Digging deeper into soil: The future of food

It’s another rainy day in the coastal Odisha, India. The Bhitarkanika village looks drenched and dark. Meet Pampa Dolui, age 34, a single mother of two, who has adopted a grim routine over these months, digging soil outside her home to let in the saline water from the sea to enter her sweet water pond.

And she seems to be preparing to uproot the banana tree outside her hut, to create more space for saline water to come in through a freshly dug canal. While chopping the tree she tells her children, “See, the whole tree has turned brown, like rust, nothing will grow anymore, too much salt in the soil”. Now like every other fifth person in village, she is also going to rent out her saline ponds for prawn cultivation at a meager price, as that seems to be the only way to survive.

Other residents in nearby villages learned recently that staggering levels of salinity in agricultural fields will only lead them to death. Nowadays the community in Pampa’s village practices prawn cultivation, by welcoming more and more saline water into their fields, in existing ponds and even digging out more soil for other salty ponds. 

One may ask what is wrong with that? To truly understand the net impact, consider that this causes complete devastation to hectares of agricultural land, and damages the fragile mangrove ecosystem to the point of no return.

I am reminded of this story while attending the launch of the “Voluntary Guidelines for Sustainable Soil Management for the achievement of a Zero Hunger world” at a CFS44 side event organized by the Global Soil Partnership (GSP), FAO, European Commission (EC), and the World Farmers Organization (WFO) in FAO Headquarters in Rome.

We all know that soil to a farmer means a nutrient-rich medium of life, which contains processes of food production. Fortunately, ‘soil’ is picking up as a more serious concern area for the 137 countries represented in FAO’s Committee for World Food Security. To this hopeful news, Eduardo Mansur, Director, Land & Water Division, FAO, proposed that the voluntary guidelines are an interesting step in the right direction towards building material for future stakeholders. Still, scaling the idea locally remains a challenge.

With the rise in sea levels in coastal belts, salt is the main villain; however, more telling factors are worldwide heavy use of pesticides, polluted water and extensive erosion, etc. Also, experts at the session discussed on how developing countries agricultural land is being converted into concrete jungles and small countries are facing even bigger challenges of growing food as farm land is shrinking fast.

Ronald Vargas, GSP Secretariat FAO commented, “There are several methods of soil conservation that can be achieved through innovative agricultural practices and in the next guideline  we would like to include varied case studies across the globe, which highlights solutions”.

We all agree to the fact that soil is a biological home of plants that sustain food production worldwide. Bringing innovations and sustainable techniques to the grassroots level is the only way to overcome the challenges. Yes, it’s a fact and I witnessed this first-hand while implementing a climate adaptive farming project in coastal Odisha, initiated by South Asian Forum for Environment, SAFE, a regional civil society organization working towards environmental conservation and poverty alleviation.  

Would you like to know the current status of Pampa Dolui?

Hers is an incredible tale of courage, as she risked her piece of land for an innovative project that changed her life. She took up crab and fish cultivation by harvesting the rain water, that neutralized the salt to a great extent, and today she produces 10-15 kg fish, per month, while crabs are growing in another pond. Both fish and crab has a ready market and is always in high demand locally. Her success has captivated the entire village: now about 135 more women are following her steps, forming a joint liability group that is responsible for monitoring the fish and crab cultivation, in their respective ponds.

The second volume of the voluntarily guidelines, is going to include more such case studies and this helps create a vision for stakeholders to be able to translate them into soil management locally.  

Let us encourage their uptake for the sake of our food’s future and of mankind. And for women like Pampa.

This blogpost covers the CFS44 side event " Voluntary Guidelines for Sustainable Soil Management for the achievement of a Zero Hunger world”

Blogpost and photo by Amrita Chatterjee, #CFS44 Social Reporter – amritasafe(at)gmail.com

Photo: Pampa Dolui, village fish farmer