Through time immemorial, wars have been fought over it and mankind has sung paeans eulogizing its many virtues. Yet today we either take it for granted or ignore it – as though it were nothing but dirt. This happens to be one of our most valuable and almost irreplaceable natural resources, our top soil. At many places just a few inches thick, this is veritably the skin of Mother Earth. This miracle of nature holds the key to our very survival and we need to understand how we can preserve and nurture it for future generations.
Mother Nature needs a hundred years to make just 1 millimeter of top soil, so to create 10 inches would have taken her all of 25000 years. As we recklessly exploit this resource and allow it blow away in the wind, spare a thought and see what we are likely to fritter away.
We derive 99.7% of the calories needed for our survival from land and just 0.3% from the world’s oceans; this is not likely to change remarkably in the near future. These precious calories come from a handful of crops like rice, wheat, corn, soybean, potatoes, plantains, cassava, pulses and oilseeds. These critically important crops need these 10 inches of top soil to be in peak productive condition for meeting the demands of an ever growing population. If we fail to protect this resource it could seriously impair our ability to feed our people and even lead to a collapse of world order.
Which is why the foundation of human civilization is only as deep as the skin of Mother Nature – our invaluable top soil.
AVAILABILITY OF LAND AND ITS DETERIORATION
In its research report published as recently as February 2015, the WORLD WATCH INSTITUTE has stated:
Increases in food production, per hectare of land, have not kept pace with increases in population, and the planet has virtually no more arable land or fresh water to spare. As a result, per-capita cropland has fallen by more than half since 1960, and per-capita production of grains, the basic food, has been falling worldwide for 20 years.
The world population was 3 billion in 1960 and total cultivated area in the world was 1.4 billion hectares. The land supply has increased a fraction to 1.5 billion hectares in 2010, but the global population has increased to 7 billion within the same period. This means that per capita availability has decreased from 0.45 hectares in 1960 to 0.21 hectares in 2010.
According to the United Nations, world population will swell to 9 billion people by 2050 assuming our growth rate declines from 2.5 to 2 per cent per year. This estimate is questionable if we consider the bulge of population in the age group of 17 -35 in developing countries. Even so, the per capita availability of land will decline to 0.17 hectares.
Our land supply is not likely to increase, on the contrary, The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates our current practices are causing vast swathes to go out of production. Every year 19.5 million hectares of farmland are converted to non agricultural use to meet demands from industry, infrastructure and real estate. In addition about 10 million hectares is degraded annually by erosion, salinity, alkalinity and other causes directly attributable to human intervention. In other words, the cultivable land will actually decline by about 1.7% per year. This will place a tremendous strain on our ability to feed our people in the long run as we run out of arable land to grow crops.
Growth of food production has apparently kept pace with demand thus far but this is illusory. The distribution of global wealth has been inequitable and a sizable portion of our population goes to bed hungry each night. Out of our 7 billion people, it is estimated by the FAO that as many as 3 billion (nearly 43% of our population) are chronically malnourished. This corresponds closely with the figures reported by a 2007 study of the UNICEF which showed that the proportion of our population subsisting on less than $2/day which works out to 2.2 billion people, of whom as many as 1.2 billion earned less than $ 1.25/day. Even in parts of Asia, which is supposedly better off; the average daily calorific intake of the population is only marginally higher than Sub Saharan Africa and this does not take into account protein consumption, which is out of reach for many more people.
DELETERIOUS EFFECTS OF SOIL EROSION
According to David Pimentel and Michael Burgess from Cornell University, our current practices are causing us to lose valuable and almost irreplaceable top soil 10 -30 times faster than the rate at which nature can replenish it. They estimate that this causes a loss of productivity of $37.6 billion in the US alone, every year. The need to replace the lost nutrients with chemical fertlilisers costs US farmers to spend $ 20 billion annually. Losses due to soil erosion are even higher in developing countries which could be losing as much as 40 tons of soil per hectare annually. Contrast this with forested areas that lose only up to 0.05 tons per hectare annually.
Erosion causes loss of valuable soil organic matter that binds most of the N, P and K. Fertile soils carry 100 tons of organic matter per hectare making up 4% of total soil weight. This binds up to 95% of the N and 25 -50% of the P. Lower soil profiles exposed after erosion contain almost no organic matter and little nutrients. Each ton of eroded top soil carries with it 1-6 Kg of N, 1-3 Kg of P and 2 -30 Kg of K. Replacement of these nutrients is not just costly for the farmer, they can affect human health and the environment.
Loss of soil organic matter and the resultant excessive reliance on chemical inputs has a severe impact on soil ecology and bio diversity. Reduced soil bio diversity directly corresponds with reduced resistance to drought. Loss of organic matter impacts other species like earthworms that maintain the integrity of the ecosystem. It is reported that a reduction in organic matter from 1.4% to 0.9% lowered grain yields by 50%. This means that degraded soils consequently support lower plant biomass creating a downward spiral that ultimately affects us as well.
Soil erosion contributes to climate change as organic matter carried by soil is oxidized more rapidly to carbon dioxide. The increasing levels of this gas in our atmosphere which is directly attributable to human activities are the highest observed in the last 800,000 years. The levels of silting of water bodies is a direct consequence of soil erosion and this can cause reduced storage capacities that could prove devastating during a drought or even during periods of heavy rainfall. Increased presence of soil particles in the air we breathe can lead to increased incidence of diseases like TB and anthrax.
