agrichemicals.
Some important techniques being adopted toward this:
- Conservation tillage. A tillage and planting system that covers 30 percent or more of the soil surface with crop residue, after planting, reduces soil erosion by water. Normal ploughing and tilling results in soil erosion, compact soil, and degradation of useful soil microbes. Adoption of conservation tillage minimizes physical loosening of the soil and increases soil organic matter, thereby leading to a holistic ecosystem for plants to thrive, and a reduction in carbon footprint.
- Crop diversity. Increase in crop diversity leads to a healthier dissemination of nutrients in the soil through essential microbes that feed on the roots. A diverse planting system leads to a varied nutrient-rich soil, helping in better yields. Crop diversity is also known to suppress weeds and pests, stabilize yields, and increase pollinators.
- Cover crops and crop rotation. After cash crop harvesting, the soil lies bare, erodes, and the nutrients necessary for successful plant growth dry out or wash away. Planting similar species on the farm could lead to an imbalance in nutrients. Crop rotation and cover crops can help infuse soils with diverse organic matter. The benefits are immense and the reduced erosion control, reduced compaction, higher water infiltration, better soil diversity, weed and pest suppression, and carbon sequestration lead to improved air, soil, and water quality. Each crop species has its own niche and attributes, and needs to be deployed strategically depending on the season, farm, and soil specifics.
- Inorganic fertilizer overuse, the hidden danger. Certain fertilizer nutrients in India are used indiscriminately because of price differentials despite the fact that they are not suited to the soil ecology or septic crops. Imbalanced use of nutrients can upset the delicate balance of soil health. Abuse of inorganic fertilizers can be detrimental to soil health and lead to a disruption of organic matter and delicate plant roots. It can also percolate into the water table and cause cultural eutrophication, disrupting the ecological cycle. Proper education through agricultural extension is necessary to educate farmers of this important yet neglected area.
LEADING THE WAY
Being an NGO specializing in rural development, S M Sehgal Foundation has partnered with Mosaic India Private Limited to support farmers in Haryana, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh through Krishi Jyoti.
The effort of introducing small-scale farmers to modern agricultural techniques has helped them improve their crop yields and achieve greater financial benefits from farming. The first broad area to achieve this was agricultural development work on enhancing soil health, providing agricultural inputs, and giving expert advice to farmers. Farmers were provided with quality seeds, fertilizers, and macro and micronutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, etc.
Water management being the core of the project, involved farmers’ training in water conservation, building infrastructure, and encouraging water-efficient irrigation techniques. Building check dams and encouraging the use of drip irrigation facilities helped farmers to a large extent.
The change has been made possible through the agricultural extension and outreach programs of S M Sehgal Foundation and Mosaic India Pvt. Ltd. and has had a positive impact on the marginal farmer community grappling with perennial issues of soil erosion, contamination of the water table, and dwindling farm income.
Soil health management plays a major role in agricultural production, especially in arid climates as in North India. With the emphasis on higher food grain production, it is now time to recognize that soil health cannot be ignored. With the climate getting unpredictable, healthy and resilient soil methods should be propagated to manage variations. Though soil health management has some way to go, particularly in a country like India, it is a viable and sustainable alternative to the present conventional, large-scale agriculture. A regenerative approach offers profitable and nature-friendly economic models for farmers and alternative ways to increase yield that are not at the expense of sustainability. Policy makers should be looking at the negative impacts of commercial farming, something that will offer a larger vision in transforming agriculture. Surely this is the way to transform agriculture and fulfill the food demands of the world.