India's soil is degrading under the strain of global crop demand

16 September 2019
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A new PwC report has detailed how Indian soil is gradually losing its nutrient value, primarily as a result of farming priorities that often sidestep micronutrient fertilisation. Similar trends are visible across the globe, which has significant implications for the future of nutrition and food security. 

According to the report, micronutrients are not only essential to promote healthy growth in plants, but they also have an impact on the nutrition value for those consuming the crops. Deficiencies amongst Indian consumers might well stem from some deficiencies in the soil, given the eroding nutrient value.

For many years, India’s approach to farming has been speed and volume oriented rather than nutrition oriented, as the substantial body of farmers looked to feed a 1 billion plus population. Government initiatives in the farming sector have also pushed for quantity over quality.

Effect of pH on availability of nutrients

As a result, a single plot of land is used for multiple yields in a year, with little time or support to replenish its nutrient value. Each set of crops being cultivated on this land is progressively decreasing in nutrition value. As the Indian economy grows, the pressure on this land is only set to increase. Pollution of the soil does not help in this scenario.

‘The nature and extent of deficiencies vary based on factors such as soil type and agro-ecological situations. Micronutrient deficiencies are commonly observed in intensively grown cereals, oilseeds, pulses and vegetable crops,’ states the PwC report. These crops are among the most commonly cultivated across India.

Rising pressure on India’s land is not only dictated by the country’s growing population and expanding economy. India is among the top producers in Asia and across the world when it comes to crops like paddy, wheat, pulses or other cereals, in the same leagues as the US, China and Brazil.

Effect of temperature on uptake of nutrients by plants

The global population is also growing at an unprecedented rate, and international food security is becoming a central concern for many experts. Demand from India and other top crop producers is only going to increase in this scenario, which is worrying if production and nutrition value in these countries is dropping. 

In India, the decline in productivity can be attributed to several factors. ‘The key issues which affect agricultural productivity include the decreasing size of agricultural land holdings, dependence on the monsoon, inadequate access to irrigation, improper use of soil nutrients, low penetration of formal agricultural credit and absence of adequate market linkages,’ states the PwC report.

One of the most pertinent problems among these is soil degradation. The firm reports that Zinc and Boron are two micronutrients that are essential to plant development, while both are depleting across the globe. Absence of any one of these, or other nutrients, leaves a significant gap in the lifecycle.

Micronutrient deficiency status

The Indian government appears to have recognised the urgency of the scenario, looking to promote more nutrition-friendly practices. Schemes such as the Soil Health Card Scheme, the Nutrient Based Subsidy and the National Food Security Mission are all aimed at promoting nutrient value in India’s soil.

‘Use of slow-release fertilisers and efficient cultivars will ensure that the uptake of micronutrients by plants is increased. Innovations and R&D will also help in addressing the problem. However, the use of micronutrients is still viewed as a luxury among farmers, and steps to sensitise them and increase awareness will be required,’ states PwC.