The global agriculture landscape is grappling on many fronts, with a single aim of ensuring quality food to people. It has emerged as a pressing concern for leaders and policymakers worldwide. This challenge is particularly accentuated in India, a nation set to experience exponential population growth, with estimates from the United Nations’ World Population Prospects 2022 projecting a rise to 166.8 crore by 2050.

At the core of this challenge lies the critical aspect of soil health, an often-underestimated contributor to food security and nutrition. As we delve into the intricate dimensions of global agriculture, it becomes imperative to recognise the pivotal role that soil health plays in achieving nutritional sufficiency. Recent research, linking health data of over one million adult women and nearly 300,000 children with 27 million soil assessments from all over the country, has unveiled an undeniable connection between soil zinc and childhood stunting in India. A one-standard-deviation increase in satisfactory soil zinc tests is associated with around 11 fewer children stunted per 1000 — an alarming statistic that underscores the profound impact of soil health on human well-being.

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The scientific evidence emphasises the difficulty of reviving soil once nutrient deficiencies have taken root. Soil, once depleted, becomes a daunting task to bring back to optimal health. Currently, India faces a challenge with soil organic carbon (SOC) content, a marker of healthy soil, hovering around 0.54 per cent, indicating a deficiency in major and micronutrients.

Plants, the source of our sustenance, draw nutrients and water from the soil. This makes ensuring healthy and balanced soil not just a preference but a necessity for high-quality crops that are able to withstand events such as pest attacks, expected to increase with extreme climate conditions. Globally, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates a staggering 40 per cent loss of crops to pests. In India, 15–20 per cent of principal food and cash crops succumb to insects and pests, posing a significant threat to nutritional security. Change in climatic conditions can expand their geographic distribution, increase survival during overwintering, increase risk of invasion by migratory pests, increase insect-transmitted plant diseases, and reduced effectiveness of natural enemies. Ensuring healthy soil will in turn ensure plants reduce their susceptibility to pests and diseases, while farmers are safeguarded from the possibility of decrease in yield.

The inter-connectedness of soil health and pest infestation reveals a crucial insight — the health of the soil ecosystem serves as a natural defence mechanism for crops, reducing the need for intensive chemical interventions. This not only safeguards the environment from the adverse effects of excessive pesticide use but also paves the way for sustainable agriculture. While increasing subsidies for fertilizers aim to support farmers, they often fall short in addressing the challenge of low nutrition efficiency comprehensively: Research indicates that despite subsidies, fertilizers such as urea, DAP, and MOP exhibit low nutrition efficiency due to lack of understanding among farmers. Educating them on fertilizer choices and available alternatives, including micronutrients, water-soluble fertilizers, liquid fertilizers, and foliar sprays, and training on integrated nutrient management are important steps toward ensuring nutritional sufficiency. Since these alternatives are often not subsidised, they remain less accessible to the farming community.

“Thar anar” in red desert

The recent report of farmers in the desert state of Rajasthan enjoying a massive produce of high-value pomegranate crop exemplifies the potential of precision agriculture. Farmers in Jodhpur and nearby districts have successfully cultivated lush pomegranate vegetation in an alkaline soil (pH 8) with low SOC content, using advanced assistance such as bud builder and calcium products, along with disease-free, tissue-cultured plants and drip irrigation. In addition to optimising the use of water, drip irrigation proved a game changer in fertiliser distribution with the irrigation water, known as fertigation. It has improved the financial status of the farmers – the land valued at ₹8,000 / bigha in 2004 is now valued at ₹5 lakh/bigha.

The success mirrors the achievements in Israel’s Negev desert where cherry tomatoes and olive groves showcase the transformative power of informed decision-making and innovative agricultural practices.

In the face of global challenges, the call for climate-friendly agriculture is loud and clear. Facilitative input materials, such as bio-stimulants and carbon-rich fertilisers, emerge as key components in enhancing soil health and contributing to climate mitigation efforts. The adoption of the 4R method — right nutrient, right time, right amount, and right source/form — can guide farmers toward sustainable agricultural practices. Achieving nutritional sufficiency is inseparable from cultivating healthy soils. It necessitates a paradigm shift toward precision agriculture, climate-friendly practices, and informed decision-making among farmers. It will not only contribute to increased agricultural productivity but also foster a sustainable and resilient future for generations to come. We must seize the opportunity to pave the way for a nourished and thriving world.

The author is Managing Director of Yara South Asia. Views are personal