Healthy soil for more nutritious food and healthier planet

Healthy soil for more nutritious food and a healthier planet

Sri Noor Chalidah and Eristyana Sari (The Jakarta Post)

Jakarta ●
Mon 12 December 2022

land,agriculture,food,health,fertilizer,methane,greenhouse gas,spatial planning,soil,FAO

Soil is widely recognized as the foundation of the food system, which produces 95% of our food. In the opening address to the G20 summit last month, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo stressed the urgency of maintaining food security during the war crisis in Russia and the COVID-19 pandemic, which are not not yet completed.

Unfortunately, the urgency of protecting and maintaining the state of our soils has not yet become the absolute priority of current agricultural policies. The conversion of rice paddies to non-agricultural land is about 100,000 hectares (ha) per year. Opening new rice fields is not easy, as the government intends to improve national food security. Research by Setyorini et al. in 2010 found that new rice paddies in Indonesia were not supported by healthy soil, good water quality and enough microorganisms to produce maximum yields.

World Soil Day (WSD), which we commemorate every year on December 5, reminds us to pay attention to the importance of healthy soil and to advocate for the sustainable management of soil resources. This year’s slogan “Soils: Where Food Begins” aims to raise awareness of the importance of maintaining healthy ecosystems and human well-being by addressing the growing challenges of soil management, raising awareness of soils and encouraging companies to improve soil health.

Indonesia has achieved “self-sufficiency” in some staple foods, especially rice, but we need to ensure that the proposed program delivers a vision for a healthier planet and people.

From an environmental perspective, rice production contributes to global warming through emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) such as methane and nitrous oxide. Specifically, a study by Susilawati et al. in 2015 found that methane emissions from paddy fields were recently estimated to be around 5-19% of total global methane emissions, due to continuous flooding and the use of inorganic fertilizers.

From a nutritional perspective, managing soil health with sustainable agricultural practices and crop diversification will lead to nutrient density in harvested agricultural products and enrich agricultural products for human consumption.

From the policy point of view, Regulation No. 49/2021 of the Minister of Agriculture stipulates that the total allocation for subsidized fertilizers in 2022 is 8.87 to 9.55 million tons, i.e. only 2.27 million tons, of which 21.54% is organic. This shows that the government still prioritizes the use of inorganic fertilizers, while studies claim that too much inorganic fertilizer could actually lead to poorer quality soil. Since plants only need a certain amount of fertilizer, increasing its subsidy may not be the best decision. Government intervention should focus more on improving soil conditions, since it is the government that provides the nutrients for plants to grow and produce high quality nutrient yields.

Therefore, more sustainable strategies must be planned to improve soil fertility to ensure food security for a healthier planet and people. The government should focus on the following strategies: securing existing protected rice paddies, improving nutrient management and implementing agroecological principles.

First, we must anticipate changes in the use of our existing rice paddies by encouraging local governments to protect their current agricultural lands. Protected rice field (LSD) is the policy for the protection of rice paddies by the Ministry of Agrarian Affairs and Spatial Planning/National Land Agency (ATR/BPN) within the framework of the implementation of Presidential Regulation No. 59/2019 on the control of land use change.. The ministry aims to regularly update its data on protected rice paddies across the country.

This policy is a fundamental tool for forecasting future rice production to ensure national food security. A study suggests that a forecast of food production potential must take into account the anticipated loss of cropland due to urbanization, since converted cropland is 30 to 40 percent more productive than new cropland.

Protecting existing agricultural land from urbanization would alleviate pressure on the expansion of agriculture into natural habitats. The local government needs financial incentives to cover the trade-offs to retain the current protected rice field and not convert the land to non-agricultural uses. Fiscal instrument through the General Allocation Fund (DAU) and Special Allocation Fund (DAK) could be considered to limit the conversion of rice paddies in Indonesia.

Second, we need to improve the nutrient management of our lands. Different types of soil and plants also have different needs in terms of the type and amount of nutrients. However, in Indonesia, farmers practice farming hereditarily, where the application of inorganic fertilizers, especially nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK) is an ingrained habit. Government fertilizer subsidy could also increase the use of NPK fertilizers.

Consequently, the requirement for inorganic fertilizers increased by about 5-7%. Excessive use of inorganic fertilizers over a long period of time will decrease soil quality and contaminate water and the ecosystem in general. Proper nutrient management could increase soil quality, leading to higher crop production while contributing to GHG reduction.

Third, the implementation of agroecological principles into current agricultural practices in Indonesia is imperative. As described by the FAO, the principles of agroecology are a subset of sustainable agriculture that describes a healthy relationship between nature, social sciences, ecology, society, economy and environment.

Agroecology is applied based on local knowledge and experience to meet local food needs. Since it is locally rooted, agroecology directly tackles climate change. For example, as a volcanic country, Indonesia has 127 active volcanoes, which contain high levels of minerals such as millstone and biochar.

This high mineral content should be used as a source of soil amendments and formulated as an organic fertilizer to restore carbon to the land and improve soil fertility to boost agricultural production.


Sri Noor Chalidah is Food System Specialist for Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU), WRI Indonesia. Eristyana Sari is a program associate, GAIN Indonesia.

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