Acidic Soils Corrode Farmers' Hopes in India
Oct 18, 2013
Suicide rates among farmers in India have been notable since the early nineties and the trend continues through the present day. Hippies are quick to blame 'big-Ag' like Monsanto for GMO seed, and America for global warming. But up to 2,000 lives could be saved in India each day simply by making proper soil nutrition a priority. A farmer in India kills himself every 30 minutes.
A new study conducted by the Kerala State Planning Board has examined the acidity of the soil on Indian farms, taking over 200,000 soil samples. The results show a dramatic nutrient imbalance and increasingly more acidic soils with each new crop. 91 percent of the plots surveyed showed elevated acidity with the cotton belt along the coastal regions struggling the most, both with soil nutrition and farmer suicide rates.
Advancing Eco Agriculture notes, "The study found that the primary cause for the elevated levels of soil acidification are a combination of the use of chemical fertilizer, the intensification of agriculture through high-yielding crop varieties, and the neglect of the traditional practice of applying lime to neutralize acidity. These elevated acidity levels provide a “stressed environment” for plant growth. Plants are unable to absorb nutrients and the “microbial process responsible for nitrogen fixation and decomposition of organic matter in the soil” is inhibited."
Seeds do not stand a chance in an environment like that, and neither do farmers. Modern crops are more nutrient intensive than in the past and require as much from the soil as they ever have. In the United States, that drives fertilizer applications as part of the regular crop routine. Adequate funding and available capital along with education keep U.S. soils healthy and able to answer the demands of high yielding crops.
Monsoon rains account for watering 70% of India's cropland and most areas lack adequate irrigation. When monsoons are light, soils are prone to dryness, and crops have a hard time making it. Poor yields in dry acidic soils leave farmers unable to repay loans for seed and nutrient and with wives and children to feed, the stigma of failure is too much to bear.
Lagging monsoons have been blamed on global warming, and cyclical climate change plays a role. But last year's drought in the United States still produced a national average corn yield somewhere in the 125-130 bu/acre range. Not great, but certainly enough to cover expenses and with favorable crop economics, for many, a chance to catch up on bills or even buy a new truck. A friend of mine rolled a brand new combine out at harvest this year based on marketing successes from last year's drought crop.
Reliable farm credit and solid yields based on balanced soil nutrition are luxuries that advance farming in developed nations like the United States. Farmers in India have no such luxury and when crops fail due to drought and poor soil quality, the Indian farmer is 'out' that money and the bank still expects to be paid. A few failing years strung together and the debt can mount beyond what a farmer is able to pay back in his lifetime. At that point, the stress of failure is too much for the farmer to bear, and the only opportunity for relief is suicide.
A Learned Behavior --
Young people aged 15-29 are committing suicide in India at an alarming rate as well, even compared to the high suicide rates among farmers. This could be a signal that suicide is becoming a learned social response to failure. The 15-29 yr-old group was raised in the climate of tragic suicide and as adults model this final grave act, the practice becomes not only more socially acceptable -- although taboo in conversation -- but it can seem to hopeless young people like a viable alternative to facing the future.
Estimates have it that India loses up to 2,000 farmers every day to suicide thinning their numbers by 9 million since 2001. But these are only estimates. Many families report suicides as death by illness or accident in an attempt to spare the family's reputation, skewing the tally.
The gap between the urban rich and the rural poor is expanding and the imbalance of wealth is as striking as agronomic imbalances, prompting an attitude of 'succeed or die' among the less fortunate. Young people on the farm, faced with the suicide of their fathers and generational debt often walk the same road their fathers did. But the legacy left behind by suicide is shame, extreme poverty amid overhanging debt, hungry mouths and nothing more ahead than more of the same.
Thank Your Lucky Soils --
John Kempf, Founder and CEO of Advancing Eco Agriculture, the leading provider of regenerative biological agriculture systems commented on the situation in India, “Today, the importance of soil health is often overlooked, or considered less of a priority than crop yields. Soil is the plant’s digestive system. Healthy soil that provides balanced mineral nutrition to sustain healthy microbial populations is vital to plant health and crop production."
A series of factors has held farmer suicide rates in India historically high since the early nineties claiming up to a quarter million lives by some estimates. Urbanization, social stigma, mounting debt and generational poverty all conspire to urge Indian farmers toward ending it all. But the key to stemming the tide of suicides on the farm in India is in the soil itself.
Improved nutrition on high yielding crop varieties and the addition of some much needed lime would go a long way to filling the bellies of children on the Indian farm, and keeping growers from ending their own lives.
We are fortunate in this country. We are blessed with fertile soils, access to soil technology, fair, reliable credit and a climate that generally favors crop growth. The legacies we pass on to our children are laced with hope and optimism leaving the generation to follow with the tools of success and a knowledge of best practices. As you pass up and down the rows this harvest, consider your good fortune at having been born a farmer in this great nation, and remember those across the ocean who bear a loathsome burden with little hope for the future.
Photo credit: VinothChandar / Foter / CC BY
Photo credit: dhilung / Foter / CC BY