Home / Opinion / Views /  Incentivize the world’s farmers to improve soil health
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For any soil to have agricultural potential, it must have a minimum of 3-6% organic content. But in large parts of the world, it is well below 1%. In fact, records show that across the planet, not a single country has soil with a minimum of 3% organic content. In the last 25 years, an estimated 10% of the earth’s land has become desert.

If we want to reclaim soil, the first and foremost narrative that needs to change in the world is the popular perception of what soil is. It needs to be understood that soil is living, not dead material. Even now, many agricultural scientists, universities and agricultural departments appear to address soil as a ‘material’. Their approach remains: ‘It just needs a little more nitrogen, a little more potassium, a little more phosphorus.’ No, what soil needs is living organisms.

Consider this. A handful of soil has over 5 billion organisms, sometimes over 7 billion. It is from this microbial life that all other life on this planet has evolved. If all these microbes were to die, we would be finished. But every year, on an average, 27,000 species in the soil habitat are going extinct. And for this, humanity and every other form of life is paying a heavy price.

Soil is in such a dangerous situation right now that in another 50-60 years, United Nations agencies say that there will be no agricultural soil left to grow anything, because the organic content of soil is in deep decline.

Over the last 20 years, about 300,000 farmers have committed suicide in India. Even in the US, farmers account for the highest number of suicides among all professions. If the soil in your land is rich, even if you cannot do commercial farming, if you can at least grow food for your own family, you will not be driven to commit suicide. But farmers in large parts of the world are not even able to provide for their family’s sustenance. When you are not able to feed your children, you may feel it is better to kill yourself. This is what has been happening.

We as a generation of people are facing a challenge, but at the same time, it is a privilege we are at such a cusp of history that we can still pull ourselves back from a precipice. If we act now, in the next 10–15 years, the world’s soil could be turned around significantly. But if we cross this threshold, it will become very difficult for future generations to meet their survival needs.

This is why I decided to bring the world’s attention to soil.

‘Conscious Planet: Save Soil’ is a global movement to change the narrative around soil. As part of this movement, I embarked on a crazy motorcycle journey across 27 countries, covering 30,000km in 100 days, to meet with government leaders, influencers and the general public, raise awareness and recommend policy changes that would ensure a minimum of 3–6% organic content in soil everywhere.

There was a spectacular response in every nation. Just four months ago, soil was not even in the conversation. Now, the word ‘soil’ reverberates everywhere. Since 21 March, over 3.9 billion people have spoken about soil.

Many United Nations agencies have joined us. Nine countries have signed memoranda of understanding (MoUs) with Conscious Planet: Save Soil. I also addressed 193 nations at the fifteenth session of the Conference of Parties (CoP-15) of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) held this summer in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, Africa. As many as 74 nations have already committed themselves to the urgent cause of saving the planet’s soil, and the remaining are looking at how they can implement it.

It is every government’s prerogative how they frame policies, but the best way to do it, in my opinion, would be to provide incentives for every farmer in the world to work actively towards a minimum of 3–6% organic content in agricultural soil.

At the CoP-15 session held recently in Africa, we proposed a three-pronged incentive scheme for farmers. Every nation could set up 3% organic content as a minimum average and then provide attractive incentives for farmers to aspire to get there. Industry and business could facilitate carbon credit systems as a second line of incentive for farmers. The third level can be addressed by changing the way food is labelled in consumer markets. Right now, fruits and vegetables are often labelled as “organic", as if the other foods are inorganic, which is not so. Also, it is extremely difficult to measure the amount of fertilizer and pesticide in any given food product. A simpler and more effective approach would be to measure the organic content of the soil. Agricultural products—from fruits and vegetables to foodgrains— grown on tracts of land that have reached 3% organic content should find special shelves in marketplaces.

There is enough science today to provide us with information on the micronutrients present in food grown in a field of soil that contains 3% organic content, the health benefits thereof, and the broader benefits for the nation in terms of productivity and creativity gains, given its relieving of stress on the healthcare system and fostering of a healthier and happier population.

The three-pronged incentive scheme for farmers outlined above would be a good way to start rolling back an unfolding disaster of soil extinction.

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