Improving Soil Health for Enhancing Food and Nutritional Security

– Dipak Zade and Nitin Kumbhar

Healthy soils are vital for sustainable food production and ensuring food security of the people. However, soils today are under great stress due to various causes, degradation being one of the major ones.  Globally, land degradation affects some 1.9 billion hectares of land and leads to loss of 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil per year. In the future, this will have serious consequences as the world population is expected to reach almost 8.5 billion by 2030 and 9.7 billion by 2050[1] whereas estimates of global food demands indicate that the food production by then needs to increase by 40- 70% as compared to 2010 levels[2]. Aggravating the situation, land degradation over the next 25 years may reduce global food production by approximately 12% resulting in an increase of, as much as, 30% of world food prices[3].

Of the total geographic area (328.7 million hectares) of India, about 37% is degraded land. Erosion and acidification are the two main causes for this degradation accounting for 79% and 15% respectively[4]. Acknowledging the severity of the problem, the year 2015 was declared as the “International Year of the Soils” by the United Nations.

Within the state of Maharashtra too, the picture is grim. About 32% of the land is degraded and erosion accounts for 91% (Graph 1). This degradation has severe implications on food security and livelihood as 55% of the population is directly or indirectly dependent on the farm income[5].

Graph 1: Area affected by various kind of land degradation in Maharashtra

new graph

WOTR  conducted a study to understand the current status of land degradation, its causes, farm management practices employed by people and the perceived impacts of the varying climatic conditions. The study was conducted with our partner organisations GIZ  and NABARD in 21 villages spread across three districts in Maharashtra- Ahmednagar, Dhule and Jalna . Ten percent farmer households from these villages were interviewed.

The findings of the study raised several concerns as follows: seventy five percent of the farmers faced soil erosion in their fields; 23% reported salinity as the cause of their land degradation. The use of organic manure was found to be very low; there was  excessive use of chemical fertilizers which has resulted in decline in soil fertility and productivity of some major crops in these villages. In Ahmednagar, the average productivity of food crops like sorghum and maize as reported by the farmers was lower than the district average productivity. Similarly, in Jalna and Dhule, the productivity of pulses and oilseed was found to be lower than the district average productivity.

This is not to say that farmers are unaware of the magnitude of the problem. Most of the farmers acknowledge that the soil quality in their farms is deteriorating as a result of excess use of chemical fertilizers. Flood irrigation, the most common method used for irrigation, often leads to excess application of water, which over the period of time may lead to soil salinity.

In discussion with farmers, all indicted to know the soil quality status of their fields. Yet, only 12% of them had done soil tests in the past. Farmers expected support of government extension services because they lacked knowledge and technical information on good crop management practices and modern technologies. In their need for good information, they resort to the local agriculture service providers (Krishi-Seva Kendra). However, these being private service providers, their advice are mainly for the promotion of the service providers’ products – seeds, fertilizers, pesticides. There are many instances where  farmers have been duped by them by providing inferior qualitseeds and pesticides.

soil health distribution

Distribution of soil health cards in Parner block

Added to these issues, climate variability is of major concern too. Most farmers reported that during the last few years they faced weather variations such as irregular rainfall, high intensity rainfall, high temperatures and hail. This too has aggravated crop losses and further deterioration of soil quality. Keeping in mind the key findings related to soil health management, soil tests were carried out. This is important in deciding the type of crops to be grown and to balance the quantity of nutrients required for optimizing production. Today, farmers  are learning to balance plant nutrient inputs based on soil test results. As part of an Integrated Plant Nutrient Management Approach, now farmers are applying organic manure, bio-fertilizers and organic formulations with minimum quantity of chemical fertilizers as per the required dosage for the plant.

seed treatment with rhizobium culture.jpg

Seed treatment with Rhizobium culture

Furthermore, WOTR has initiated a campaign promoting eco-friendly agricultural practices such as the use of vermicompost, compost, green manure, “jeevamrut”, bio-pesticides, organic mulching etc. Today, farmers are using treated farm wastes such as crop residues, straw, dried leaf, cow dung, cow urine etc. for these preparations. Farmers have realized that the application of these organic practices not only increase crop production but also save water by improving water holding capacity of the soil.

 

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Vermicompost bed

Since the project began, farmers are  aware about the importance of cropping pattern and crop rotation with legumes for soil health improvement. Farmers residing in tribal and hilly areas now cultivate erosion resisting crops like groundnut and green gram along the contour across the slope to reduce runoff and soil loss. They have recognized that green manure with glyricidia sunhemp, improves soil aeration and  improves the nutrient availability on light soils and facilitates drainage on heavy soils. In addition to green manure, bio-pesticides are prepared with locally available material. These are low cost as compared with chemical pesticides. Farmers have learned to prepare bio-pesticides like “Dashparni ark”, Neem Seed Kernel Extract (NSKE) in their groups and share these with other farmers.

Speaking about the benefits of organic farming, Somnath Palve, a 37 year old farmer from Kutewadi village, Ahmednagar district says that: due to organic farming, crops are less susceptible to pest and diseases, have better crop growth and development. Moreover, fruits and vegetables have comparatively more shelf life and taste better. The organic produce has good market demand and  fetches better prices too.

Although, the time span for these intervention activities has been a year, there is an increased awareness among farmers regarding the impact of land degradation on soil health. They have begun to adopt different soil health management practices and eco-friendly agriculture techniques to achieve food and nutrition security.

[1]United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2015). World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, Key Findings and AdvanceTables. Working Paper No. ESA/P/WP.241.

[2]FAO and ITPS. 2015.Status of the World’s Soil Resources (SWSR) – Technical Summary. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nationsand Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils, Rome, Italy.

[3]http://www.unccd.int/Lists/SiteDocumentLibrary/WDCD/DLDD%20Facts.pdf

[4]Ministry of Environment and Forests, Desertification, Land Degradation and Drought in Context of India-

Elucidation of fifth National Report, Government of India, New Delhi, 2014.

[5]http://niti.gov.in/writereaddata/files/Maharashtra_Report_0.pdf

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