he work begins. The harvest has arrived. Away from NH16, past the manned railway crossing, towards Nachugunta village in West Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh, on a gravel road that feels like powder, past the village deity’s temple, through the rutted path shaded by trees and sugarcane fields, Bhupathiraju Ramakrishna Raju is threshing and reaping the sheaves along with his workers. They are blowing the grains on the breeze.From behind their shoulders, the sun showers the fields in a golden light. Mist hangs in the distance like a curtain of gossamer. The air smells of sweet earth. Windrows dot the fields.Sixty-nine-year-old Raju is happy at the harvest; he might fill 20 gunny bags of 75 kg each, per acre—what he cultivated naturally. To call him an organic farmer is an understatement; his practice of farming, with cows playing an all-important role, aims for and retains healthy soil and ecological harmony. He doses the soil with cow manure and prepares other organic fertilisers, pest and disease controllers with various types of leaves and cow dung and urine.He plucks a clump of stubble and out comes a chunk of soil along with it. The soil is porous, soft, and pocked with tunnels made by earthworms. Holding it, he says, “This is healthy soil; when soil is healthy, everybody is healthy.” When you walk barefoot in his fields, it feels soft, and spongy, without even a hint of hardness. Many other fields, in contrast, make you feel that you’re walking on a road. A soil scientist once came to Raju, and told him that he (the scientist) had read about how soil should be in books but had never seen it until now. The scientist was so happy that he walked all over fields and hugged him, Raju remembers.“When the soil is healthy, it is most fertile, and everything grows well.”
oil is a mixture of clay, sand, silt, and organic matter. It has two parts: one solid, and the other the water and air part. The solid part has two components: an inorganic part of silica, sand, silt and clay (almost 95-97 per cent) and an organic part which is 2 to 3 per cent. In ideal soils, there should be 50 per cent solid (4-5 per cent organic and 45per cent inorganic matter) and 25 per cent air and 25 per cent water.The soils of India are seriously degraded. Of the 160 million hectares of crop land about 30-40 million hectares are eroded by water and about 10 million hectares by wind. It’s not that the country is losing the land but the area of most productive land is declining. It’s not that the land cannot be cultivated anymore, but that it’s getting poorer. The soil is unhealthy and produces less than it could earlier.
Raju on his lands after the harvest. Photo: GBSNP Varma
“Soil degradation and erosion are like cancer of the soil, especially erosion,” says Rattan Lal in a Skype conversation. He is a professor of soil science at the Ohio State University (OSU) and the world’s foremost expert on soils. He is also president of the International Union of Soil Sciences. Rattan Lal distinguishes between soil quality and soil health. The first refers to its fitness for use and its capacity to function. Soil health refers to its capacity, as a living entity, affecting plant and animal life.Rattan Lal was born in Rajound in Haryana.
After high school, he went to the government agricultural college in Ludhiana. It became a university in 1962, and his was one of the first classes to graduate from Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) in 1963. Then he moved to the Indian Agricultural Research Institute and from there to Ohio State University in 1965 for his Ph.D. OSU had a relationship with PAU to develop land grant programmes in Punjab and Rajasthan.
Lal, who has been at OSU ever since, grew up on a farm of about five acres, and was witness to how his family tended and cared for soil. That sparked his love for soil.
In his measured tone, he explains that erosion occurs due to water and wind. It depletes soil health because it removes the best part, the most fertile elements, namely, clay and the organic matter which are at the surface. Wind erosion occurs in arid areas of parts of Haryana and Gujarat, and in the north-western areas; water erosion is common in hilly areas, i.e., the lower Himalayas, the Shivalik hills, the hills of the Deccan, all areas of high rainfall that wash the soil downstream.
The black soils of central India, in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are particularly susceptible to erosion. Rattan Lal says these soils swell and shrink and crack, and when it rains, the soil is washed away. According to a 2010 estimate, by the Central Soil Water Conservation Research and Training Institute in Dehradun, India is losing 5,334 million tonnes of soil annually to soil erosion. Anyone who lives in north India has felt the hot, dusty “loo” of the bone-dry summer. Its harsh winds rake everything in their path like sandpaper, depositing a fine brown dust on every surface imaginable. There is so much weathering that it’s creating a dustocalypse.
