“If we pollute the air, water and soil that keep us alive and well, and destroy the
biodiversity that allows natural systems to function, no amount of money will save us.”
~ David Suzuki, environmental activist
Soil is a critical resource especially when viewed in an agricultural development context. Improper management of this resource can lead to its degradation, and this makes soil management important for the farming community. Healthy soil is the foundation for a vibrant and sound agriculture and sustainable development system. The soil ecosystem is a complex and dynamic balance of microorganisms and roots that lead to a synergy with minerals and organic matter; thus healthy soil has the innate capacity to achieve a balance of water, air, and other essential nutrients.
Achieving soil health is the ability to sustain agricultural productivity and protection of natural resources. Benefits of healthy soil translate into better plant growth, pest control, nutrient optimization, and adequate supply of essential water and air, making it critical for farmers to understand the physical, chemical, and biological components of healthy soil and their management.
The need for food security for a burgeoning Indian population led policymakers to take radical steps in the mid-1960s. The Green Revolution was conceptualized around 1965, which led to India gaining self-sufficiency in food production in the subsequent years. Focus areas were based on technological upgradation, e.g., farm mechanization through tractors, use of high-yield seeds, upgradation of irrigation facilities, pesticide use, and correct fertilizer application. Fertilizer use that was less than a million tons before the mid-1960s, registered a phenomenal growth to around 12.73 million tons by 1992.
High-yielding seeds required increased use of fertilizers and their application, which was positive in the short term but started to show disadvantages over a period of time. Soil pH started increasing due to the use of alkaline chemicals and led to an increase in heavy metals in the soil. Increased toxicity destroyed beneficial pathogens, and a decrease in the yield was due to a decline in the fertility of the soil. The golden period lasted for around thirty years before crop yields became stagnant and started dropping in the mid-1990s. The impact on environmental pollution from excessive fertilizer use also led to soil and water acidification, contamination of water, and increased greenhouse emissions. Some of the measures taken as part of the Green Revolution deviated from the natural laws of balance and functioning, and were unsustainable.
Even after all this time, farmers in agrarian states still look at fertilizers as urea and phosphates. Their knowledge of fertilizer application is limited to NPK nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Unscientific use of NPK continues to have a detrimental impact on nutrients in the soil and has led to reduced crop yields across the country. The problem is a vicious cycle, and to counter the decreasing yields, farmers continue to pump nitrogen and phosphorus into the soil, leading to further degradation. Part of the problem lay with the policy on highly subsidized urea. The almost three fourths of its price subsidized resulted in overuse and continues to alter the soil chemistry even today. Soil health remains an area of concern for the government and it is putting in efforts and investment to arrest soil degradation and decline in fertility.
RESTORING, IMPROVING, AND MAINTAINING SOIL QUALITY
As is clear, a concerted effort is needed to educate the farming community on the synergy between fertilizers, crop yields, and soil health. Some fertilizer specific methods that could be taken to restore, improve, and maintain soil health:
- Control erosion of soil at farms.
- Promote agricultural development practices that lead to increased soil organic matter.
- Promote soil testing programs and ensure farm-specific nutrient management.
- Use balanced multi-nutrient fertilizers.
- Promote alternatives techniques like precision farming to improve input efficiency (nutrients and water).
- Use conservation tillage with improved land cover management.
- Promote awareness programs among farmers about the importance of land and soil resources and their care.
- Promote and coordinate soil quality improvement programs with the help of statutory bodies.
S M Sehgal Foundation, established in 1999 as a public charitable trust, promotes livelihoods through capacity building of farmers through its path-breaking work in the agrarian heartlands of India. For their exemplary commitment to the cause of agriculture and sustainable development, they have won several awards including the FICCI Sustainable Agriculture Award 2021 (2nd place) in the category of Climate Resilient Agriculture Development. Their work includes promoting improved agricultural practices and new technologies to increase crop yields, water conservation and management, and improving soil fertility.
S M Sehgal Foundation teams work with smallholder farmers in rain-fed and irrigated areas to facilitate adoption of improved and advanced agriculture and sustainable development practices that include soil health management, 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 in agriculture and development.
Krishi Jyoti: Lighting Farmer Lives
A large number of farmers continue to adopt outdated farming techniques, leading to continual depletion of soil quality. This leads to a reduction in the potential and benefits that they can derive from their farmlands. To overcome the information deficit and develop requisite infrastructure, S M Sehgal Foundation has partnered with Mosaic India Private Limited to support small farmers.
Since its inception in 2008, the project has directly impacted the lives of thousands of farmers. Supported by Mosaic Fertilizers India, S M Sehgal Foundation implements the agricultural development project works to enhance soil health, providing agricultural development inputs, and giving expert advice to the farmers. Farmers are provided with good quality seeds and fertilizers, macro and micronutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, etc.
The second core focus of the project is water management. Mosaic helps in promoting water conservation and management, building infrastructure and encouraging water-efficient irrigation techniques. The project supports building check-dams for farmers as well as helping them with the use of drip-irrigation facilities.
The Krishi Jyoti project supports farmers by providing micronutrients, fertilizers, and capacity building. The work done under the project has won various awards including the FICCI Water Award in 2013 and Bhamashah award of the Rajasthan government in 2016 and 2017 in different categories. This is evidence of the efforts being put by Mosaic and S M Sehgal Foundation to bring about a positive change in the lives of small-scale farmers.
Fertilizers are key in achieving food security for the large population of India. With the projected growth of the population, the task is even more challenging. A balance must be derived between crop yields and soil health in the long run. Sharing of knowledge with the stakeholder’s is essential. The farmers are key to a successful outcome.
A lot is happening on the ground. The government has implemented several developmental schemes like Integrated Watershed Management Programme, National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture, and more recently the National Mission on Soil Health Card. However, in a large country like India, soil health management at the national level also requires public private partnerships (PPP). Fostering partnerships and networks for successful implementation of soil health management is the way forward in this transitory process.