Reviving Soil Health

Green Revolution brought significant increase in India's food production and the country not only became eligible to feed its growing population, but also became leading exporter of many agriculture commodities. But, every success comes at a cost, in the process, soil has continuously been degraded by non-judicious use of fertilisers and agro-chemicals. Mohd Mustaquim reports

Reviving Soil Health

Green Revolution brought significant increase in India’s food production and the country not only became eligible to feed its growing population, but also became leading exporter of many agriculture commodities. But, every success comes at a cost, in the process, soil has continuously been degraded by non-judicious use of fertilisers and agro-chemicals. Mohd Mustaquim reports

The health of soil is vital to providing food security to the growing 1.25 billion population in India. India’s understanding of it has resulted to African countries’ dependence on India’s food production today. However, for many decades intensive and non-judicious use of fertilisers and agro-chemicals has degraded soil and its ecosystem as well as bio-diversity.

This can be attributed to Indian farmers’ move toward intensive cropping with the application of only NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium) fertilisers and limited use of organic manures to ensure higher yield.

According to Indian Institute of Soil Science, about 49 percent soil is deficient in zinc and its deficiency spread all over the country. The extent of deficiency of available iron, manganese and copper in Indian soils is 12 percent, 5 percent and 3 percent, respectively. Continuous use of sulphur free fertilisers led to the widespread sulphur deficiency. The analysis of 1.35 lakh soil samples shows the deficiency of sulphur in 41 percent soil.

“Indian soils are suffering from disproportionate acidity and alkalinity which is due to excessive use of inorganic fertilisers and harmful agro-chemicals for several years . Due to the excessive use of non–carbon based nutrients and agro-chemicals, the soil health has been damaged and the water holding capacity for soil has been totally reduced,” says Dr. KVSS Sairam, founder and president, Prathista Industries Ltd, a Hyderabad-based fertiliser company.

Green revolution was initiated to address the issue of food security for a growing population. Unfortunately, there was no other alternative, except introducing inorganic fertilisers to ensure large production as food has to be provided to feed a growing population and stop the nation’s dependence on imports.

The price of fertiliser is also accountable to an extent. Urea, which consists 46 percent of nitrogen, is a cheap fertilizer as the Government provides subsidy over Rs 50,000 Crore every year. Due to lack of understanding, farmers usually use urea, contributing to the deterioration of soil. This demands that we educate farmers to make them aware of the availability and judicious use of NPK fertilisers as well as micro-nutrients in farming.

Lamenting on the Government’s fertiliser subsidy policy, Gopikrishna SR, manager. sustainable agriculture campaign at Greenpeace India, says, “The fertiliser subsidy policy of the Government which heavily subsidises urea is the main reason for the indiscriminate use of fertilisers and impacts on soils. On the other hand, hardly any support is provided for adoption of ecological or organic fertilisation.” He further adds, “Soil degradation now poses a big threat to the food security of the country. Yield stagnation and declines in certain intensively cultivated regions are the indicators of this threat.”

Elaborating the soil’s physical health, Sudhanshu Srivastava, DGM – market development, Jaishree Rasayan Udyog Ltd, says, “Non-judicious use of agro-chemicals and fertilisers causes irreversible pH changes in soil, leading to imbalance in soil ecosystem and making land unfit for cultivation. It contaminates the water bodies and groundwater, leading to human as well as cattle health hazards.”

A number of laboratories and 638 Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs)are functioning across the country; more or less one each in every district. However, KVKs are starving for advanced educated or PhD people. They also need to have agri scientists connected with agri universities and other KVKs, and should do applied research. It should not be their job to just broadcast what others have discovered in a research stations like Pusa or in other places.

“KVKs should be solving the issue of farmers with scientific support in each and every districts. If the problem is not solved there, then they should use the network with universities and other KVKs. They should not repeat what other scientists did two years before. They have big potential to bring revolution in agriculture sector,” suggests, Dr. Peter E Kenmore, India Representative, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Educating farmers is vital when they go for agro-chemicals and fertilisers. A farmer might be knowing about DAP, recommended by most of the institutions to use it at the time of sowing. But the problem begins when it is not available in the market.

“Hybrid seeds are already available in the market, and if farmers are going to sow or cultivate the seeds it certainly requires high amount of fertiliser and irrigation. And if fertiliser is not available in the market, despite farmers’ affordability, then they cannot use them in farming,”says Dr. Surendra K Singh, Director at Nagpur-based National Bureau of Soil Survey and Land Use Planning.

According to Dr. Singh, Government needs to ensure the availability of fertilisers before the sowing, whether it is Kharif or Rabi season.

Of late, the Government has acknowledged that the soil health crisis has gripped Indian agriculture and the government has come up with programmes to support ecological fertilisation. Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY) and National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture have components to promote ecological fertilisation to improve soil health.

“Competing use of biomass at the grassroots level as cooking fuel, thatching material, etc. comes in the way of success of ecological fertilisation. Hence, a holistic strategy for biomass management is critical. Combining biogas, eco-sanitation and farm level interventions can bring multiple benefits to the rural landscape. Biogas can provide alternative cooking fuel, and the slurry can be used as fertiliser,” says Gopikrishna.

In order to minimise the usage of nitrogen, Dr. Kenmore suggests, “We can replace it with bio-fertiliser, rhizobium. Pulse seeds have rhizobium. Institutes like TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) and ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research) are focusing on mycorrhizae, which can be used in place of phosphorus. Mycorrhizae extends the length of the plant roots to grab phosphorus more efficiently. That’s the way we can overcome the shortage of phosphorous. The good mix of micro nutrients would give better yield.”

All inputs required for farming should be priced reasonably so that balanced nutrition may be encouraged. Srivastava suggests to do proper soil mapping in villages to ensure correct usage of fertilisers.

Currently, each district of India is equipped with KVK. These KVKs can bring a major change to agriculture in maintaining soil texture. All KVKs need to be equipped with soil testing laboratories where farmers can get soil samples tested easily. There should be a mechanism to recommend fertilisers as per the need of a particular crop and field.
The Central Government is currently planning to launch ‘Soil Health Card’ to all farmers across the country. The card will recommend crop-wise usage of fertilisers, facilitating farmers to increase productivity by judicious use of fertilisers and pesticides.

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