As the sun bakes the fallow fields after the winter harvest the surface soil becomes powdery and dry and when the wind rises, it sweeps away this topsoil in great clouds of dust to deposit them hundreds of miles, or even more, away. Dust, when it rises up one kilometre up and it does easily, it can travel quite a distance, around 500-700 kilometre a day. Dust storms in other places, especially in Iran and Mongolia (coming off the Gobi desert), have increased in frequency and intensity. Dust blowing off from the Thar desert travels all the way to Bangladesh, and is turning soils calcareous in faraway Bihar. Dust blowing into the Himalayas is making glaciers melt faster, according to a NASA researcher.
This is usually the most productive part of the soil, clay and organic matter. In old days of manure and mulch the organic content was periodically replaced and before canal irrigation flooding in the rainy season also helped renew soil health. In green revolution agriculture the stress is not so much on organic content as on fertiliser and pesticide which often kills earthworms and other beneficial insects. Erosion by water washes away the soil into streams, rivers and eventually the sea. Waters around an estuary or delta are markedly more turbid than farther out to sea.
part from erosion, India’s soils are affected by mismanagement. When farmers in Punjab, Haryana and elsewhere burn crops it affects life in Delhi. But it does more, it damages soil. In the Indo-Gangetic plains of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and western U.P., farmers burn the crop stubble, which is leading to serious respiratory problems. The mismanagement extends to not using manure in the fields at all but taking the dung away and drying it for cooking fuel. Yet another aspect of mismanagement is when cattle are allowed to overgraze a patch of land eating their way down to the stubble.
“When we take away the grains, residue and dung also, the land is left with nothing. That’s a problem. There is no biomass left, no manure, no crop residue, no compost, no dung,” says Lal. That’s when land becomes sterile and degraded. The land has no earthworms, no termites, no microorganisms. It becomes dead and unproductive. Thus begins a cycle of fertiliser use and abuse.
Soils of India are depleted of organic matter as well. Average content has been measured at 0.5 per cent to 0.1 per cent, whereas the ideal proportion should be around 4 per cent. Organic matter is food for earthworms, termites, and microorganisms. When they don’t have this food, they die, and the soil is no longer living. Burning the residue also kills these organisms. In their absence the soil is hard underfoot.
When we burn the residue, we damage the organisms that live in soil. Chemical fertilisers do not persist in the soil like organic manure, and farmers use more and more fertiliser for less and less effect when soils are no longer living. To make it worse, when organic matter is so low, the soil cannot hold water nutrients and becomes less productive. Intensive farming in places such as Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana, part of Gujarat, western UP also depletes the soils of organic content.
Another problem is that the soils get heavily compacted when they lose the capacity to retain water. Such fields lack aereation. When it rains, the soil gets quickly saturated as there is no air to absorb moisture.Degradation in drier climates such as Haryana, Rajasthan, parts of Gujarat, and in semi-arid parts of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telengana, is leading to desertification. Flood irrigation too has a devastating effect on soils. Ground water build-up eventually brings up salt from below to the surface, as has happened in Punjab and Haryana. Saline soils are unproductive.
Various surveys during the last 45 years indicate the presence of residues like nitrates, organochlorines, synthetic pyrethroids at higher than permissible limits in milk, dairy products, water, fodder, livestock feeds... The damage caused in the process of Green Revolution to soil, groundwater, and ecosystem needs to be quantified.
Manoj Kumar, a soil scientist at Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Patna, who worked for eight years on soils in the north-eastern region, says soil acidity is the most critical problem in that region, affecting fertility and productivity.“Due to very high rainfall in the region, soil cations (cation exchange capacity influences the soil’s ability to hold onto essential nutrients and provides a buffer against acidification) are very easily leached down, rendering the soils acidic. Almost all soils in the region are acidic, and nearly 80 per cent are afflicted by extreme levels of acidity (pH below 5.5).”
Nutrient deficiencies and toxicities are common in such soils. Phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, zinc, boron etc. are some important nutrients that are lacking in these soils, while aluminum, iron and manganese usually remain present in toxic concentrations, he adds.In short, a host of problems afflict India’s soils. “Degradation happens by erosion, compaction, salinisation, and by depletion of organic matter,” Lal says.
hings were better at Independence. Farmers have always selected and worked on seed varieties that were adapted to local conditions. The genes of varieties were tuned to the functional genomics and they interacted and expressed themselves well on the soils they were planted in. But the green revolution with its emphasis on high-yielding varieties systematically whittled away at the farmers’ hands-on knowledge, denting their confidence. It contributed to the loss of traditional seeds. Without seeds that had stood the test of time, and eroded knowledge, farmers had no choice but to plant high-yielding varieties, saturating the soil with fertilisers and pesticides.
