The Green Revolution holds a special place in Indian history. Though internationally recognized as a major step toward the nation’s food security, this transformation also led to the irresponsible exploitation of natural resources such as soil and water. Most of this is due to ignorance, greed, and overuse of some modern technologies that led to the revolution in the first place.
Back in 1970, Walter P. Falcon talked about the “second-generation problems” of the Green Revolution. Indiscriminate use of chemicals and fertilizers has led to a weakened ecology, thereby threatening long-term sustainability. However, the Indian farmer continued the practices in the quest of productivity. The resulting deterioration of soil and the depletion and contamination of water has had a direct spin-off on farmer’s productivity and profitability, particularly in Northern India.
More recently, a growing awareness within the farming community about the importance of soil health and nutrient management in their fields. Scientific practices in agriculture have the capability to result in improved yields, reduction in input costs, and help the environment.
Year after year, we hear about the rich harvest the season has produced. However, despite the ever growing output, malnutrition and farmer income still remain contentious issues. The lack of understanding about imbalances in soil nutrients are the major reasons for this.
As farm yields reduce, and cost of inputs keep rising, farmers are realizing the importance of improved soil health and nutrient management on their fields. Scientific practices have the ability to improve crop yields, reduce input costs, and have a host of environmental benefits.
- Balanced and integrated use of fertilizers and micronutrients: All essential nutrients need to be applied in optimum quantities and in planned methods that are dependent on soil, crop, and climatic conditions. Timing and a judicious mix of nutrients will meet crop demands and will prevent excesses. Over-fertilizing of crops increases pest issues. Excess of nitrogen levels in plants can decrease resistance to pests, and result in crop damage.
This, of course, is only made possible with proper soil testing, outreach program, and policy initiatives. For instance, a reform of the Nutrient Based Subsidy Scheme could be extended to include urea as well as other nutrients. Use of organic nutrients should also be encouraged, since an important factor in maintaining soil organic matter
- Reduction in inversion tilling: Excess tilling is detrimental to soil health. Tilling tends to decompose organic matter, and disturb the soil aggregates, leading to reduction in soil health, increase in erosion, and reduced productivity. Tilling would only be required in order to increase organic input via residual crops or manure. Reduction in tillage may appear to be cumbersome and dependent on the individual field’s status; however, the benefits to the farmer are significant in the long run.
- Reduction in synthetic pesticides/insecticides and promoting beneficial organisms: Indiscriminate use of synthetic pesticides and insecticides has adversely affected the environment and agricultural production. Harmful chemicals have found their way into the food chain and water table. Pesticide residue pollutes soil, groundwater and surface water, and affects livestock, crops, and humans. Use of agro-chemicals has been particularly rampant in commercial farming, as the damage to standing crops from pests is a continuing problem. Relying on pest-resilient plant varieties, crop rotation, biodegradable pesticides, and environment-friendly pesticides is the way forward. Newer concepts such as farmscaping could control the problem of pests through beneficial organisms and lead to a reduction in use of synthetic pesticides.
- Preserving soil moisture: Water shortages due to shrinkage in groundwater availability is a major issue affecting soil health especially in monsoon dependent arid regions of north India. Crops are starved or stressed for water due to low rainfall, high temperatures, and inconsistent or poor irrigation. Methods or systems that promote moisture guard against droughts and have a cyclical effect on soil health and fertility.
Techniques such as strip tillage, no tillage, mulching, cover cropping, contouring, etc., have been shown to increase moisture retention in soil.
Leading the way
S M Sehgal Foundation, the well-recognized rural development NGO, in partnership with Mosaic India Private Limited, has been supporting farmers in Haryana and Rajasthan through Krishi Jyoti. Working in the semi-arid regions of Mewat District of Haryana and Alwar District of Rajasthan, this project has directly impacted the lives of more than 40,000 people in 60 villages of these districts.
The effort to introduce small-scale farmers to modern agricultural techniques has helped them increase their crop yields and achieve greater financial benefits from farming. To achieve this, the first broad area has been agricultural development work on enhancing soil health, providing agricultural inputs, and giving expert advice to farmers. Farmers were provided with good quality seeds and fertilizers, and macro and micronutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, etc.
Water management, as a core focus of the project, entailed farmers’ training in water conservation, building infrastructure, and encouraging water-efficient irrigation techniques. Building check dams as well as promoting the use of drip irrigation facilities helped farmers to a large extent.
The initiative has been acknowledged, appreciated, and has received multiple awards including the FICCI Water Award in 2013 and the Bhamashah Award of Rajasthan government in 2016 and 2017 in different categories. The felicitation is a proof of the effort by Mosaic India Pvt. Ltd. and S M Sehgal Foundation to bring about positive change in the lives of small-scale farmers.
The 4R’s of nutrient management are referred to when talking about proper nutrient application and soil health. Soil health is in harmony with nutrient management and they are mutually interdependent.
The 4R’s refer to the right source, right rate, right time, and right place, and act as a guide in farming and nutrient practices
Balanced nutrient management must look at factors such as nutrients present in the soil, nutrient removal by crop, fertilizer input costs, investment and profitability, agricultural methods, soil moisture, physical condition of soil, and soil degradation conditions such as salinity, alkalinity, and acidity.
Considering the diversity in physical and moisture conditions prevalent in India, a blanket recommendation for soil management and health is not possible. A region-specific approach is the need of the hour and will go a long way in maintaining a balance between soil health and ecology preservation, ultimately resulting in increases in crop productivity. Educating farmers through outreach programs is necessary, and this can be achieved through regular capacity building and concerted policy efforts.
The resulting benefits will be a reduction in soil erosion, better soil nutrition, improved water quality, and greater biodiversity. The spin-off will be better crop yields, fulfilling the vision of doubling farmer income.