Agriculture is the science, art and practice of cultivating plants and livestock. Either of the cases, healthy soils are the basis for healthy food production and the medium in which nearly all food-producing plants grow to nourish human, wildlife and livestock. Soils supply the essential nutrients, water, oxygen that our food-producing plants need to grow and flourish, and also serve as a buffer to protect delicate plant roots from drastic fluctuations in temperature.
“It is estimated that 95% of our food is directly or indirectly produced on our soils and soil quality is directly linked to food quality and quantity” - FAO
A healthy soil is a living, dynamic ecosystem, teeming with microscopic to larger organisms that perform many vital functions including converting dead and decaying matter as well as minerals to plant nutrients (nutrient cycling); controlling plant diseases, insects and weed pests; improving soil structure with positive effects for soil, water and nutrient holding capacity, and ultimately improving crop production. A healthy soil mitigates climate change by maintaining or increasing its carbon content.
Healthy soil is made up of humus and living organisms interconnected in the ‘soil food webs’ which is fundamental for nutrient cycling, namely:
- producers – green plants, lichens, photosynthetic bacteria and algae that convert sunlight into energy using photosynthesis.
- primary consumers – many small microorganisms (bacteria, fungi and protozoa) and larger insects, nematodes, segmented worms, and arthropods.
- higher level consumers – larger organisms, such as birds, shrews and rodents
“Soil food web functions as a major component of the Earth's ecosystem”
The world's ecosystems are impacted in far-reaching ways by the processes carried out in the soil, with effects ranging from ozone depletion and global warming to rain-forest destruction and water pollution. With respect to Earth's carbon cycle, soil acts as an important carbon reservoir.
Modern agronomy, plant breeding, agrochemicals (pesticides and fertilizers), and technological developments have steeply increased crop yields, similarly, the selective breeding technique and modern practices in animal husbandry have increased the output of meat, yet all of this advancements and technologies have collectively compromised widespread ecological balance, animal welfare and environmental resources.
Currently, many studies have concluded that, numerous soils around the world have lost their fertility or ability to perform their function because of ‘human impact’. Management practices in many agroecosystems (e.g. monocultures, extensive tillage use, chemical inputs) degrade the fragile ‘web’ of community interactions between pests and their natural enemies, leading to increased problems with pests and diseases. Agriculture is also very sensitive to environmental degradation, such as biodiversity loss, desertification, depletion of aquifers, soil degradation and global warming, which ultimately in turn leads to a decrease in crop yield, and resistance to antibiotic and growth hormones.
In addition, when it comes to ‘food demand and production’ the agriculture in the 21st century faces multiple challenges: it has to produce more food and fiber to feed a growing population with a smaller rural labor force. The world population is expected to grow to 2.3 billion people, between 2009 and 2050 in the developing countries.
The UN FAO, Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils (ITPS) and Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) had indicated:
“33% of the Earth's soils are already degraded and over 90% could become degraded by 2050 and equivalent of one soccer pitch of soil is eroded every five seconds. In addition, food production is projected to decline in tropical regions as rising temperatures decrease crop yields and water availability”.
Considering the soring pollution levels; rapid population growth; migration from rural to urban areas; unequal land distribution; shrinking landholdings; deepening rural poverty; and widespread soil/land degradation, APSCC conceptualized this program: ‘Inculcating Regenerative Agriculture’, through ‘whole system approach’ at campuses and communities with four components:
- soil pollution prevention
- ecosystem restoration through topsoil upgradation
- organic food production
- preventing food wastage
This program would bring about the ‘good changes’ at grassroots level in restoring the soil ecosystem, by re-establishing the ecology of soil biodiversity. Contributing to overall development in the agriculture-dependent developing countries, this sustainable production method: ‘regenerative agriculture’ at the campus and community is promising for effective climate change adaptation and food security.
