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Living in Harmony with Mother Earth: User-Friendly Instant Tool Kit Helps Indian Farmers Determine Soil Organic Carbon

RAS 5084 - Assessing and Improving Soil and Water Quality to Minimize Land Degradation and Enhance Crop Productivity Using Nuclear Techniques (RCA)

Carbon-rich minerals, organic materials and living organisms – these various components of soil are necessary to absorb water and breakdown pollutants. Having the right balance of organic matter and living organisms, nutrients are released in the soil, allowing healthy crops to grow. (Photo: S. Mehetre/Bhabha Atomic Research Centre)

“To be a successful farmer, one must first know the nature of soil,” ancient Greek historian Xenophon once wrote, and what was true in 400 BCE is true today; rich and fertile soil — necessary for producing healthy crops — relies on key soil components such as carbon. 

Understanding carbon levels in soil — which vary depending on environmental conditions and human activities — is crucial for farmers to grow healthy and high yielding crops without using excessive fertilizer and conserving the soil. Thanks to nuclear techniques, this has become easier in the past few years, and what once required a trip to the laboratory for soil analysis can now take place on-site by farmers with a new soil organic carbon detection kit. 

The IAEA, in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), has been working to improve soil resource management towards healthy soils and harvests. Delivered through the IAEA’s technical cooperation programme, IAEA experts have raised awareness on soil health and conducted training on advanced nuclear techniques for soil and water quality (see How can nuclear technology help detect soil organic carbon turnover?). Every year, up to 10 000 organic farmers in India benefit from this technology, regularly monitoring soil organic carbon for optimal crop production. 

India’s move to organic farming

Driven by chemical fertilizers, irrigation systems and high-yielding crop varieties, India’s agricultural sector in the 1960s and early 1970s experienced a surge in crop yields, coined the “Green Revolution”. Although the revolution boosted farmers’ incomes and produce, the excess use of fertilizers impacted soil quality and, in some cases, resulted in soil degradation. 

“Over the past five years in India, we have really seen the shift towards organic inputs becoming more prevalent,” said Sayaji T. Mehetre, a Scientific Officer at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Nuclear Agriculture and Biotechnology Division in Mumbai, India. “With the Government supporting this shift and the rising awareness of the people, the demand for organic produce is beginning to climb throughout the country.”

For Indian farmers, keeping up with this growing demand means understanding their soil’s organic carbon content, which can help to address soil degradation.

Healthy soil and high yields

Soil is not just dirt, but is actually made up of carbon-rich minerals, organic materials and living organisms. Soil’s diverse components are important in ensuring its health and ability to absorb water and break down pollutants. When soil has a healthy balance of organic matter and living organisms, nutrients are released and can be used by the crops to grow. However, too little or too much nutrient can have negative effects. 

“The new method makes it easier for farmers to ensure long term soil health by using samples taken before sowing and after harvest,” said Joseph Adu-Gyamfi, an Integrated Soil Fertility Management Specialist at the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, who works to develop and improve soil resource management for sustainable agriculture.  

Scientists at BARC are exploring the changes in the natural abundance of carbon-13 (13C) in soil over time by sampling soils in the field for 13C and determining the decomposition and changes of the organic carbon in soils, explained Adu-Gyamfi.

In India, testing kits have been developed to determine and correct the amount of manure being used on organic crops. Able to conduct tests on-site, small scale farmers in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh can now check whether their soil is fertile enough for high yields or requires adjusting with organic inputs moving forward. 

“These kits allow me to tailor manure inputs to what is most beneficial for the soil on my fields almost instantly,” said Madhukar Hegade, a farmer in Nimgaon Ketaki, a village in the western state of Maharashtra. The Andhra Pradesh Government, on India’s south-east coast, has now decided to use the testing kit to analyse the soil organic carbon status of the entire state.

Testing takes only 20 minutes. The soil organic carbon detection kit contains two solutions and a colour chart. Once the solutions have been added to the soil sample, farmers can then adjust the levels of organic fertilizer to ensure healthy soil based on the chart reading.

Organic carbon soil detection kits are now being used throughout India to ensure that the levels of organic carbon, necessary for fruitful crops and healthy soils, test at suitable levels. (Photo: S. Mehetre/Bhabha Atomic Research Centre)

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