Food security is one of the core indicators of economic development. The modernisation of agriculture has brought huge dividends in terms of ensuring food security to large swathes of people, apart from improving crop production.
A key element of sustainable food production is healthy soil because nearly 95 per cent of global food production depends on soil. The current status of soil health is worrisome.
Soil degradation on an unprecedented scale is a significant challenge to sustainable food production. About one-third of the earth’s soils is already degraded and alarmingly, about 90 per cent could be degraded by 2050 if no corrective action is taken. While soil degradation is believed to be occurring in 145 million hectares in India, it is estimated that 96.40 million hectares — about 30 per cent of the total geographical area — is affected by land degradation. Globally, the biophysical status of 5,670 million hectares of land is declining, of which 1,660 million hectares (29 per cent) is attributed to human-induced land degradation, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s ‘State of Land, Soil and Water’ report.
The time has come for collective global action involving governments and civil society to reverse this alarming trend. Apart from natural causes, a variety of human activities lead to soil degradation. With the threat to food security looming large globally, compounded by the attendant hazard of serious damage to the environment, the need of the hour is to adopt innovative policies and agro-ecological practices that create healthy and sustainable food production systems.
Since ancient times in India, mother earth has been considered a divine entity and her worship is an integral part of the country’s civilisational ethos. One can find numerous reverential references to mother earth in the Vedas. In tune with this divine knowledge, Indian farmers since ancient times have followed sustainable and holistic agricultural practices. With changing times and a growing population, agriculturists adopted modern scientific techniques. Extensive use of fertilisers and pesticides led to the deterioration of soil health and contamination of water bodies and the food chain, which pose serious health risks to people and livestock.
Stressing the urgent need for action to reduce dependence on pesticides worldwide and to promote policies advocating healthy and sustainable food systems and agricultural production, “A Healthy Planet for Healthy Children’’ published by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research and the World Future Council highlighted success stories from various countries — including Sikkim in India, which became the first organic state in the world. It said: “The small northeast Indian state has succeeded in phasing out chemical pesticides and fertilisers gradually but resolutely and has converted the entire state to organic agriculture.”
As soil is a fragile and finite resource, sustainable land management practices are essential to ensure healthy soil. They are critical not only to preventing degradation but also to ensuring food security. Every effort must also be made to prevent soil erosion as it not only affects fertility but also increases the risk of floods and landslides.
The FAO’s latest ‘State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture’ says: “…soil pollution is also an issue. It knows no borders and compromises the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe.
The excessive or inappropriate use of agrochemicals is one cause of the problem. The global annual production of
industrial chemicals has doubled since the beginning of the 21st century, to approximately 2.3 billion tonnes, and is projected to increase by 85 per cent by the end of the decade. Another challenge comes from salinisation, which affects 160 million hectares of cropland worldwide.” Soil degradation needs to be urgently addressed and reversed.
As stated by the Director-General of the FAO, Qu Dongyu in his address to the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture on January 28, “reversing soil degradation is vital if we want to feed a growing global population, protect biodiversity and help address the plant’s climate crisis”.
I compliment the Union government for having introduced the revolutionary soil health card scheme. Under the programme as of date, soil health cards have been distributed to about 23 crore farmers. The scheme has not only helped in improving the health of the soil, but has also benefited innumerable farmers by increasing crop production and their incomes. I am pleased to note that India is well on course to achieving the restoration of 26 million hectares of degraded land by 2030. A study conducted by the National Productivity Council in 2017 on this programme revealed that there has been a decrease in the use of chemical fertilisers in the range of 8-10 per cent as a result of the application of fertilisers and micro-nutrients as per the recommendations on the soil health cards. Overall, an increase in crop yields to the tune of 5-6 per cent was reported as a result.
Several studies have established that natural farming and organic farming are not only cost-effective but also lead to improvement in soil health and the farmland ecosystem.
I would also like to extend my deepest appreciation to Sadhguru for his “save soil campaign” and for completing 100 days of solo biking, traversing through 27 nations. His attempt to engage with heads of governments, experts and government officials for concerted action on saving soil is laudable.
From ordinary folk to those in the highest positions in governments, from farmers to CEOs, from scientists to school children, everybody must join this campaign to save the health of the planet and ensure food security. Each of us has a stake in this movement because our survival depends on dependable, sustainable food security.
This column first appeared in the print edition on June 24, 2022 under the title ‘Preparing soil for the future’. The writer is the Vice-President of India