“Regenerative Agriculture is defined as an integrated soil conservation approach primarily focusing on the topsoil regeneration by re-establishing the levels of soil biodiversity, which in turn would increase readily available plant nutrients and water holding capacity, thereby complementing, water cycle, ecosystem services, complex food chain, and bio-sequestration, ultimately forming the base for climate change adaptation”. - APSCC
Soil Pollution Prevention
In this consumerist world, managing solid wastes is one of the key challenges for sustainable development. Among various kinds of solid wastes, organic wastes (pre & post cooked wastes, plant materials, animal wastes and others) constitute a maximum of around 60-70% of the waste stream.
“Improper solid wastes management precisely organic wastes pollute soil, water and air”
When these organic wastes are diverted to landfills, through decomposition Methane (CH4) is produced along with other adverse gases and environmental issues. The comparative impact of CH4 on climate change is over 20 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period and it is the second potent greenhouse gas having approximately 21 times more global warming potential than that of CO2. Landfill gas from the dumpsite is approximately 40 to 60% methane, mostly CO2 with varying amounts of nitrogen, oxygen, water vapor, hydrogen sulfide, and other contaminants collectively known as ‘non-methane organic compounds’ (NMOCs). The NMOCs usually make up less than 1% of landfill gas. In 1991, the US EPA identified ninety-four NMOC’s including toxic chemicals like benzene, toluene, chloroform, vinyl chloride, and carbon tetrachloride. At least forty-one of the NMOC’s are halogenated compounds (chemicals containing halogens: typically, chlorine, fluorine, or bromine). Apart from this, NASA had also systematically studied the concentration of atmospheric methane and the results were published during 2011 & 2016, indicating a steep rise over 5 years (orange color denotes methane concentration).
Decentralized resource recovery in campuses and communities through composting of all the organic fractions from pre & post cooked food waste, plant wastes and other forms of organic fraction would eventually eliminates the harmful effects of organic waste as whole, and also eliminates the traditional method ‘dig & dump’. In addition source segregating and the removal of plastics and other forms of solid wastes from the soil and diverting them to the authorized recycler would not only ensure ‘good practices’ but also complies with the protocol, rules and acts. Moreover, this approach would also decreases the ozone depletion gases, thereby restores the health and integrity of the Earths ecosystems.
Ecosystem restoration through topsoil up-gradation
Soil biodiversity reflects the variability among living organisms including a myriad of organisms not visible with the naked eye, such as micro-organisms (e.g. bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes) and meso-fauna (e.g. acari and springtails), as well as the more familiar macro-fauna (e.g. earthworms and termites). UN FAO highlights that, ‘plant roots can also be considered as soil organisms in view of their symbiotic relationships and interactions with other soil components’. These diverse organisms interact with one another and with the various plants and animals in the ecosystem forming a ‘complex web of biological activity’. Soil organisms contribute a wide range of essential services to the sustainable function of all ecosystems. They act as the primary driving agents of nutrient cycling, regulating the dynamics of soil organic matter, soil carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emission, modifying soil physical structure and water regimes, enhancing the amount and efficiency of nutrient acquisition by the vegetation and enhancing overall plant health. These services are not only essential to the functioning of natural ecosystems but constitute an important resource for the sustainable management of agricultural systems. The living component of the soil is largely confined to the solum (Top & Subsurface soil).
“Healthy soils results in healthy food, healthy air and healthy water”
Exchange of nutrients between organic matter, water, soil, and organisms are essential to soil fertility and need to be maintained for sustainable food production. When the soil is abused/ over exploited for crop production without restoring the natural organic matter and nutrients, the ‘nutrient cycle’ is broken down resulting in the decline of soil fertility and balance in the agro-ecosystem. The sustenance of such system could be achieved only by restoring ‘topsoil ecology’ through the application of compost and vermicompost in all the agricultural activities.
“The application of composted organic matter would return the lost or degraded fragile topsoil ecology, from where About 99% of the world's food supply comes (land-based production)”.