Over the years, the situation has become dire: chemically-intensive farming has resulted in a dramatic loss of soil fertility in many regions, with the result that more and more fertilisers are used to get minuscule increases in returns. In some places soils have become toxic. Water tables have crashed and water has been contaminated. Salinity has increased. Dead zones in our seas—especially, the one spanning 60,000 square kilometres in the Bay of Bengal, found last year—could have been triggered by algal blooms feeding on run off from nitrogen-laden fertilisers. Nitrogen-rich waters can spark massive algal growth which could turn them toxic or rob them of nutrients that other species use, thus driving them away from the waters.
A 2015 article published in the Asian Journal of Water, Environment and Pollution, says, “Various scientific studies and surveys conducted on fertiliser and pesticide residues during the last 45 years indicate the presence of residues like nitrates, organochlorines, organophosphates, synthetic pyrethroids and carbamates at higher than permissible limits in milk, dairy products, water, fodder, livestock feeds and other food products. As urea, a nitrogen-rich fertilizer is used much more than the recommended 4-to-1 ratio to potassium; it is contributing to the global warming. The extent of systematic damage caused in the process of Green Revolution to the soil, groundwater, and ecosystem needs to be quantified.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests agricultural workers spraying pesticides lose their fertility and remain childless. Nutrient mining is another big problem. Since nitrogenous fertiliser is cheaper, farmers apply that copiously while neglecting phosphorus and potassium and zinc and sulphur, depleting the soil of these vital elements. That leads to nutrient imbalances.
According to the 2009 Greenpeace India report—“Subsidising Food Crisis”—synthetic fertiliser consumption increased from a mere 0.07 million tonnes in 1950-51 to a staggering 23.15 million tonnes in 2008-09. In the current financial year, the subsidy amounts to ₹70,000 crore. The report adds that the subsidy structure is skewed towards synthetic nitrogen fertilisers and this has been phenomenal in promoting its overuse. Urea accounts for 82 per cent of the total consumption of nitrogen fertilisers in the country, and India is the second biggest consumer of urea in the world.
The report also mentions that “from 1981 to 2008, the average share of the farmer in the synthetic fertiliser subsidy was 64 per cent, while the industry gets about 36 per cent (31 per cent domestic fertiliser industry and five per cent foreign producers/suppliers). However the share of petroleum companies, who supply the massive raw materials essential for fertiliser industry, is yet to be identified.”
A 2011 Greenpeace India report—“Living Soils”—says “the farmers have been bought into these systems (through policies and industry forces) to the extent that their non-availability or less availability in the market has resulted in protests and agitation by them, particularly in the recent past.”
Plants grown in such soils don’t have nutrients; people eating the plant food also are malnourished. “It’s a chain reaction. When soils are not healthy, plants, animals, people are not healthy; the environment is not healthy; water and air are degraded; people are unhealthy. This is the problem in India,” Lal says.
hile fertiliser subsidies locked farmers into a pattern, a far more insidious practice, namely monoculture farming, has made the situation all the more destructive. In her survey and travels, social anthropologist Richa Kumar of the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, encountered in rural U.P., dal was missing from the fields as well as the plate. “Dals have almost disappeared not just from farming but from plates. People are eating roti and alu,” she says. The production of pulses has diminished even while there is a glut of rice and wheat. And in central UP the glut of sugarcane is about 20 years old.
Price-incentive distortions and guaranteed buying and minimum support price have skewed cropping patterns. Farmers have switched to crops that have a guaranteed market and a minimum support price. They are moving away from crops where the prices are volatile and there is no guaranteed purchase at minimum support prices, especially dals. From being famous for its dals—arhar, urad, masoor—central UP’s Sitapur district has seen dal mills close down and the mandi bereft of pulses over the last 10-15 years, Richa Kumar says of her surveys.
The monoculture farming model is at the heart of soil ill health.In addition to that, a mindset endangered by green revolution practices is that most of the people connected with agriculture, including scientists, view soil, in the words of the USDA scientist Rick Haney, as just a chemistry set. Arising out of that view, solutions are also chemistry-based. It’s always about farmers using judicious and injudicious quantities of chemicals. Even if they do the right thing in terms of applying chemicals, the problem is not going to go away. It’s not just adding this nutrient or that, but understanding soil as a complete living system. Soil has biology and physics, not just chemistry. Biological functions take time to pan out and replenish, while economic and political things are in the here-and-now.The DST Centre for Policy Research at IIT Delhi along with WASSAN, RRA Network and Shiv Nadar University hosted a conversation among scientists and policy makers and practitioners, including farmers, to understand the crisis facing India’s soils.
