While India races ahead with dreams of how it will emerge as a leader in the world, little attention is being paid to the massive degradation of soil. It is a serious issue as India is an agricultural economy, and if not corrected and repaired, it could lead to disastrous consequences impacting food security and the livelihoods of millions.

According to the National Bureau of Soil Survey and Land Use Planning, 146.8 million hectares, around 30% of the soil in India is degraded. Of this, around 29% is lost to the sea, 61% is transferred from one place to another, and 10% is deposited in reservoirs.

Despite large-scale soil degradation, food production has increased due to technological inputs, and now India is the second largest producer of farm produce. While today, the country is self-sufficient in food production, it will have to import food in the years to come if its soil continues to degrade, especially considering that India, with just 2.4% of the world’s land area, has 18% of the world’s population to feed.

As India is an agricultural economy, it survived global recessionary trends. This itself should tell policymakers how important soil is for the country.

Degradation of soil leads to damaging effects on the economy, environment, food security, and health. It requires urgent policy intervention, public involvement in mitigation, and a combination of technological, regulatory, and educational initiatives to tackle the problem.

The government’s move to introduce soil health cards for farmers should help, but most farmers either do not know of it or have never taken advantage of it. Implementation of free soil testing for farmers has to be more proactive. It will give us crucial data for carving the right strategy.

A farmer works on a mustard field. Credit: PTI.

How does soil get degraded

While India celebrated the Green Revolution, which created huge rice and wheat bowls, pulses, and vegetables, we ignored what it did to our land. Overuse of chemical pesticides and fertilisers poisoned our fields and crops. The soil lost its natural nutrients, becoming toxic and contaminated. Excess fertilisers increased nitrate in the soil. Excessive farming led to the water table collapsing as bore wells went deeper and deeper every year. For political convenience, most states provided free water to farmers, resulting in careless over-irrigation and the depletion of precious water resources.

Rattan Lal, a professor of soil science at the Ohio State University, awarded the World Food Prize in 2020, told Mongabay India, “The Green Revolution increased food production from 50 million tonnes to 300 million tonnes, but soil degradation followed.”

Since the 20th century, soil degradation has accelerated due to man-made factors like mining, deforestation, overgrazing, monoculture farming, excessive tillage, and the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

India is the largest producer and user of pesticides, too. Overusing pesticides has destroyed millions of hectares of soil in India. “A healthy soil suppresses diseases and pests, and as it helps plants develop more immunity, which will not require pesticides,” points out Rattan Lal.

Rapid urbanisation, development projects, and population growth have also played significant roles in soil degradation. Untreated sewage and industrial waste are released into rivers that feed agriculture. The toxic water with heavy metals further degraded the soil. Then, natural factors like droughts, landslides, and floods exacerbated the problem.

Brahma S Dwivedi, member of the Agricultural Scientists Recruitment Board and former director of the National Bureau of Soil Survey and Land Planning, told Mongabay India, “We can stop man-made degradation caused by abuse of technology and exploitative agriculture. We must judiciously use land, reduce pesticides and chemical fertilisers, stop tillage with heavy equipment, and overuse water. It takes centuries to revive the soil. In the fifties, we used 16% of organic nutrients to enrich the soil, while 84% were from chemical fertilisers. Today, 94% of nutrients come from inorganic fertilisers and only 7% from organic sources. The grain is meant for us, and the residue is meant to be ploughed back into the soil.”

Ashok K Singh, director of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, points out, “The carbon level in our soil depleted due to intensive inorganic agricultural practices. We need to restore soil’s physical, chemical, and biological health for sustainable agriculture.”

“Biomass has to be returned to the soil to regain its health. We must help farmers translate science into action where they focus on restoring environmental quality and not increase production with chemical fertilisers,” Lal from Ohio State University said.

