MANILA — To help tackle nutrient deficiency and plastic pollution in India’s soils, the country has one of the best knowledge delivery systems and trained human resource power in agriculture research. And yet, over 59 percent of the farming households receive no assistance from either their government or the private sector, according to the 2013 National Sample Survey conducted by the Indian government, the latest and most authoritative of its kind.
“Farmers look for a holistic solution and we give them a compartmentalized solution.”— Suhas Wani, former director, International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics
Armed with new technologies and guidance from state-run research institutes, Indian farmers could help battle soil depletion by undertaking a soil health assessment, adopting sustainable management practices of natural resources, and identifying the right marketing opportunities — but it’s simply not happening, said Suhas Wani, who worked with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics based in southern India for 36 years until he retired as its director in 2018.
“There has been no change from the 2003 to 2013 results and I don’t see much change happening since then. If that is the state of India, you can imagine [what’s happening in] other countries,” he added.
In 2015, the International Year of Soils, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization warned that we only have 60 years of farming left if soil degradation continues. Since then, outsized population growth, human-caused climate change, and industrial farming are among the many factors that have added heavy strain on soils.
Fertile soil — a non-renewable resource — is now being lost at an alarming rate of approximately 24 billion tons a year, according to the “Global Land Outlook” report launched in 2017 by the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification.
Natalia Eugenio, a soil scientist with the Global Soil Partnership, a multistakeholder initiative backed by UNFAO, said that while there is some improvement, “the truth is that we have to take action now. If we continue losing soils it’s going to be an irreversible problem.”
It’s not that there hasn’t been increased momentum. The Global Soil Partnership now has more than 500 partners from 196 countries; according to UNFAO data, there were roughly 300 registered events ranging from technical workshops to environmental quizzes that took place this World Soil Day on Dec. 5, up by almost 100 events from last year; and new soil initiatives continue to pop up throughout the world, including the Brazilian Soil Partnership, which was launched in August 2018 and joins other important resources, such as the African Soil Information Service and the Digital Soil Map of the World.
The challenge lies in overcoming the substandard infrastructure in middle- and low-income countries to generate credible targeted data sets. And even when such data sets are created, governments often struggle to present information in a way that will both reach and make sense to farmers and decision-makers.
Watch out for cracks
In 2015, India’s Ministry of Agriculture launched an $86 million Soil Health Card Scheme to provide nutrient and fertilizer recommendations to farmers based on local soil health tests. Roughly 100 million cards and counting have since been given to farmers across the country to help boost crop productivity, according to the Indian government.
But researchers at the Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia studied the program two years later and found several basic problems that made the Soil Health Card Scheme difficult to comprehend and implement, even for the most educated farmers. Twenty-one focus group discussions with more than 100 Indian farmers revealed that the cards were too scientific and not site-specific to their fields, undermining trust in the program’s recommendations. Acknowledging these issues, last February, the government launched a redesign of the scheme, but further research is needed to determine its effectiveness.
William Wu, co-founder and CEO of QED, speaks with Devex about his work with the African Soil Information Service and other projects that require data systems and machine learning solutions.
“We, as an agricultural community, as a global community, need many, many more credible soil analysis and a finer spatial grid than is typically the case,” Marco Ferroni, chair of the board at CGIAR, told Devex.
There are cost-effective ways to gather the required data, such as agricultural sensors, but it’s finances that are often the limitation.
“Farmers are willing to contribute [money] themselves because they know this is their livelihood, but it may exceed their means and there may be from a national food security perspective a case for public support,” Ferroni said. So, are countries taking note and contributing money to tackling their soil issues? “The broad answer is that countries are not doing enough of it. In fact, by far. Why? Because it’s a silent creeping problem. It’s not a big disaster that attracts everyone’s attention,” he said.
Even when there is credible information, it often doesn’t get disseminated effectively because there is a gap between the pilot phase and scaling up, Wani said. Scaling up involves a wide range of actors: policymakers, bureaucrats, extension agents, private company dealers, farmers, etcetera. And they don’t always work well together.
“The researchers think ‘that is not my job. My job is only to do the science.’ The bureaucrats think that they know everything and don’t need to consult anyone else. The private companies think they can have their own way of extension [services] and get their products sold. That’s how farmers end up getting contradictory messages,” Wani said, who added that it’s more or less the same case in the various countries he’s worked in throughout Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
These challenges are compounded by the tricky logistics involved in accommodating the roughly 513 million smallholder and family farmers that exist globally, which account for roughly 90 percent of the world’s farms. Wani said that the farmers have outsized expectations and look at researchers like him as the “messiah” for all their problems, whether it’s about soils or an unrelated topic, such as their children’s education.
“Farmers look for a holistic solution and we give them a compartmentalized solution,” he said, adding that while a researcher can tell a breeder which variety is best, researchers can’t determine other factors, such as what kind of fertilizer to apply, what sort of insect problems might arise, or whether there’s market demand for the product. “And then farmers don’t find that solution as solving their problems because you are only telling one part of the story and so the farmer doesn’t take the advice you give him or her,” he said.
Without easy access to essential, credible information about soils, farmers can easily fall prey to profit-hungry businesses. In order to create lasting effective change, Wani advised that the mindset of the various actors that make up the agricultural community have to change from working in their own compartments to building partnerships.
“This should be a win-win partnership,” Wani said, adding, “otherwise we write the prescription, but the medicine is not available in the store.”
The Thai example
One country that has been notable in advancing soil issues is Thailand. World Soil Day is held on Dec. 5, the birthday of the late Thai king and award-winning soil scientist, Bhumibol Adulyadej, in homage to his strong commitment to the cause both domestically and internationally.
During his 70-year reign, King Bhumibol created royal development projects and established six royal development study centers throughout the country, which among other things, tackled soil problems. His aim was to help Thailand’s mainly rural population learn the skills and adopt the technologies needed to earn a good living in an environmentally sustainable manner.
“Thailand has tried our best to preserve [the] quality of [our] soils,” Benjaporn Chakranon, director general in the Thai Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, told Devex. “Farmers are encouraged to reduce chemicals and use more organic [matter] for manuring and weeding. We have also done several research studies on soil microorganisms for soil improvement and transferred those technologies to farmers.”
As the current chairman of the Asian Soil Partnership, Thailand is tapping into its personal experiences to help countries in Southeast Asia and Africa adopt better sustainable soil management practices. This includes elevating soil laboratory standards for more effective land use planning and promoting the concept of “Klaeng Din,” meaning “tricking the soil” in Thai, to be more productive in an effort to help farmers that are struggling with highly acidic soil. More recently, Thailand launched the Centre of Excellence for Soil Research in Asia last December. The Thai-based center will serve as the regional hub for advancing targeted soil research based on regional priorities to feed decision-making.
As the world continues to struggle with a complex soil crisis, Chakranon boiled it down to a simple clear message: “We need to maintain soil quality.”
Update, Jan 17, 2019: This article has been updated to clarify the number of partners in the Global Soil Partnership.