Soil is an ecosystem full of life. It is neither a lifeless weathering crust of the rocks nor a single organism, but a biological organisation of the plants (with the roots), micro organisms and tiny creatures. It houses a world of tiny living creatures like microbes, bacteria, fungi etc.
Nature does not know any isolated organism, only organised communities. The soil life therefore is very dynamic in nature. The combination of various organisms in the soil keep changing hour to hour and season to season as they constantly multiply, grow, die, disintegrate and decompose.
In 1951, Rusch and Santo, unveiled their ‘Law of the Preservation of the Living Substance’ in the ‘Medizinisches Wochenblatt’. According to this article nature cannot afford the luxury of allowing the essential elements of life to decompose (or, as chemists would say, to mineralise) after the death of organisms, tissues and cells. Everything necessary for the building up of an organism is discarded. Mineral becomes mineral again, carbohydrates become carbonic acid and water, complicated proteins are split up into very simple components and everything becomes – if one can say so – earth and dust once more, just as it was in the first place. Everything which was commonly considered to be living obviously has to die and decompose at some point. But life in itself thereby does not come to an end as a result of this; on the contrary, it begins again. Out of the disintegration process something emerges that could be referred to as “new life” from the ruins, namely the fertility of the soil. (Erhard Hennig)
Soil life depends on the continual replenishment of organic matter. Most organic farming practices, such as crop rotation, composting, green manuring and keeping the soil covered, help to increase the soil’s organic matter and hence its biological activity. No plant or animal is capable of fixing nitrogen, but some bacteria do. Where soil is healthy and moist, bacteria can be found that produce nitrogenous fertilizer from atmospheric nitrogen. Studies have shown that this loss of fertility correlated with decreasing soil organic matter levels and the resulting availability of nutrients. And, humid tropical forests the world over, by maintaining the soil organic matter content, have maintained impressively high levels of biomass productivity for millions of years, with no fertilizers and often on very infertile soils. (Roland Bunch, p. 30). Evidently we need to make an effort to preserve harmony in the soil and not to disturb it. In order to do this, we need to adopt measures which promote and preserve soil life, and above all a healthy cultivation of the humus content.
Alternative agriculture can replenish nutrients and feed soil
Traditionally, farmers were aware and practicing that type of farming which nurtured the biological life in the soil. The shift towards commercial agriculture and the need and greed to grow more in a limited period of time resulted in overuse of chemical fertilisers. With over emphasis on specific nutrients that enhance crop growth, farmers considered soils as a nutrient container that has to be replenished after every crop harvest by applying chemical fertilisers. Over time, the crop wastes were also not returned back to the soil, starving the soil organisms and reducing their ability to transfer nutrients to plant roots. This, in turn, increased the requirement for synthetic fertilizers thus enhancing dependence on external inputs to maintain the production system.
However, there are groups of farmers who are continously trying out alternatives. While some are reverting back to known traditional practices, some are innovating on their own, thus enhancing their soil fertility. Farmers in Deoghar district in Jharkhand, by adopting sustainable agricultural practices like mixed farming, use of organic manure, mulching etc., are reaping rich harvests from their small plots of land. Farmers understand that regeneration of soil health is crucial for better harvests and for retaining soils moisture much better. (Anirudhha Das and Purnabha Dasgupta, p.17)
In Central Asia, unsustainable land management has turned large areas of productive land into wastelands. “Not possible, no water, too hot…” has for a long time been the standard response from locals when asked why there has been so little effort to reverse natural resource degradation. But in recent years, innovative farmers like Ruzimatov Mahmudjon have successfully challenged this perception by clever strategies that use local organic waste materials (Frank Löwen, p.14). Paulose, a farmer from Kerala demonstrated that mulching in cardamom plantation, not only conserved soil moisture, but also helped in yield increase (S.Varadarasan and P.Vivekanandan, p.12). Farmers in Telangana are going back to traditional practices like sheep penning, which is almost a forgotten practice. Sheep penning is a fascinating cooperative effort between pastoralists and farmers (B Sriveda and B Srihitha, p.28)
Amrut Mitti, is an innovative compost catching up with farmers (Deepak Suchde and Om Rupela, p.22). Many farmers are using this compost bringing life back to their soils. By enriching their agricultural fields with soil organic matter without external chemical inputs, these farmers are producing highly diverse nutrient rich food by harnessing local and natural resources. Its important that such innovations need to be adopted on a wider scale to have a greater impact. While spreading such an innovative practice on a wider scale is always a challenge, a farmer in Rajawar, a small village in Bundelkhand region in India, through a Rural Reality Show, on a community radio has been instrumental in spreading the practice across the whole community (Shweta Prajapati and Gazala Shaikh, p.39)
Efforts to enhance the soil carbon content of nutrient poor soils, has motivated Tamil Nadu farmers to use biochar in their fields on trial basis. They observed that by applying biochar to soils, the physical structure and chemical properties of the soil improved. Not only did the impact remain for three cropping cycles, producing biochar from Prosopis, provided a solution in controlling Prosopis juliflora which was rapidly invasing their fields (J Elango and V M Karunagaran, p.8)
Need for working together
Of late, a number of farmers having found the scientific solutions limited in addressing their local problems, are trying out local traditional solutions with good results. On the other hand, some of these practices followed by farmers are being studied systematically by the scientific community. For example, Paulose, a Kerala farmer started getting better yields after using the fallen leaves in cardamom plantation as mulch. The Indian Cardamom Research Institute studied the soil fertility on his farm and found that the organic carbon/humus content is higher in his garden compared to neighboring area with soil bulk density being very low. Mulching reduced the acidity of soil and increased the organic carbon content. (S.Varadarasan and P.Vivekanandan, p.12).
In another case, Amrut Mitti, a type of compost developed by a group of farmers caught the attention of scientists. Amrut Mitti was scientifically tested at ICRISAT and the results were amazing. The results revealed that some samples of this compost had up to 100 million plant-growth promoting bacteria in every gram of the compost – highest ever measured in ICRISAT lab, in any compost (Deepak Suchde and Om Rupela, p.22).
These examples indicate a positive change in the mindsets as well as approaches in addressing the issue of soil fertility. It is not always necessary that new knowledge has to come only from the scientific community. The reverse is also true. However, these should not be limited to selected farms and activities. It is important that such results are shared, disseminated and adopted widely.
While these few examples of building soil life and health from innovative farmers included in this issue provide hope for the future, large scale adoption, especially by the small and marginal farmers, calls for support from various quarters, particularly an enabling policy support. More importantly, this also calls for a paradigm shift in the way we understand our soils. The UN declaration of the year 2015 as the International Year of Soils raises hope that it will serve as a platform for raising awareness and initiating action for building healthy soils for healthy lives.
Erhard Hennig, Secrets of Fertile Soils – Humus as the Guardian of the Fundamentals of Natural Life, 2009, OLV, Organischer Landbau-Verlag Lau, ISBN392220127X, 9783922201274, 204 pages.