Fluorosis of ground water and leaching of nitrates leading to methemglobinemia or blue baby syndrome are well documented deleterious effects arising from the use of chemical fertilisers. Large scale eutrophication of water bodies in the developed world leading to a loss of marine life and toxic algal blooms have been observed with increasing frequency. The destruction of marine habitats such as the Kesterson Reservoir in California due to leaching of such toxic salts to our water sources is well documented and there are numerous such instances all over the world.
Loss of soil structure is a natural consequence of our intensive practices. Sub soil compaction caused by agricultural machinery, crust formation and reduced moisture holding capacity are other undesirable effects. All these raise the costs of production and increase irrigation requirements thereby causing loss of productivity and profits.
The use of chemical fertilisers directly contributes to climate change though the release of nitrous oxides. The impact on the atmosphere of the release of 1 kg of nitrous oxide is equal to 300 kgs of carbon dioxide. It takes over 120 years for such gases to be removed from the atmosphere, so the cumulative impact this can have on climate change can be imagined. Over 80% of the release of nitrous oxides in the atmosphere is directly attributable to agriculture and allied activities especially the application of chemical fertilisers.
WHAT CAN WE DO
Usually, the answer we have come to expect, which is to go organic, brings with it the worries of declining production and higher losses to pests and disease which would run contrary to the goal of feeding a rising population. The nutrient demand of high yielding crops could not possibly be met by natural means, can they? What about the effect of pests and disease? Surely we would need more fertilisers and pesticides, right?
INTRODUCING THE STEP SYSTEM
A new system of agriculture that tries to integrate the best of both worlds by bringing in cutting edge products and ideas to help restore soil ecology and optimize the use of chemical inputs – fertilisers and pesticides. This method, pioneered by Sequoia Bio Sciences is now being increasingly used on large swathes of prime farmland in North India.
The first basic principle of the STEP System is that the health of our top soil has a direct bearing on the health of our crop and has a direct bearing on productivity. Also soil structure, organic matter content and soil bio diversity hold the key to the long term sustainability of our agricultural practices.
The second principle is that Mother Nature can restore the soil ecological balance if given a helping hand and the results should begin to show up fairly quickly.
The third principle is that farmers will only adopt any new technology if it is proven to be cost effective when compared with current practices.
Fourth, improving the quality of our soil will not just help produce healthy crops with minimal chemical intervention but also improve the nutritive value of the crops with far reaching implications for human health.
The STEP System incorporates a slew of innovations, including natural products like potent plant extracts, concentrated formulations of naturally occurring soil microbes and endo mycorrhiza and other environmentally friendly products and ideas (some of them for the first time in the world) which promise to change the face of agriculture. A system which by restoring soil structure and ecology, helps improve productivity and reduce the incidence of soil borne pathogens. A system which is cost effective and promises to put the smile back on the faces of countless farmers all over the world.
- The STEP System is extensively field tested over several years and is in use on over 100,000 acres of farmland. This is now being validated in premier US research facilities after which it will be released for the benefit of growers all over the world.
- This system promises to help growers overcome serious problems caused by viruses, bacteria and fungi which are proving difficult to control using conventional chemicals. In doing so, the STEP System is seen to outperform conventional methods in terms of both costs and effectiveness, which helps improve farm gate profits.
- By using the STEP System, farmers can eventually rationalize the use of chemical fertilisers as their soils regain their original productivity.
- The beneficial microbes used in the STEP System improve agglomeration of soil particles; thereby soil structure and moisture holding capacity is improved. This improves drought tolerance and reduces risks to the farmer.
- Significant increases in yields and quality of produce are observed by farmers who have used the STEP System in India. These successes stretch from disease affected citrus groves, chillies and capsicum to potatoes affected by virus and even wheat, rice, pulses, oilseeds and cotton. The STEP System has been tried with promising results on numerous crops.
- Among the most remarkable observations is the near complete restoration of citrus groves severely affected by Huanglongbing (HLB) and its insect vector, the Asian Citrus Psyllid (ACP). This is a disease which is causing distress to citrus growers across the world and for which no cure exists presently.
Results are astonishingly quick and citrus groves have been restored within a year to unprecedented levels of productivity. When these groves are observed today, it is difficult to imagine that they were slated for uprooting and destruction a short time ago. Some farmers have increased their income between 3.5 to 16 times over one to two years. A quiet revolution is taking place in North India as farmers begin to take this up in one village after another, restoring the profitability from a crop that seemed destined for destruction by this disease which was hitherto considered incurable.
Some of the products incorporated in the STEP System have already been permitted for use in the US by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and the California Department for Pesticides Regulations (CDPR) as these products are basically used as soil amendments. These products have been field tested by US growers on many crops across the country with good results.
The STEP System therefore represents an alternate approach that could well be the answer to the conundrum of matching the demands and aspirations of a growing and more prosperous population to shrinking availability of land. A method that deserves a chance to be tested, experienced and used for the benefit of the entire world.
For this is a method that can bring countless millions of small farmers in the developing world out of the depths of poverty and help them become a vital part of the global mainstream. More importantly, this is a system of farming which is in step with nature and therefore more sustainable.