The world will face changes “in river discharges, aridity, crop yields, and biodiversity... an alarming combination of environmental and socio-economic challenges that will increase the pressures are land-based goods and services in the future.”
The conference—“India’s Soils: Science-Policy-Practice Interfaces for Sustainable Futures”—called for a shift in thinking about soils as encapsulated in the 3M’s—soil organic matter, soil microbes, and soil moisture. The participants called for soil to be declared a public good and for action and investments from the state for improving them, Kumar reports.
In addition, policy, agricultural scientists and colleges, economics and farmers work at cross-purposes. Most government scientists and the government are bent on promoting yield as the ultimate goal. Economics has not been considered. Too much of any crop, prices crash, and the farmers are left with nothing. (This cannot happen in rice, wheat or sugarcane because their prices are protected due to minimum support price and guaranteed purchase. Price crash only happens in other commodities.)
The major loss due to the green revolution mindset is farmers’ indigenous knowledge. Older generations worked along with and for improving soils. They gave back what they took from the soils, keeping them replenished and in good health. As the generations changed and emphasis on yields took hold, people have stopped looking at soil as a crucible of life, of life itself. Coupled with land use changes and forest clearing, we have hell in our hands.
UN Environment’s fifth “Global Environment Outlook” report, in its key messages, says economic growth has come at the expense of natural resources and ecosystems; and that competing demands for food, feed, fuel, fibre and raw materials are intensifying pressures on land. A 2017 United Nations-supported study “The Global Land Outlook” warns that, in the coming decades, many regions in the world will face changes “in high and low river discharges, water scarcity, aridity, crop yields, agricultural land expansion, land as a carbon source and sink, and biodiversity. Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, and, to a lesser extent, Southeast Asia, face an alarming combination of environmental and socio-economic challenges that will increase the pressures are land-based goods and services in the future.” The triggers, according to the report, are “significant changes in land-use,” arising out of “the combination of increased population and wealth, leading to an increased demand for food, shift towards more meat and land-intensive foods, increased demand for fibre and energy, urbanisation, accelerating climate change, and continued local declines in land cover, productivity, and soil carbon.”
avid Montgomery, a professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington and author of Growing A Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life
, considers soil loss and degradation a major environmental problem that does not get anywhere near the attention it deserves. In his first book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations
, he looked at how soil degradation had undermined ancient civilisations around the world. “Societies that did not take care of their soil did not stand the test of time,” he says via email.
Also, Lal says, our religions Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism say that there is life after death, and we believe in karma and reincarnation. “If you think of any place in the world, in the universe, where death changes into life, that place is soil. It is the only place where death changes into life.” He explains: Soil has micro organisms in it. Feed them residue, dung, or any organic matter, and they multiply. They convert nutrients nitrogen, potassium, sulphur in the dung, residue and manure; plants absorb it, and grow; cattle and humans consume food.
“That’s the food chain. The dead material from plants and animals becomes nutrients for plants to absorb and grow, and animals and human eat that. That’s how death turns to life in soil.”
Raju’s field where he’s growing saplings for the next crop teems with life. Scores of cranes have arrived for an earthworm buffet. Regular visitors to his fields include crabs, frogs, spiders, and ptyas mucosa snakes. Crabs burrow holes and he fills them to stop water draining out. “I am making the soil good for them to live here,” he says.
Also, he adds, “the government spends much money on biodiversity, health, and jobs while all these, including peace and harmony, exist on the farm, on the well-tended soil.”He cites a saying from olden days: farming is the best; business is the middle; job is the lower. Farming and agriculture is freedom.
“If I feel like, I would stretch my legs and sleep like a log, nobody would ask me; when you’re in a job, you’re the beck and call of somebody.” Now, things are different, he says.
Farmers are at the low end of the food chain. They have lost self-esteem, the belief in their work. They see people earning lakhs of rupees sitting in air-conditioned rooms, while they get minuscule returns for their toil. Banks won’t give loans, but rush to lend to industrialists who may not pay back while the government writes the loans off.
