Soiled Soils ‘N’ Adulterated Roots


SOILED SOILSSo speculations now have a concrete form and we are on our way to the dead end. Extinctions have happened before and this is the sixth  time, so, is it good news? It hasn’t been long since Haria, a small farmer of Bihar, lost his daughter to kidney failure. Reason, she consumed food and water laced with chemicals. But since when have farmers been growing chemicals?

He has been earning better profits since the “angrezi dawai” (chemical fertilizer) helped increase the yield manifold. The long term cost was however, sad. The rising output has been brought about by heavy chemical fertilizers which are eroding the long term productivity of the land besides causing health issues both for plants and humans. Still, most of the farmers remain unaware or chooses to be so as profits are hard to keep hands off. There are a number of signals that our earth showed before finally hitting the towards-extinction button. The agents of restoration of soil nutrients like farm rats, earthworms, insects, leguminous plants and some beneficial weeds were all blindly categorized as bad for productivity and eliminated only to be later credited as an important agent of maintaining the production capacity of the soil. Some local farmers who now have a fair understanding of the negativities of chemical driven agriculture say, “We were very happy with the initial demonstrations of the hybrid seeds, pesticides and fertilizers. All the problems of rodents, plant diseases, weeds were solved; besides a lot of labor cost was saved. But today, we fail to understand how to revive our land. A lot of it now fails to produce enough even after using the chemicals.”

So what went wrong? Soil experts explain that these chemical fertilizers helped in increasing produce, improve quality of yield in lesser time as compared to the natural fertilizers but all at a superficial level. At a fundamental level, these were actually interfering with the natural cycles of our ecosystem and disastrous results were therefore but inevitable.

Taking us across some plots; C M Baswarajappa, a farmer in Karnataka, said, “When we started areca nut plantations we were very happy. There was much more profit than paddy but in last five years things have deteriorated. Water table across several districts has reached a ‘poor level’. Soil has become saline and some new diseases now plague our crops. They are are also affecting our health.” Soil scientists explain that these chemicals and other ‘interfering’ human activities have disturbed the nitrogen cycle of our ecosystem. Soil nutrients like calcium and potassium are being lost at alarming rates leading to acidifi cation of soil. “These fertilizers take more nutrients from the soil than a root would extract naturally. Secondly, they allow farmers to grow three  or more crops in one year thus putting excess burden on the soil. The soil on one hand is losing excess nutrients and on the other hand is not being given the required time to revive the nutrients. Thus, after a period of time, soil goes saline, less productive and finally barren,” said an agriculturist at the Krishi Vigyan Kendra at Davangere district in Karnataka.

Here the farmers are trained in sustainable farming free of cost. It is an initiative by the government to help the soil regain nutrition and also provide extra income to the farmers by reviving leguminous and biodiesel plants. However, trainers say that most of these farmers are so profit-minded that at times it gets difficult to make them understand the requirement of being a little patience with their lands. Every year, large tracts of land is going barren as agriculture has turned greed-based instead of need-based. Our farmers are adopting crop patterns not as per the type of land or season or soil composition but as per desired profit graphs. They are using rodent killers, weedicides and other non natural ways to maximize their returns.

Soil productivity has been constantly lost because of excessive chemical usage

Talking on the adverse impact of herbicides or weedicides, Jeffrey M Smith of Institute for Responsible Technology, says, “Most fields are sprayed with Roundup herbicide. Roundup kills benefi cial bacteria in the soil and promotes the growth of pathogens. More than 40 plant diseases are on the rise in the United States as a result of widespread Roundup use. The damaged soil bacteria populations also reduce available minerals to plants, which is further destroyed by Roundup’s ability to bind with minerals making them unavailable. The result is a mineral deficiency in Roundup Ready plants, as well as in plants grown in the same soil after they are harvested. The altered soil biology also absorbs less water, promoting runoff and flooding.” He adds that another so called scientific advancement, the Bt crops produce Bt-toxin in the roots, which can bind with clay and remain active for months or even years. The Bt can wash into rivers and damage the ecosystem as a whole. The problem of excess nitrogen has many off shoots and does not end in the soil. A good amount of Nitrogen leaches away, fouling ground water in the form of nitrates, and enters the atmosphere as Nitrous oxide (N2O), a greenhouse and thus contributing to global warming. The loss of organic matter of the soil makes it prone to compaction, thus, vulnerable to runoff and erosion. The soil loses its ability to hold roots or water. Result is that the soil forever becomes reliant on irrigation as water requirement keeps increasing with deterioration in the soil quality.

A couple of decades back when green revolution opened up new horizons, the long-term effects were played down as the scale of
loss and profits was balanced but today, the scales have become too lop-sided to miss. Losses have greatly outnumbered profits and the saddest part is that mostly all remain unaware. They are asking: Is there a U-turn and if yes do we have enough time?So much is at stake, so much has already been lost yet prosperity seems a far cry. Every year, India is experiencing increase in the percentage of land going barren. A farmer is committing suicide every five minutes and natural food products leading to physical and mental disorders in several cases. These ‘magical’ chemicals have gradually entered the food chain. Today, vegetables need to be thoroughly washed before consumption but it “only minimizes the possibility of health hazard” and not stops it as the poison has entered our food and as such, is never far from us. Prosperity was for long taken synonymous to productivity and resources were exploited to the limits. But beyond this point lies an eternal fall awaiting the ‘essentially the walking dead’ species of our retiring world. This is the very future that we are moving towards; increasing population, piling pollution and promulgating economic issues, we are choosing to be unaware and unconcerned. And as all roots perish and thrive in this very soil, time will tell how far would we make it with our abject indifference towards soiled soils?