The imperative to Save Our Soil

Do you remember how all media outlets were covering the fire in the Amazon rainforest just two months ago? And how celebrities were pledging money to fight it? Well, the Amazon rainforest (and the world) is still reeling from this disaster and will continue to bear the brunt of its after effects for years to come. This fire has raging for months and it would appear that humankind – who can otherwise dream of colonising Mars – can’t do much to contain it fully. This certainly seems – and definitely is – very problematic. Some might argue that forest fires are a natural occurrence and are crucial to the rejuvenation of the forests. But when people use fire to clear up large areas for agricultural purposes, can it be argued that the positives still outnumber the negatives? Do we not have a better approach that isn’t as destructive as a forest fire?

There are a lot of human practices that contribute to adverse changes in nature but agriculture intuitively doesn’t seem like it fits in there. It’s all about growing plants after all. So it is shocking to find out that a common agricultural practice, crop residue burning, is one of the major contributors to air pollution in our country. Crop residue burning is carried out to clear the farm after harvesting. It is mainly done in wheat and paddy fields where harvesting machines used by farmers leave behind a portion of the crop making it difficult for the farmers to prepare the land for a new batch of crops. This practice, however, has a major impact on the fertility of the soil and the scale at which it is carried out has made it a major contributor to air pollution in North India. During the winter, majority of the air pollution in Delhi is a contribution from crop residue burning in Punjab and Haryana. Due to this increased exposure to pollution, there is a higher risk of acute respiratory infection which is pushing a collective population of 75 million to an early death.

Studies have shown that crop residue burning is directly responsible for regional and global propagation of airborne microbes that are a potential health hazard. Crop residue burning not only majorly contributes to air pollution but it also destroys the soil in several ways, ultimately rendering it useless for agriculture. What is soil? Minerals, organic material and a mass of organisms that have made it their homes. Fire destroys all of these. Frequent crop residue burning can damage upto 15cms of the soil and if the soil is damaged to that extent nothing can live there anymore. Fire renders the chemical elements in the soil unsuitable for plant growth. Fire sucks out all the moisture of the top soil leaving the land barren. Soil is abundant but soil is useful only because of everything it contains. The ash created due to paddy burning makes the soil highly alkaline and hostile to plant growth. Plants have a symbiotic relationship with a lot of organisms in soil. It’s an ecosystem. Different types of organisms help crops in different ways. It eliminates the indigenous microbial population of the soil rendering it biologically infertile. There are good bacteria and there are bad bacteria but fire does not discriminate, does it?

What Is It Costing Us?
Other than our lives

The Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare has allotted Rs 1,151.9 crore for 2019-2020 (Haryana and Punjab) to subsidise Straw Management Systems to remove crop residue. This is supposed to be a countermeasure to the toll of crop burning which is estimated to be around Rs 2 lakh crore annually, which is absurd because that is thrice as much as India’s central health budget. We are spending THREE TIMES as much as our central health budget to stop our farmers from lighting their farms on fire. In 2018-19 alone, these two states together have burnt through Rs 400 crore to prevent stubble burning. Their government has used satellite-based remote sensing to detect a whopping 75,563 events of crop residue burning which raises the question of whether such sophisticated technology was even necessary to see such mass fires.

Why Is It Happening
At all?

It can be said that crop residue burning is a direct result of machine harvesting, where, a portion of the crop is left unremoved. The Government issues subsidies on farming equipment which leaves the farmers with no other choice but to try and make use of them even if it is counterproductive because that is all the help that they get. There are also machines to clear crop residue from the farms but farmers have admitted that none of the machinery is needed and that it only increases the expenditure (once the subsidy wears off) and takes training to operate. These sorts of subsidies are actually the result of the residual thought process of the era of Green Revolution when machinery and synthetic fertilisers were promoted as the way forward for better agricultural results. But after decades of land and groundwater pollution caused by chemical fertilizers, we can all agree that it is well past time that we figured out a sustainable solution instead of following harmful and failed “modern” ideas.

The government is slowly picking up on what needs to be done. The government think-tank NITI Aayog is reaching out for technologies that are available to convert crop residue into compost. They are interested in investing in research on the use of agricultural waste and how it can be managed. This is a big step in the right direction because agricultural reforms are heavily dependent on government policies. It is only now with new research and studies about the harmful effects of aggressive agricultural methods that the old mentality of “modern farming” is slowly being put aside.

What Are The Alternatives?

  • There are sensible alternatives.
  • Producing compressed natural gas from compost is one of the most economically useful and feasible methods to tackle crop burning.
  • To retain and enhance the fertility of the soil, which is the need of the hour, composting the residue to produce organic fertilizer is the best solution for agriculture.

 

What Is Our Role In This?
You and I

We produce a lot of organic waste which is a blessing in disguise but we refuse to make use of it. Annually our paddy farms produce a net residue that is 3.85 million tonnes of organic carbon, 59,000 tonnes of nitrogen, 20,000 tonnes of phosphorus, and 34,000 tonnes of potassium and it is just being burned away. Even though we know that these minerals are very important ingredients used to fertilise plants. If we start composting all our organic waste, our soil might start recovering and with the right steps its potential could be enhanced to return to how it should be.

Organica Biotech has come up with a technology specifically to help farmers naturally maximise their soil’s potential using agro waste residues. Moving on to composting instead of burning the crop residue will save soil from further degradation. But to bring back its fertility to where it initially was, it should be treated with the minerals that it has been stripped of. Organica Biotech has a range of primary and secondary nutrient solubilisers that help the crop take up the nutrients in the soil that are in biologically unavailable forms.

What I Think
Nothing radical

The agricultural techniques that our people have practiced for thousands of years have been all but lost in less than a century because of the invasion of “modern” farming methods. The aggressive farming methods that have been adopted recently are destroying the future of agriculture. The physical, chemical and biological nature of our soil has been under attack from pesticides, fertilizers, large scale farming of single crops, crop residue burning and erosion, caused by ignorant ideas. This exploitation of soil is not sustainable. Despite what science and technology is capable of, we are not even close to having mastered the physical world to a degree where we can be careless of our actions here. For a long (really long) foreseeable future, earth is all we have and even if it is possible to go somewhere else, is exploiting all available resources to the point of no return a sensible way to move forward for our civilization? That doesn’t seem intelligent.

Conscious farming is not a passing trend to endorse and discard, sustainability must be our way of life.

We are a subcontinent. Our vast motherland is speckled with tremendous geographical variety. We can find a place here to naturally grow anything from anywhere in the world. Most of the new studies and surveys indicate that we were a land of surplus before implementing the modern techniques introduced from outside. We have grown the tastiest mangoes for millennia purely by natural hybridization. Our agricultural knowledge as a society isn’t trivial. There is no reason other than willful ignorance to let our soil degrade any further. Let us make the switch to sustainable methods because we are now informed enough to definitively say that it is the right decision for our agriculture, for our health and for our planet.

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