Can we live healthy if our soil doesn’t?

Land degradation is posing a serious threat to our food security, health and environment

On the occasion of this World Soil Day, The Daily Star has published a report based on the findings of a study that should set all alarm bells ringing. The study reveals a staggering scale of soil degradation in Bangladesh, with around 11.07 million hectares of land – accounting for 75 percent of its geographical area – estimated to be suffering nutrient depletion. Of them, 1.47 million hectares have suffered "severe" soil nutrient depletion, meaning that the land has lost 50 to 75 percent of its productivity, and will be very difficult to use for further cultivation. We get further insights as the study, conducted by scientists of the state-run Soil Resource Development Institute (SRDI), delves into factors causing the steady decline in soil quality.

For a nation exposed to a daily diet of disturbing statistics, this one may seem insignificant. But to anyone concerned about our long-term food security, it really is not. Soil degradation is considered among the most critical problems facing our world, particularly because of the threat it poses to food security, sustainability and health. A major contributor to this, in Bangladesh as in other countries, is acidification which, as per the SRDI study, has affected 54.8 percent of our land. Among other contributors are arsenic contamination, hill erosion, drought and riverbank erosion.

All these factors, together with the unchecked removal of topsoil, are reducing the ability of our land to support plant life and grow crops. Another big loss is that of vitamins and nutrients in food. Globally, it is estimated that two billion people suffer from a lack of micronutrients, known as "hidden hunger" because it is difficult to detect. What this means is that soil degradation may be a bigger challenge than we think. Yet, bizarrely, it continues to be a non-issue in our policy circles.

Everywhere you look, you see some kind of soil degradation at play – unplanned urbanisation and industrialisation, industrial effluents discharged into waterbodies, excessive use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers, etc. A comment from one of the SRDI researchers is quite revealing. He said: "In the 1960s, there was a scarcity of only one nutrient in our soil – nitrogen. We handled the situation by applying urea. After 2010, it was found that almost all the nutrients in our soil have been decreasing at an alarming rate due to land degradation." We can't let this happen anymore.

True, the growing demand for food has led to the growing use of pesticides and fertilisers. But we must find a balance here, and use more innovative and environmentally-friendly means of food production. Unfortunately, there is no dearth of research on soil but there is hardly any measure to prevent soil degradation or check depletion of agricultural land. The SRDI has guidelines for land and soil use, but we are yet to have a comprehensive national land use policy. We, therefore, urge the government to adopt one soon. It should also encourage sustainable land management practices, such as rainwater harvesting, sand-dune reclamation, management of soil organic matters, and urban forestry to reduce further land degradation.