Farmers and agricultural scientists ushered in the Green Revolution since mid 1960s that saved hundreds of millions from starvation, and made India a proud and a food exporter nation. The grain production increased from 50 million ton (Mt) in 1947 to 273 Mt in 2017, by a factor of 5.5, and population by a factor of 4.0 from 330 million to 1339 million.

However, there is no cause for complacency because even bigger challenges lie ahead, including: 1.) ending hunger which affects 196 million people and many more are malnourished, 2.) restoring environment quality that includes soil degradation, water contamination and, air pollution, 3.) addressing the flood-drought syndrome, 4.) increasing the use efficiency of resources , 5.) narrowing the yield gap, 6.) increasing farm income, and 7.) restoring respectability and dignity of the farm and agricultural profession.

India must reconcile the need for advancing food and nutritional security with the necessity of improving the environment and restoring the respect and dignity of the agriculture. Because soil resources are ignored and taken for granted, 35% of soils (114 million out of 328 hectare) are degraded by erosion, salinisation, nutrient imbalance, water logging and depletion of soil organic matter content. Soil degradation is exacerbated by: removing crop residues, burning of biomass, roaming of cattle and excessive grazing, using animal dung for household cooking rather than manuring, practicing flood irrigation, applying unbalanced fertilisers (more N and less P, K, S, and micro-nutrients), using ploughing, and removing top soil for brick making.

These practices jeopardise soil functionality, degrade soil health, reduce activity and species diversity of soil biota, decrease quality and renewability of water, exacerbate emission of greenhouse gases, pollute air and cause global warming. The stagnation or decline in yield of crops (i.e., wheat) between 2007 and 2017 is caused by reduction in soil organic matter content to less than 0.1% in the root zone in most soils of the western Indo-Gangetic Plains and elsewhere, and the attendant decline in use efficiency of inputs.

The food grain potential of India is as much as 550 Mt per year. Plant breeding has and must continue to be an important component of enhancing and sustaining agricultural production. However, natural resources must never ever be ignored, and specific attention must also be given to minimising the post-harvest losses (of food grains, fruits and vegetables) because wasting food is basically a crime against nature.

Restoring soil health is also essential to increasing nutritional quality of food, and improving the environment because the health of soil, plants, animals, people and the environment is one and indivisible. The soil-centric agriculture is integral to advancing Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. The strategy is to produce more from less so that the use of inputs can be reduced and land resources saved for nature conservancy.

Farmers and land managers must be encouraged to: stop in-field burning of crop residues, eliminate flood-based irrigation, avoid scalping of topsoil for brick making, discourage broadcasting of fertilisers in standing water, replace traditional with modern household fuel, control grazing and grow fodder/cover crops, eliminate soil puddling  and unnecessary ploughing, reduce post-harvest losses of food by improving storage and creating value addition, use fertilisers and pesticides judiciously and discriminately, create disease-suppressive soils by improving activity and species diversity of soil biota, and keep soil always covered and protected against vagaries of climate.

Policies must be implemented to protect prime soil resources against rapid urbanisation, brick making, and haphazard development. Soil organic matter content must be restored, recognising that it is a slow but an essential process that occurs at generational scale. A system-based conservation agriculture must be promoted among all and sundry and it must comprise of residue mulch, no-till, integrated nutrient management, cover cropping, integration of crops with trees and livestock, water harvesting and recycling with micro-irrigation. Soil science and related environmental subjects must be included in the curricula, beginning with the primary and secondary education to the college and post-graduate degrees.

The importance of soil and natural resources must be communicated to the general public through media, civic society and religious organisations. Education, especially of girls, is critical to improving family health and nutrition, and controlling the burgeoning population. All religions of India preach the same gospel.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Fortune India

Rattan Lal
Rattan Lal

The author is distinguished university professor of soil science, and director, carbon and sequestration center at the Ohio State University

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