World Soil Day: Tackle soil pollution and do away with food insecurity, says FAO

The UN agency says that addressing this issue will also help bring down soil degradation, stem rural migration and adapt to climate change
Addressing the issue of soil pollution will also help nations achievement many Sustainable Development Goals. Credit: Vikas Choudhary/CSE
Addressing the issue of soil pollution will also help nations achievement many Sustainable Development Goals. Credit: Vikas Choudhary/CSE

Farmers’ rights, compensation for farm produce, burning of crop residue and farm loan waiver have several times claimed limelight in the ongoing agrarian crisis, but a crucial reason for this mess is brushed aside: soil pollution.

As December 5 marks the World Soil Day, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) observes soil pollution as this year’s theme. According to the FAO, it is vital to tackle soil pollution to reduce the risk of food security and human health. By preventing soil pollution, we can also address soil degradation, adapt to climate change and stem rural migration.

Addressing soil pollution is also directly linked to the achievement of many Sustainable Development Goals, says the outcome document, Be the solution to soil pollution, published by FAO this year.

India’s battle with poor soils

The Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences estimate that 71 per cent of the country’s cultivated fields and croplands are moving towards conditions that would no longer support farming.

“Burning crop residue, reduced manuring, intensive cropping and excessive application of agrochemicals have resulted in the decline of soil fertility in many areas,” says Tomio Shichiri, FAO India representative. Excessive tillage and unsustainable agricultural practices also contribute to declining organic matter in the soil and this leads to erosion.

“The most widely recognised function of soil is its ability to support food production and healthy soils are key to the overall food sustainability,” says Konda Reddy, assistant FAO representative.

In fact, 95 per cent of the food is directly or indirectly produced in soils and nearly 80 per cent of the average calorie consumption per person comes from crops directly grown in the soil, says Reddy.

Towards healthy soils

Several diverse farming approaches promote sustainable management of soils with the goal of improving food productivity. The Save and Grow practice consists of a set of techniques that advocate the production of more with less. It focuses on conserving agriculture, maintenance of soil health and pest control. Then there is also the Zero Budget Natural Farming, which is being targeted at 6 million farmer households in Andhra Pradesh.

Many farmers in Andhra Pradesh’s Anantapur district are gradually shifting to polycropping from the prevalent groundnut monoculture being practised since generations, which has greatly impacted soil health. The concept of permaculture integrates traditional and new practices in which all the things required in farming are produced in the farm itself, resulting in food self-sufficiency.

Among many benefits, it also addresses soil fertility. “One of the core issues that permaculture tackles is that of resources. Using design, we focus on conservation and proliferation of a given resource, be it sunlight, water and soil,” says Hyderabad-based permaculturist Dwarakanath Jnaneswar.

There is no doubt that modern agricultural practices like monoculture make the soil vulnerable. Kamal Vatta, director, Centers for International Projects Trust, a global centre for research on agriculture, says that monoculture, which has been practiced for years in India, really affects soil health. “It leads to the depletion of soil nutrients and creates a huge imbalance. Soil nutrient deficiency is one of the biggest hurdles Indian agriculture is facing right now. Intensification has led to over reliance on chemical fertilisers. Our soil lacks micronutrients like iron and manganese. The food we grow also lacks these and, hence, we are also deficient in nutrients. The country’s prime focus has always been on Punjab, Haryana and Western UP. We should have invested in irrigation in other states like Jharkhand where mostly agriculture is rain-fed,” adds Vatta.

The usage of urea is still very high and few farmers use organic fertilisers. While adding to that, Kailash Pandey, senior climatologist at the UP-based non-profit, Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group, says, “We are advising farmers to go for integrated cropping patterns where they can grow multiple crops at the same time as it is good for soil health.”

Environmentalists believe soil degradation is a serious matter and it is so because of wrong management practices and inappropriate land use. ML Jat of International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, a global non-profit, says, “As we need more food from lesser resources, sustainable intensification is the way forward. It can keep our soil health in check and also improve it. We need to recycle what we take from the soil.” 

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