“I am putting my land, worth lakhs, as collateral. Even then banks would not give me a loan of one lakh.” Raju is livid at the systematic whittling away of farmers’ confidence. However, he doesn’t give up. He never tires of repeating the responsibility that comes with farming.
“Farmer grows ambrosia, and gives it to society. It’s the farmers’ responsibility to grow ambrosia and give to society,” he says. Since he began farming 46 years ago, he took care of the soil by using cow manure, mulch and different kinds of flours. He would use nominal amounts of chemical fertiliser and pesticide. He went thoroughly organic in 2007, and his yields increased every year.While Raju says yields in places like Bathinda have come down—you know, there is a cancer train, that is so sad—his yields have increased year after year.He stores the paddy for some months and sells it unpolished, one variety (lean rice) for ₹60 per kg and another variety (fat rice) for rupees ₹56. His harvest this year is from 21 acres of paddy and 7 acres of sugarcane.He doesn’t plant the second crop, except for 3 to 4 acres for demonstrating to a continuous stream of budding farmers, experienced hands who got knocked about and are looking for a way out, agricultural scientists and students, wannabes, and others exploring possibilities in themselves and in the soil they cultivate. The rest of the farm is for cover crops. Two things helped older generations, he says: thrift, and their belief that the next generation would live happily if they handed over healthy soil.
atnaji has 10 acres of land adjacent to Raju’s. The 44-year-old man, from a farming family, worked a few jobs but always felt a tactile connection with the land would restore him. Inspired by this thought and by Raju, he took it up. His family was not so supportive. They said the yields would come down and he would not be able to make it. He persisted. He brought hay, cattle dung and mulch, load after load, and put them on the soil. His wife balked at his affection for soil.
He told his wife, “if you want to leave me, please, my dear, live with our sons and I will live on the farm and do it. Losses are mine.”People called him mad, he is often called “demon of work”. They berated him, taunted him, and laughed at him for associating with another mad farmer Raju and wished both of would go to seed.
The soil responded to Ratnaji’s care, and it now yields 35 bags of 75 kg each, more than other farmers using chemicals. Ratnaji is on the lookout for new ways of doing things. He uses rice bran unrefined oil, mixed with other oils. His yields grow. In time, his family’s faith in his work grew. His father now tends to cows, collecting their urine and dung. They make fertiliser with that, prepare concoctions for pests and diseases.
He is a resource person for the cow-based agriculture which the state government is promoting. After all the field work, he goes to villages where other people have gathered farmers and talks to them about cow-based farming. He inspires, he goads, folks, come see my farm, the soil and the results.On the ninth of every month, Raju and his friend hold education sessions, for which 150 people gather. Both of them are farmers, educators, inspirers, community-builders, speakers, scientists without degrees.
They show people all the leaves and how to make fertiliser, concoctions, and a whole lot of other things. They take the visitors into the fields, ask them to hold the soil, walk on it, and feel the atmosphere. Then they feed them with rice grown in those fields, with sweet jaggery parvannam. Many people have gone bonkers, asking for many more helpings.Ours is a diverse country with diverse microclimatic regimes. Of rice alone we had over 5,000 varieties in ancient times. Every two, three hundred kilometres, a different type of rice would grow. There were 83 breeds of cows. Now only 34 remain, says Raju while bantering with Ratnaji.
Ever-meticulous, Raju rotates crops in ingenious ways. He plants those varieties that grow in and tap a particular layer, absorbing nutrients from it, and he switches from that to another variety that goes in far deeper than the earlier one, tapping that deeper layer of soil even while the upper layer gets rest and is replenished. Another thing working for him, is that whenever somebody asks for advice, he patiently explains, once, twice, and many more times. He doesn’t give up and he doesn’t want the wannabe soil lover to give up caring for the soil health.
