Protect soil health to curb land degradation

Researchers at the University of Sheffield in 2014 found that soils in urban areas in the UK were healthier on an average than the intensively farmed croplands.

Protect soil health to curb land degradation

Fertility declining: In intensively farmed regions, the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides is turning the soil toxic.

Devinder Sharma

Devinder Sharma
Food & Agriculture Specialist

Researchers at the University of Sheffield in 2014 found that soils in urban areas in the UK were healthier on an average than the intensively farmed croplands. Soils in gardens, local parks and allotments were significantly more nutritious, carrying 32 per cent more organic carbon, 25 per cent higher nitrogen and 36 per cent higher carbon-to-nitrogen ratios. The garden soils were also less compacted.  

The study was led by Dr Nigel Dunnett, who had then warned: “With a growing population to feed, and the nutrients in our soil in sharp decline, we may soon see an agricultural crisis.” The team warned that the sick farm soils in the UK were left to sustain only about 100 crop harvests. In fact, the problem that afflicts future food security is not only limited to the UK, but is global in reach. The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimates that if the current rate of degradation continues unabated, the world’s top soil would disappear in another 60 years. Soils are the foundation for all civilisations, but with soil fertility declining to almost zero in intensively farmed regions, with more of chemical fertiliser and pesticide usage turning the soils toxic, and with excessive drawing of groundwater sucking even deep aquifers dry, desertification is creeping in.

In India, which hosts the 14th Conference of Parties (CoP) to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, in New Delhi, nearly 30 per cent of the land — more than four times the size of the UK — has been degraded due to deforestation, intensive farming, soil erosion and groundwater depletion, collectively leading to desertification. Such is the decline in soil fertility that gardens and local parks in urban areas in India must be more healthy and nutritious than the cultivable lands. Further, continuous application of chemical fertilisers, along with mechanised farming, has turned the soils compact.

Agricultural universities are aware of the formation of a hard layer that has formed almost a feet below the surface, thereby restricting the spread of plant roots and also obstructing the seepage of water to the ground. 

Unfortunately, universities have been recommending more of chemical fertiliser application as the way forward to address nutrient deficiency in exhausted soils, thereby further compounding the crisis. But this will hopefully change after Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his Independence Day address, appealed to the farmers to shift from chemical fertilisers and follow more of natural farming techniques in crop cultivation. 

We can’t blame the farmers. After all, they are following the package of practices recommended by the agricultural universities and the state agricultural extension machinery. To ensure that the farmers make a shift to non-chemical practices, the first and foremost task would be to reduce fertiliser subsidy. Already, studies have shown that one per cent reduction in fertiliser subsidy reduces land degradation by three per cent. 

Since the Prime Minister has now spoken about the dire need to protect soil health, to preserve underground water from contamination, and to provide for a healthy food chain, agricultural universities and extension agencies have got the right message to shift to integrated non-chemical farming practices. But this is easier said than done. The universities are not immune to stubborn resistance from agribusiness lobbies. Perhaps, the best way forward is to directly transfer the fertiliser subsidy into farmers’ accounts, but not linking it to fertiliser usage and, instead, allowing them to use it for organic manures, composting etc. The best indicator for a good and healthy soil is when the organic matter in soils grows at a pace that the percentage of earthworms increases manifold. 

The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) titled ‘Climate Change and Land’ has specifically mentioned intensive cultivation, including draining of wetlands for bio-fuel cultivation (and this includes ethanol from sugarcane), to be a predominant reason for growing land degradation. It says the cultivable soils are being lost at a rate 100 times faster than they are being formed. In India, a study by The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI) shows that nearly 1.4 per cent of the GDP is lost to degradation of forests alone. It estimates the annual loss accruing from land degradation and land use change at Rs 3.17 lakh crore, roughly 2.5 per cent of country’s GDP. At a time when a cash transfer of Rs 1.76 lakh crore from the Reserve Bank of India to the government is being seen as a big financial support, the loss from degradation of forest lands needs to be properly evaluated. 

Although India has pledged to restore 5 million hectares of degraded land by 2030 so as to become a land-degradation-neutral country, what is worrying is the fast rate at which desertification is happening. Desertification is no longer confined to the semi-arid regions encompassing Rajasthan, Haryana and to some extent in Telangana but is fast expanding to Jharkhand, Gujarat, Goa and Delhi where the spread is almost 50 per cent, says an ISRO report. Besides Punjab, Odisha and Tamil Nadu, desertification is also expanding in the hill states of Jammu and Kashmir as well as in Arunachal Pradesh. At the rate at which drought is getting widespread and frequent, more and more areas are coming under its fold. 

Add to it the rate of deforestation — 1.6 million hectares of forest cover lost since the year 2000 — and according to India Spend, felling of 10 million trees has been allowed between 2000 and 2015, and the threat of expanding deserts is too serious to be lost in claims and pledges. While any interference in the eco-sensitive zone and protected areas must stop, efforts must also be put in place to ensure that cultivable lands are not allowed to further degrade. In fact, a time-bound programme needs to be launched to reclaim degraded arable lands. A lesson can be drawn from China, which has promised to save at least 124.33 million hectares of its arable lands from any further degradation, and at the same time protect 53.3 million hectares out of it in a high-quality, by 2020. 

There is no reason why India cannot do the same. Faced with rapid urbanisation, India too needs to demarcate a significant proportion of its 159.7 million hectares of arable land in a healthy condition, and bring at least 70 million hectares under top quality parameters by 2022. But for this ambitious target to be achieved, India will have to protect its soils the way it protects tigers. 


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