Essentially, all life depends upon the soil. There can be no life without soil and no soil without life; they have evolved together.
—Charles E. Kellogg, USDA Yearbook of Agriculture, 1938
Soil is fundamental to the existence of life and it has often been referred to as a dynamic living entity as it acts as digestive system by decomposing and recycling the majority of the materials that are added to it, making them accessible for new life. Soil, a naturally occurring body, is a mixture that contains minerals, organic matter and living organisms. It serves as a natural medium for plant development, means of water and nutrient storage and a habitat for a wide range of organisms. Soil is a source of nutrients that are required by the plant for its optimal growth. Moreover, soil provides a conducive environment for the proliferation of microbes.
World Soil Day is celebrated on the 5th of December with different themes each year to spread awareness among the masses about the importance of soil and its overall health. Each year, various campaigns focus on bringing attention to different aspects of soil conservation. This year’s theme is: ‘Soil, where food begins’.
It wouldn’t be wrong for us to say that life cannot exist without soil. Soil, despite being an important resource, is highly neglected and underrated. The productivity of agricultural soils has been declining globally in recent years. To satiate our need of growing more food, the soil has been exploited to the point that now it has started affecting plant and animal health. Due to intensive farming practices, excessive nutrient and pesticide use by crops, and a lack of replenishment from organic sources, the soil is beginning to show signs of weariness.
Soils vary in properties, and these varied characteristics influence its natural abilities to support life and maintain environmental quality. The inherent properties of soil can be realized by assessing its health. Soil health is indicative of its capacity to function in such a way as to sustain and support soil fauna and flora, maintain soil quality and promote plant and animal health. Thus, the soil becomes an essential resource for human survival.
A healthy soil:
- Provides a medium for healthy plant growth.
- Retains and supplies essential plant nutrients.
- Stores water for plants and helps transport nutrients to the root system.
- Supports and maintains a diverse microbial population.
- Has a balanced pH.
- Acts as an environmental buffer.
- Sequesters heavy metals.
- Assists in pest and disease suppression.
A set range of characteristics cannot be assigned to healthy soil as soil health characteristics vary with different crops and locations. The exact soil composition i.e., mineral matter, organic matter, microbial population and water content varies from place to place making the relative evaluation necessary.
Soil health covers all physical, chemical, and biological characteristics, hence, a more holistic approach as compared to just the fertility aspect. Soil health indicates the capacity of the soil to function in a way to sustain and support soil microbes, maintain soil quality, and promote plant and animal health. The only way to determine the soil health status is by getting our soils tested and matching these soil characteristics with the crop requirement.
Healthy soil ensures good quality produce and a healthy crop stand by providing favorable conditions. It increases the capacity of crops to withstand weather variability and stress conditions like drought. An unhealthy soil will not ensure an optimal supply of essential plant nutrients which in turn will hamper crop growth and ultimately decrease our yield.
As per the government reports, India’s degraded land expanded to 97.84 million hectares in 2018-19, up from 96.32 million hectares in 2011-13. According to The World Bank report, the fertilizer consumption in India is about 209.4 kg/hectare of arable land. The NPK fertilizer consumption in the year 2020 was recorded to be 127.790 kg/ha which increased to 137.150 kg/ha in the year 2021. The values suggest that there has been an indiscriminate use of fertilizers to increase production, but what we don’t realize is that this is only going to leave the land degraded and lead to its compaction. An integrated approach to land management thus needs to be adopted to conserve soil health while improving the quality as well as the quantity of our produce. The integrated system of soil management is based on using organic fertilizers in combination with inorganic ones. This system recommends that the inorganic chemicals should be used strategically, preferably in split doses along with the organic manures.
In Jammu and Kashmir, since 1972, more than 800 km2 of agricultural land have been transformed into horticultural and residential areas. Turning land into orchards means increased use of chemicals like pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers, thereby adding up more chemical residues to the soil. The land conversion should only be done while keeping into consideration its capability and suitability. To maintain a balance among various land use and land cover types in the state, the government must develop and administer an appropriate land use policy. The wrong choice of plants, bad farming practices, imbalance in the application of fertilizer, lack of suitable planting patterns and the choice of land use to harness maximum potential of the farmers’ resources have all had a substantial influence on the efficiency of land resources.