Chemical-free farming keeps the soil productive and yields high enough to be remunerative. Photo: GBSNP Varma
In one interaction, a scientist asked him how to feed these many people with the lower yields of the organic way. Raju requested him to consider how much food is exported, how much is going waste in warehouses, eaten by rats, how much food is wasted at social functions and hotels, how much is being spoiled with farmers’ themselves.“I think we have enough for our people but we don’t take care of it, just like we don’t take care of soil. Raju insists that his health is great, by being in nature and eating non-poisonous food. His medical bill in the last 20 years is just ₹750. “When my fingers were cut working on something, people forced me to go to a doctor. Left to myself I would not have gone, there are many leaves whose juice could have cured it immediately. Farm is a pharmacy, too.” In an authentic manner, food ways have connected Raju to hundreds of families, building up an ever-growing community of people. “Hundreds of families of have become my relatives,” he says.
miraculous community also exists in the soil. An absolutely essential and extremely delicate community exists at the root zone, called rhizosphere, that make celebrations above the surface of soil possible. Bacteria and fungi, nematodes and protozoa and mites, insects and termites and birds—a whole universe of creatures have staggeringly complex interrelationships, making nutrients available to plants, cycling nutrients, warding off pathogens, keeping their populations in balance. Toxic chemicals rip apart this network.
In The Hidden Half of Nature, Montgomery and his co-author, Anne Biklé, explored these underground connections between soil life and plants. Plants, Montgomery says, produce exudates from their roots and provide a subterranean buffet for microbes that produce metabolites beneficial to the plants. Organic matter is the currency of this underground economy and crops grown in depleted soils do not get a full ration of micronutrients and beneficial microbial metabolites. Fungi and bacteria in organic matter help plants acquire nutrients from the soil, and strengthen plant defences. They don’t do this for free, though.
They are recruited to the area around plant roots because plants push exudates out of their roots, including sugars, proteins, and even fats. The plants are pushing food out into the soil not to be nice to the microbes, but because the microbes consume that material and transform (metabolise) it into compounds that are beneficial to the plant and that the plant can readily take back up because it is located right around their roots, Montgomery explains.
Eating plant exudates is, in essence, microbes eating carbon, which plants suck from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. Organic matter in the soil is 50 per cent carbon. When you burn hay (or coal) carbon is released into the atmosphere. Plants take CO2 from the atmosphere for photosynthesis. Trees, branches and roots grow. They then decompose, and biomass dies and goes into the soil as humus. Microorganisms break down the humus and release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.
In between the carbon cycle, some of the nutrients are absorbed; some of the carbon is retained. This builds up soil carbon. It stays there, unless disturbed. “While estimates vary widely for how much carbon could be put back into the world’s soils, it could potentially offset 10 per cent to 30 per cent of current fossil fuel emissions for the coming decades, if adopted widely and well. This won’t solve the climate problem but restoring soil health could be part of a larger solution as humanity works its way out off fossil fuel addiction,” Montgomery says.
Soil degradation by erosion accelerates climate change by increasing the intensity of rain and frequency of drought. It will increase temperature. Climate change increases degradation by erosion and salinisation is accelerated. Secondly, climate change degrades soil and degraded soil contributes to climate change, reinforcing a positive feedback loop. Degraded soils emit carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane, which eventually affect climate. “Climate change degrades soil and soil degradation increase climate change. It’s a mutually reinforcing process,” Lal says.
he only way, Lal says, to address all issues is to take care of soil. In ancient times during the Indus Valley civilisation, people migrated to these places because soils were highly productive and fertile. Lal reckons soils are still productive, especially along the eastern coast from Chennai area to Kolkata. “That 50-100 km belt on the eastern coast is very productive, except for areas where the tsunami waters (of Dec 26, 2004) encroached.” Lal suggests putting manure, residue and dung back in (hay has 40 per cent carbon; dung is rich in carbon); covering denuded land with trees; rotating crops; going back to our roots and culture.
Policy makers, he adds, should encourage farmers to improve soil health; encourage farmers to put hay and compost back in; establish trees; not let cattle roam everywhere; no free water; discourage farmers from burning hay; stop taking away top soil for brick making.Montgomery is optimistic that we can avoid the fate of past societies and that we can regenerate the fertility of the world’s farmland.
He chronicled his visits to farmers around the world—the likes of Raju and Ratnaji—who had restored the health of their soil in his new book Growing A Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life. “The regenerative farming practices that build soil carbon, and especially the coupled system of no-till, with cover crops and diverse rotation—can increase soil carbon levels over time,” he says. Specific practices that farmers used in different parts of the world were adapted to local and regional conditions. (For example, use of ploughs has a long history in regions around the world. Montgomery’s Dirt discusses that and relates how long-term use of the plough on lands other than river floodplains resulted in degradation of soils over generations. Tilling with tractors disturbs soil.)
“These general principles applied to farms large and small, for a wide range of crops, and for both organic and conventional production systems,” he says. With healthy soil, communities thrive and prosper above and below.