A recent global symposium by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) on soil and nutrition brought together scientists and policymakers to review the status and challenges of soil fertility in relation to crop, animal, and human nutrition. The urgency to protect soil was emphasised to build nutritious agri-food systems for enhanced human health while also protecting the environment. With the target date for meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) fast approaching, it emphasised the urgency to reverse soil degradation and tackle its effects on agri-food systems.
In India, the rapid degradation of topsoil is raising concerns about agricultural productivity and food security. According to the National Bureau of Soil Survey and Land Use Planning, soil degradation is estimated in 147 million hectares of the country’s land. Degraded soil lacks the ability to provide physical support as well as the chemical and biological environment for nutrient flow to plant roots, adversely affecting the mechanisms and quantum of crop nutrient uptake.
A primary reason for the decline in soil fertility is the rampant use of fertiliser and pesticides that have depleted the soil of organic matter, adversely impacting its capacity to store and supply essential nutrients. According to the CEO of the National Rainfed Area Authority, Ashok Dalwai, the organic matter in soil has reduced from 1% to almost 0.3% in the past 70 years.
Poor soil health directly impacts the nutrient content of the cereals, fruits, and vegetables grown in it. The National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) found a significant decrease in the nutrition level of most food items between 1989 and 2017. The level of carbohydrates in wheat declined by 9.1%, whereas the protein in whole brown lentils and red gram decreased to the tune of 10.4% and 2.7%, respectively. NIN found a significant decline in other minerals including protein, calcium, iron, and phosphorus in various fruits and vegetables over this period.
Following the period of the Green Revolution in the 1960s, the focus of the food system has been on increasing the productivity of basic staples through rampant usage of fertiliser, while neglecting the health of the soil. As a result, most crops are grown on soil that lacks organic matter and leads to the production of crops deficient in micronutrients. Such food crops can cause severe and invisible health problems known as hidden hunger. A 2017 Harvard University study raised alarming concerns for India as it stated that the country is likely to bear the greatest burden of such hidden hunger, with an estimated 50 million people becoming zinc deficient, 38 million becoming protein deficient, and 502 million women and children becoming vulnerable to diseases associated with iron deficiency. Even the last two rounds of the National Family Health Surveys (NFHS) point to the falling nutritional status of a significant section of the Indian population. According to the survey, more than 35.5% of the country’s children below the age of five are stunted and 67% suffer from anaemia. The cases of anaemia among women have risen to 57% as per NFHS-5 (2019-20), up from 53% in NFHS-4 (2015-16). Further, obesity among women has increased from 20.6% in 2015-16 to 24% in 2019-20. Men in the same age group have also experienced a rise in the levels of obesity.
While the government has initiated several programmes to tackle undernutrition, the connection of soil with nutrient deficiencies in crops, food, and humans is not so discernible. India has not paid adequate attention to the importance of soil to provide nutrients to support crop growth with the overarching goal of eradicating malnutrition.
The need of the hour is to focus on the interconnection among soil, plant, and human health. Globally, regenerative organic agriculture has emerged as one of the most effective methods to combat malnutrition. With its core principle based on the preservation of topsoil through minimal tillage, planting cover crops, increasing biodiversity, and integration of livestock, regenerative agriculture has the potential to increase productivity and produce nutritionally dense food. With adequate training facilities and policy incentives, farmers could adopt regenerative farming to address issues of soil degradation and low productivity, and help reduce the problem of undernutrition in the country.
Prerna Terway is the founder of Tuvai Organics and Ranjana Roy is fellow, ICRIER
The views expressed are personal