Soil holds Earth’s history, containing artifacts - from dinosaurs to ancient human civilizations - from our Earth’s past. Soil has a long story to tell and is a great connector of our lives. Since humans have engaged in agriculture they have relied on healthy soil and its ecosystem. Ancient civilizations had food systems that enhanced soil fertility as well as grew abundant food. But now we relentlessly disturb soil by pouring poisonous chemicals, injecting synthetic nutrients, slashing it with plows and striping its natural diversity. Scientists warn us that we only have about 60 years of productive soil left. Causality is limited availability of arable land and growing population, so where do we shift our attention? Key is efficiency and sustainability.
According to the national database on land degradation prepared by the Indian Space Research Organisation in 2016 showed that 120.7 million hectares (mha), or 36.7 % of India’s total arable and non-arable land, suffers from various forms of degradation with water erosion being its chief contributor in 83 mha (68.4 %). Fields are often flooded with water to the extent that they often cause erosion. The irony is that both the soil and water are lost in the process. The erosion further results in loss of organic carbon, nutrient imbalance, soil compaction, and decline in soil biodiversity. The major agricultural negatives to soil are:
Monocropping alters the microbial landscape of soil Crop rotation is becoming very popular among farmers but simple systems of rotating 2 crops does not provide benefits of complex systems rotating 3 or more crops over a year. To be able to rotate more crops requires relational information on crop, weather and soil, which is now possible with interventions of data based crop modelling.
Soil-Water balance The movement of water deep in the soil and interaction with the environment helps replenish the nutrients and organisms within the soil. When irrigation practices are inefficient the non-uniform water cycle leads to deformation in soil structure.
Synthetic Fertilizers and Pesticide Residues Industrial crop production has escalated over the past 50 years, so has the application of chemical-based products to improve productivity. Excessive usage leads to buildup of salts, accumulation of nitrate and heavy metal contamination. Some pesticides are broken down by microbial action or chemical reaction but rest accumulate in soil.
Tillage, Soil Compaction and Erosion Heavy farm equipment are becoming heavier and cause Compaction which leads to poor water absorption and poor aeration which further lead to stunted root growth in plants and soil degradation.
Such activities have created a negative feedback loop for soil and regenerative practices are required to keep soil a sustainable ecosystem.
How to support tired soil, what is the scope of innovation?
Adapt against climate change : Take actions based on insights and not intuition
Focus on building organic matter in soils : Give more than you take from the soil
Install long stretches of plant cover and trees : Let trees be our friend
Examine impact of chemical input on lives : Establish trust before usage
Shrink the tractors and reduce pressure on ground : Reduce the amount of ploughing and sowing, use tractors efficiently
In the years to come, the challenge will be to expand soil care from the microbial populations to water balance and to soil structure. We should strive to optimize the soil health system, and understand that “bad” practices may exist but balance it with “good” practices.
Stop treating the soil as ATM machines, in no time nothing will be left to squeeze. Life comes from the soil and ultimately returns to it, we are an inextricable part of it.