Mining also worsens the degradation. “The disastrous effects of opencast mining underline how it degrades land so rapidly. It disturbs the water table, contaminates soil, destroys flora and fauna, and contaminates soil and water. The waste produced is often not disposed of scientifically,” says activist Vijay Dhasmana, who is trying to restore degraded mines in Gurugram.

In the over-enthusiasm to industrialise, many states do not enforce pollution laws. Many industries take fields at a much higher rate than a farmer can ever get out of his land in a year, so toxic effluent can be dumped into it.

Representative image. Credit: ANURAJ R V, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Way ahead

A study in Netranahalli in Karnataka found soil erosion could be reduced by improving groundwater levels, regenerating water, making changes in cropping and land use patterns, and involving communities in the conservation and management of soil. Without connecting and convincing people, soil conservation will not happen. Points out Lal, “India has a strong scientific culture that can restore soil, water, and air quality. But for that to happen, there has to be a strong political will to translate science into action. Policies should work towards compensating and rewarding those restoring soil health.”

Dwivedi from ASRB points out that a deficiency of micronutrients in soil, like zinc, sulphur, manganese, iron, and copper, was not there 50 years ago. But now it is apparent, which is an indication of soil degradation. If these micronutrients are added, the cost of farming increases. Unless farmers are helped, the movement to rejuvenate soil will not happen.

Most farmers in India have small land holdings. Battling poverty, they manage to stave off hunger throughout the year. Increasingly, agriculture is becoming an unattractive proposition. Many small farmers are moving away to work as daily wage labourers in urban India. So, government assistance is a significant factor if they have to be pulled into soil conservation programmes.

Experiments of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research in the last 50 years have shown that in the long-term, balanced use of fertiliser produces better results. Also, using organic and inorganic fertilisers is better than just using chemical ones. Balanced use of fertilisers showed that soil was not destroyed in the long term, and yields increased.

There are no easy solutions to the complicated problem degraded soil. But, there are ways that can help to rejuvenate farmlands. For example, integrated watershed management with the help of check dams, terracing of land, and contour farming as it will decrease runoff, cutting down on crops that need lots of water, building bunds to stop runoff soil during monsoons, and minimum use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers.

Villages have several options of degradable waste like grasses, dung, household vegetable waste, weeds, and crop residues, which can be composted to prepare good-quality fertilisers for poor farmers. Village communities, with little help from the government, can make it happen. It will also clean up villages scattered with garbage.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) can also help arrest soil degradation. As suicides by farmers were increasing due to crop losses, two students at the Chennai campus of Vellore Institute of Technology used AI to detect crop pests through thermal imaging. Labelled as Kishan Know, this technology is easily affordable.

Pesticides destroy a large part of Indian soil. India has about 5.8 million cotton farmers, most of them with small land holdings. They take loans to buy pesticides and do not know how much to use, so they end up overusing it, thinking more of it would eliminate the pests faster. Only around 2% of the sprayed pesticides fall on the plant. The rest falls on the soil, destroying its natural nutrients and insects essential to the ecosystem.

The AI-powered early warning system is now available to help farmers protect their crops. The AI algorithm identifies and counts the pests captured in a trap in a day. It then determines the extent of infestation and advises the farmer to spray or not. This information can be shared with neighbouring farmers who do not have a smartphone.

Though there are over 10,000 soil testing laboratories in India, farmers are not using them as much as they should, as there is no awareness. Soil testing is free, with the government bearing the cost. A soil testing and fertiliser recommendation meter developed by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute is now commercially available that village panchayats can easily buy to help farmers test the soil.

Environmentalist and food activist Vandana Shiva told Mongabay India that ensuring our villages return to ecological, regenerative, and organic agriculture was the only way to stop soil degradation. “We have to reverse this insane urbanisation and put soil at the centre of our thinking.”

Quoting the Vedas, she said, “In this handful of soil is your future. Take care of it; it will take care of you. Destroy it, and it will destroy you.”

This article was first published on Mongabay.