Organic Food Production
The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization forecasts that global food production will need to increase by 70% if the global population growth reaches 9 plus billion by 2050. The analysis of global food demand and supply situation by 2030 and 2050, water demand-availability, impact of climate change on world water resource, and food security index highlighted that, the population of the world will be 8.6 billion in 2030 and 9.8 billion in 2050. World cereal equivalent food demand is projected to be around 10,094 million tons in 2030 and 14,886 million tons in 2050, whereas the global water demand is also projected to increase by 55% between 2000 and 2050 from 3500 to 5425 km3. Other evidences have showed that climate change will have adverse impact on world water resources and food production with high degree of regional variability and scarcity.
Food security is a global concern and could be achieved by paying higher attention to the promotion of climate-smart agricultural production systems and land use policies at a scale to help adapt and mitigate ill effects of climate change.
Eliminating hunger and malnutrition, and achieving wider global food security are among the most intractable problems humanity faces.
“Food security, means all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life.” - United Nations' Committee on World Food Security
The ultimate goal of ‘inculcating regenerative agriculture’ is: instead of focusing on the ‘farming lands’, converting each and every available space from square foot to hectares, in the horticultural landscape of residences to campuses and communities would create opportunities in a small set of places for a climate-smart agricultural production system and food security. Similarly, rather focusing on the larger agricultural production system, ‘small horticultural activities yield greater returns. In addition, adopting the organic farming technique, will maintain soil fertility and ecological balance thereby minimizing pollution and wastage.
“Targeting actions in these places can have not only local, but also regional, and in some cases global impact.”
Horticulture is the science and art of sustainable development and production, marketing and use of high-value, intensively cultivated food and ornamental plants. Horticultural crops are diverse, including:
- kharif, rabi, annual and perennial species
- fruits and vegetables
- decorative indoor & outdoor plants
- landscape plants
Horticulture also contributes to quality of life, and the beauty, sustainability and rehabilitation of our environment and the human condition. Plants, crops and green spaces sustain and enrich our lives by providing nutritious food, enhancing the beauty of our homes and communities and reducing our carbon footprint - Michigan State University
Organic food and farming is gaining importance across the world. Since 1985, the total farmland area under organic production has been increased steadily. The growing demand for organically grown products has created an interest in both consumer and producer regarding its nutritional value.
“Organic farming is an indigenous practice of India that is practiced in countless rural and farming communities since ancient days”.
Fruits and vegetables contain a wide variety of phytochemicals such as polyphenols, resveratrol, and pro-vitamin C and carotenoids which are generally secondary metabolites of plants. In a study organic fruits and vegetables contain 27% more vitamin C than conventional fruits and vegetables. These secondary metabolites have substantial regulatory effects at cellular levels and hence found to be protective against certain diseases such as cancers, chronic inflammations, and other diseases (Lairon, 2010).
“Healthy foods = healthy metabolism”
The demand for organically grown produce is increasing day by day as the people are becoming more aware about the safety and quality of food, and the organic process has a massive influence on soil health, devoid of agro-chemicals (fertilizers and pesticides). In India the following are the major states involved in organic agriculture: Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Rajasthan, and Himachal Pradesh. Organic foods have become one of the rapidly growing food markets with revenue increasing by nearly 20% each year since 1990.
As per the available statistics, India's ranked 8th in terms of World's Organic Agricultural land and 1st in terms of total number of producers as per 2020 data. - APEDA
Food Waste Prevention
Recently, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released the Food Waste Index Report 2021, which revealed that 17% (around 931 million tonnes) of all food available at consumer level (11% in households, 5% in food service and 2% in retail) was wasted in 2019 and around 690 million people had to go hungry. About 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions are associated with food that is not consumed. Thus, tackling food wastage issues can further achieve Paris Agreement targets.
We can be more efficient and effective about where we grow?, what we grow?, how we grow? and how we consume? - APSCC
A number of options are suggested in this program ‘inculcating regenerative agriculture’ for the development of food production and water resource, for instance:
- freeze agriculture footprint – say no to foods produced by the conventional methods.
- grow more on farms/ campuses we’ve got – square foot garden, roof top garden, etc.
- use resources more efficiently – drip irrigation, gradient farming, etc.
- shift diets – from cereals to organically grown fruits and vegetables
- reduce waste – cook or take only what you need?
Complements the following SDGs