Over the years, we have added enormous amounts of inorganic fertilizers to our soils, rendering them unproductive. Overuse of fertilizers affects various soil chemical and physical parameters negatively and can lead to a decline in the soil microbe population.
In recent years, the idea of land-based holistic development has evolved as one of the promising alternatives to increasing agricultural output and sustainability. Any economically and environmentally sound agricultural system requires healthy soil. Sustainable and efficient crop and soil management systems can only be designed by having a proper understanding of various soil processes and the effects of management practices on them. Based on our management practices, soil health can either improve or degrade further. Soil’s physical, chemical and biological characteristics are highly affected by how it’s managed. A healthy soil provides a favourable ecosystem that supports plant growth and regulates soil quality.
We need to work with our soil, not against it, to improve its resilience. A region’s sustainable development requires not only the reclamation and conservation of environmental assets, particularly soil, but also a scientific foundation for environmentally conscious management. An integrated approach needs to be followed to ensure sustainability. Soil health can be improved by adopting the following practices:
- Sufficient manure application: The application of organic manure is recommended either after the harvest or before sowing to replenish the organic matter of the soil.
- Integrated nutrient management: An approach that recommends using organic manures along with synthetic fertilizers to increase productivity while conserving the soil for future use. This system of nutrient management helps in preventing soil deterioration and promotes carbon sequestration.
- Application of soil amendments: Any organic or inorganic material added to soil to improve its properties is known as a soil amendment. This practice helps to provide a better soil environment for plant and microbial growth. Some commonly used amendments are compost, sawdust, lime, etc.
- Inoculating soils with effective microorganisms: Various formulations of microbes are available that help in increasing the availability of nutrients to the plants. Soil microbial populations significantly affect soil and crop health. The microbes act on the organic matter and release nutrients into the soil which can then be taken by the plants for various metabolic activities.
- Crop rotation and cover cropping: Sequentially planting different crops on the same field helps improve soil conditions, increases biodiversity, has a positive effect on soil microbes and helps combat various pests and disease cycles.
- Regular soil testing: The soil should be tested regularly to formulate proper nutrient management strategies. It aids in confirming any deficiency or toxicity-related disorders. It helps us to understand the soil better and restore its health.
Working in the farming sector for quite some time now, I have realized that there is a huge gap that needs to be filled. Our farming community needs to be made aware of the effects of both over and under-use of agrochemicals. If we take nutrient management in a traditional apple orchard, for instance, it is recommended that the fertilizers should be given in split doses, but what happens in the field is that the entire recommended quantity and even more than that is applied at the start of the season. A larger portion of this applied fertilizer is lost in the soil and negatively impacts the uptake of other nutrients present in it. The orchardists then complain of the fruit not being of good quality and various other physiological disorders.
In Kashmir application of cow dung to the soil is a common practice. Well-decomposed cow dung is organic manure that helps in improving soil qualities. This cow dung, when applied in raw, not fully decomposed form, has a negative effect on soil. It affects nutrient availability, mostly nitrogen, and also acts as a carrier for various pests. Hence it should be ensured that well-decomposed organic manures are added to our soils at the start of the growing season to ensure that our soil contains enough organic matter for the proliferation of helpful soil microbes.
Fertilizer application should be in line with the crop requirements as well as the current soil health status. The soils should be tested before the fertilizer application so that any nutrient deficiencies or toxicities are confirmed and a fertilizer schedule is formulated accordingly. This will help us to target deficiencies and toxicities and take remedial measures accordingly. The efficiency of agrochemicals can be increased by applying them at the right time, in right quantities and by employing right methods.
Sustainability is the only way forward. Campaigns for soil conservation have been very impactful in bringing attention to soil health. It is imperative to educate farmers and other stakeholders on the importance of soil health so that they can achieve better quality yield without deteriorating the soil. We need to have a proper understanding of the land limits. It only takes a minute and if you dig a little, you’ll learn a lot about the health and activity of your soil. Integrated management plans need to be introduced to ensure sustainable farming for improved soil health. Regular testing would help us in understanding what’s going on inside our soil and how it responds to different fertilizers and crops. This Soil Day, let’s just look into our soils.
Mariya Dar has a master’s in soil sciences.