When there is no soil left in this world

KP Prabhakaran Nair | Updated on: Mar 09, 2018


There will be no water, and no life. Yet, policies on soil rejuvenation are hardly in evidence

Land has become the most sought after “commodity” in India, but is anybody looking at it from the perspective of soil? If there is no soil, there is no life on planet earth. There are umpteen projects on water management. The Water Research Institute has even instituted a “water prize”, which has gone to an Indian — Rajendra Singh, better known as India’s “water man”. But, can there be water without soil?

Let me explain. When a water molecule falls on earth (soil) it has two atoms, hydrogen and oxygen (H2O). Hydrogen is positively charged while oxygen is negatively charged. A soil clay particle is excessively negatively charged and it is to this that the hydrogen atom, which is positively charged, is attracted, which in turn, attracts a negatively charged oxygen atom. Thus a chain of water molecules are held on the clay surface. In other words, if there was no soil, all the condensed rain drops falling from the sky during monsoon would simply wash into the sea.

No vision

But people either talk of water alone or soil alone. Even in the case of Rajendra Singh, it is only water. Hardly do I come across people who talk of soil and water within one framework. Even in a rainfall excess State such as Kerala, we have a huge monolith of an institute called the Centre for Research on Water Development and Management. But without soil there is no water.

2015 is the International Year of Soils, but how many of us are aware of this? Are we treating our soil like dirt, an inert commodity? In this context, it would be very relevant to make an observation, if only in passing, about the manner in which Indian agricultural scientists, more importantly those who deal with soils, have managed them. Have they treated our wide and varied soils with vision?

This question must be answered against the background of the so-called green revolution which has fallen on its face since the early eighties, with falling crop yields and attendant soil-related problems. Soils were treated as just dumping grounds for fertilisers to extract ever more yields.

Even our fertiliser policy is skewed against soil health. Why would a Punjab or Haryana farmer keep dumping so much urea, carrying only nitrogen, one of the three principal crop nutrients, besides phosphorus and potassium? Because it has a price advantage as compared to the latter. Farmers overuse urea in the hope that what they lose on phosphorous and potassium can be more than made up with the unbridled use of urea, upsetting a healthy nutrient balance in soil, and severely affecting the carbon balance, leading to all the subsequent soil-related problems observed in Punjab, the cradle of the green revolution.

Destructive orgy

A recent paper published in the journal Anthropocene analyses the undisturbed sediments in an 11th century French lake. It reveals that the intensification of farming over the past century has increased the rate of soil erosion sixty-fold. Another paper by researchers in the UK shows that soil in all “allotments” contains 30 per cent more organic carbon than agricultural soils and 25 per cent more nitrogen. The highly extractive green revolution has contributed to severe carbon depletion in soil.

Landowners around the world are now engaged in an orgy of soil destruction so intense that, according to FAO, the world on average has just 60 more years of growing crops. To keep up with the global food demand, the UN estimates 6 million hectares of new farmland will be needed every year. Instead, 12 million hectares are lost annually through soil degradation.

If one looks at man’s history, whenever soils desertified, civilisations collapsed. The Roman civilisation collapsed when the north African soils desertified. I would humbly submit that the Modi government or the Opposition look at the whole question not just as “land” but as “soil”, on which the very life of India sustains.

The writer is a senior fellow of The Humboldt Foundation

Published on April 06, 2015
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