Soil degradation crisis is impacting your health

Ashraf Engineer

January 27, 2024


Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.

Part of the great challenges India faces on the agriculture front is the degradation of its soil. In fact, it’s reached crisis proportions. National Bureau of Soil Survey and Land Use Planning data shows that 146.8 million hectares, or around 30% of the soil in India, is degraded. For a country that must feed the world’s largest population, sustainably, this is a serious issue but it’s attracting very little attention. As I’ve said in earlier episodes, India’s farms employ more than half of its workforce. If soil quality continues to plummet, it would have consequences on farm output, food security and the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of Indians.


First of all, what is soil degradation? It is a decline in its physical, chemical and biological quality. This could happen for a variety of reasons, from pollution to poor management of farms. Blame it on extractive agricultural practices, heavy chemical and fertiliser use, and poor irrigation management. Soil degradation can involve water and wind erosion, a rise in salinity and a decline in fertility or acidity.

Healthy soil samples teem with biodiversity. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the millions of microscopic and other organisms in the soil “perform many vital functions, including converting dead and decaying matter as well as minerals to plant nutrients, controlling plant disease and insect and weed pests, improving soil structure with positive effects for soil water and nutrient holding capacity, and ultimately improving crop production”.

The minerals and microbes clean water by filtering out pollutants. Earthworms, ants and termites create channels for water and air flow. Soil is the second largest carbon sink after the ocean, thus playing a crucial role in mitigating climate change.

What does healthy soil have? It contains three major nutrients: phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen. All of them are critical for agriculture.

Traditionally, Indian soils have low nitrogen and phosphorus content, but lots of potassium. According to the 2019-20 Soil Health Survey, 55% of our soil is deficient in nitrogen, 42% in phosphorus and 44% in organic carbon.

To compensate for this deficiency, farmers use chemical fertilisers. While these fertilisers do raise crop yields, they have a negative impact on soil health. They are slowly absorbed into the ground, turning the soil and groundwater toxic.

India is the world’s second largest producer and consumer of fertilisers, after China, and a 2019 report by the Centre for Science and Environment said that nitrogen pollution in surface and groundwater is now at “alarming levels”. However, shifting away from chemical-based agriculture is a long way off in regions where nitrogen content is “very low”.

To add to the nutrient deficiency, India is also the 13th most water-stressed country – 256 of its 700 districts have surpassed safe limits for groundwater extraction. In Punjab, for example, three quarters of the districts have overexploited groundwater resources.

This government is in the habit of announcing grand targets without taking into account the ground reality or ensuring that they are met. In keeping with this pattern, it has set 2030 as the target year for India to become land degradation neutral. According to UN Convention to Combat Desertification, this means that “the amount and quality of land resources, necessary to support ecosystem functions and services and enhance food security, remains stable or increases within specified temporal and spatial scales and ecosystems”.

However, Indian Space Research Organisation, or ISRO, data shows that almost all Indian states witnessed a rise in degraded land over the past 15 years. ISRO’s Desertification and Land Degradation Atlas published in June 2021 too says that 30% of India’s geographical area is degraded. Of this, 3.32 million hectares were added between 2003 and 2019 alone. The North-East recorded the most rapid percentage rise in degraded soil. Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Jammu and Kashmir and Karnataka recorded the highest areas of degrading land. Alarmingly, in Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Delhi, Gujarat and Goa, the area of degrading land accounts for more than 50% the states’ total area.

It gets worse. An analysis of ISRO data by environmental magazine ‘Down to Earth’ showed that more than half of the degraded land in India is either rainfed farmland, responsible for food security, or forestland that must be preserved if we are to fight off climate change. The analysis showed that water erosion was the most common reason, 80%, for degradation of unirrigated farmland.

Let’s not forget that India has 18% of the world’s human population and 15% of the livestock but only 2.4% of its land. In an agrarian economy, this means that land is one of our most precious resources. It’s no surprise then that The Energy and Resources Institute, better known as TERI, estimated the economic loss from land degradation and change of land use in 2014-15 at 2.54% of the GDP. That’s Rs 3.17 lakh crore. Almost 82% of the estimated cost is due to land degradation and the rest due to change of land use.

Experts believe that poor practices are responsible for the situation. These include imbalanced fertilisation, excessive tillage, crop residue burning, poor water management, pesticide overuse and soil pollution. Overgrazing, deforestation, poor forest management and urbanisation are the other major causes.

If the government is to meet its target, it would require a policy transformation because governments have traditionally encouraged chemical-intensive cropping, which work well in irrigated farms. However, more than half of India’s farmland is rain-fed.

As of now, the areas of focus the government has identified as ways to make soil chemical-free are: saving organisms in the soil, maintaining soil moisture, managing groundwater better and stopping erosion due to reduction of forests. Soil Health Cards provide farmers with soil nutrient status that are then used to ascertain fertiliser dosage. There are varying views on how effective they are and the focus areas seem to be the right ones. However, whether the words translate into transformative action or not remains to be seen.

Soil health impacts human health too. Soil minerals directly impact crop productivity and quality, which determines the nutritional status of people consuming those crops. For instance, soil zinc availability is associated with children’s height growth and soil iron availability is associated with haemoglobin levels. The link between soil zinc and childhood stunting is strong: a one standard deviation increase in satisfactory soil zinc tests is associated with roughly 11 fewer children stunted per 1,000.

In the developing world, of which India is a part, a large part of the population is at higher risk of mineral deficiencies because it consumes food grown on soil lacking in mineral concentration.

India is home to one-third of the global population suffering from micronutrient deficiency, so the rate of child stunting is about 35%. Almost 138 million Indians — that’s 10% of our population — are living below the poverty line in rural areas. Many of them are farmers who have very small land holdings. They rely on their own production for food, particularly for staple cereals. They are the hardest hit by soil degradation.

The way out is to reimagine Indian agriculture. Traditional organic farming systems could help. In the 2019 Budget Session of Parliament, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman pushed for Zero Budget Natural Farming, a sustainable form of agriculture using traditional organic methods and no chemicals. However, there is no detailed plan for it yet.

Indian Council of Agricultural Research data showed that, over the long term, balanced use of fertilisers produces better results. This means a combination of organic and inorganic fertilisers. Such balanced use does not destroy the soil and it increases crop output.

Of course, there are no easy solutions to a challenge as complex as degraded soil. The first step is to understand the damage it causes to the economy, the environment, food security and health. It needs urgent policy attention, and technological and educational initiatives.

Thank you all for listening. Please visit for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at Catch you again soon.