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World Soil Day: Soil Degradation

GS1/GS3 Paper 

 Syllabus: Environment Conservation


Source: DTE

 Context: The article emphasizes the importance of preserving and restoring soil health for a sustainable future, especially given the threats posed by human activities and decreasing soil productivity.


How Soil is formed? 

Soil formation involves the gradual breakdown of rocks and the incorporation of organic material, leading to a medium that sustains plant and animal life.


Primary Factors of Soil Formation:

1. Parent MaterialRefers to the original rock or organic material undergoing weathering to form soil. It influences soil fertility, texture, and structure.Limestone parent material leads to alkaline soils, while granite leads to acidic soils.
2. ClimateTemperature and precipitation play a crucial role. Temperature affects weathering rates, and precipitation influences soil moisture and erosion.Tropical climates with high temperatures and rainfall lead to rapid weathering and nutrient leaching, resulting in nutrient-poor soils.
3. Living OrganismsFlora, fauna, and microorganisms contribute by decomposing organic matter, enriching soil with nutrients, and influencing soil structure.Earthworms aerate the soil and contribute to nutrient cycling, enhancing soil fertility.
4. TopographyLandscape shape and slope impact water drainage, sunlight exposure, and erosion, affecting soil development.Steep slopes often have thinner soils due to increased erosion, while flat areas may have thicker, more developed soils.
5. TimeSoil formation is a slow process, and time determines the maturity of the soil. Soils undergo changes and reach different stages of development.Older soils typically have well-defined layers or horizons, each with distinct characteristics.


Implications of Soil Degradation:

1. For Agriculture
a. Reduced Crop YieldsSoil degradation lowers fertility, leading to decreased crop yields, as seen in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.
b. Increased Irrigation NeedsDegraded soils often have reduced water retention, necessitating more irrigation, contributing to over-reliance on water resources in areas like California.
c. Pest and Disease IncreasePoor soil health creates susceptibility to pests and diseases, particularly in monoculture practices.
d. Soil ErosionIntensive farming practices contribute to soil erosion, exemplified by the Dust Bowl in the U.S. during the 1930s.
e. Increased CostsFarmers incur higher costs for fertilizers and soil amendments to compensate for poor soil quality, affecting economic sustainability.
2. For Food Security
a. Vulnerability to Climate ChangeDegraded soils are less resilient to climate shocks, posing a risk to food production in regions prone to droughts or floods.
b. Nutritional Quality DeclineSoils lacking nutrients result in crops with lower nutritional value, impacting human health.
c. Dependency on ImportsCountries facing severe soil degradation may become more reliant on food imports, observed in some Middle Eastern nations.
d. Price FluctuationsReduced agricultural productivity can lead to higher food prices, disproportionately affecting low-income populations.
e. Increased Risk of FamineExtreme cases, like in the Horn of Africa, may witness soil degradation contributing to famine when combined with other factors.
3. For Biodiversity
a. Loss of HabitatSoil degradation contributes to habitat loss, notably in regions like the Amazon rainforest.
b. Reduced Plant DiversityPoor soil health negatively impacts plant diversity, influencing the entire ecosystem.
c. Altered Ecosystem ServicesDegraded soils affect water regulation and purification, disrupting local ecosystems.
d. Increased Invasiveness of SpeciesWeakened ecosystems become more susceptible to invasive species, impacting local biodiversity.
e. Pollinator DeclineSoil degradation affects flowering plants, contributing to the decline of pollinator species such as bees.


Remedial Measures:

Scientists recommend soil-centric agriculture:

  • Adopt conservation practices: no-till, residue mulch, crop rotations, and integrated crops with trees and livestock.
  • Discourage broadcasting fertilizers; promote seed-cum-fertilizer drill machines for water efficiency.
  • Use cover crops, mulching, and agroforestry; adopt smart soil solutions like Bhoomitra and Krishi-RASTAA.
  • Promote practices enhancing sequestration and crop diversification.
  • Eliminate farm residue burning; adopt direct-seeded and aerobic rice.
  • Reduce chemical use; employ precision agriculture, digital innovations, robotics, and AI.
  • Practice carbon farming for emissions offset and soil restoration.
  • Reclaim saline, alkaline, and acidic soils; use micronutrients and biofertilizers.
  • Mechanize deep placement of fertilizers for efficiency.
  • Integrate nutrient management using organic and mineral fertilizers for improved soil health.
  • Use happy turbo seeder for in situ straw conservation and increased SOC.
  • Water Conservation Techniques: Using drip irrigation and rainwater harvesting can reduce water waste and improve soil quality.
  • Integrated Pest Management: Reducing chemical use and encouraging biological pest control can help maintain soil health.
  • Education and Policy Support: Educating farmers about sustainable practices and providing policy support for sustainable agriculture can help in long-term soil conservation.


Case Study: The Loess Plateau Restoration, China

The Loess Plateau, located in northern China, is one of the world’s most eroded regions. It was historically known for its extremely fertile soil, but centuries of agricultural overuse and deforestation led to severe soil erosion, reduced agricultural productivity, and widespread poverty.

The Restoration Project: In 1994, the Chinese government, with support from the World Bank, initiated the Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project. The project’s goals were: To reduce soil erosion, increase agricultural productivity and improve local incomes and living conditions.

Key strategies included:

·        Terracing: Large areas were terraced to reduce soil erosion and increase land for agriculture.

·        Reforestation and Afforestation: Millions of trees were planted to stabilize the soil and restore ecological balance.

·        Changing Agricultural Practices: Farmers were taught sustainable agricultural practices, such as crop rotation and the use of organic fertilizers.

·        Restricting Grazing: Grazing was restricted in certain areas to allow vegetation to recover.

 Results: The project was remarkably successful.

·        By the mid-2000s: Soil erosion significantly decreased.

·        Agricultural productivity improved, with marked increases in crop yields.

·        Biodiversity returned to previously degraded areas.

·        The economic condition of local populations improved, with significant reductions in poverty




India’s development trajectory must prioritize soil health as a fundamental component of sustainable growth. By doing so, the nation can ensure that future generations inherit fertile and productive land, safeguarding both the environment and its people’s well-being.



About World Soil Day (WSD):


It is observed annually on December 5, emphasising the significance of healthy soil and advocating for sustainable soil management. Proposed by the International Union of Soil Sciences in 2002, it was formally established under the Global Soil Partnership, with FAO’s support. The UN General Assembly designated December 5, 2014, as the first official World Soil Day, commemorating the late King of Thailand Bhumibol Adulyadej’s commitment to sustainable soil management. The theme for this year is “Soil and Water: A Source of Life.”


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