What dirt can teach us about global development

On World Soil Day, we ask why seemingly simple problems like soil health are so tough to solve.

crops uttarakhand tata center

On the surface the issue looks pretty straightforward: Indian farmers don’t have a reliable way to measure their soil chemistry, so they don’t always know how much fertilizer to apply. This throws the soil chemistry out of whack, which reduces crop productivity, and in turn hurts the farmers’ (already perilously small) bottom line. So, if you give farmers an easy way to measure their soil chemistry and understand what fertilizers to use, you’ll solve the problem, right?

Not so fast.

The MIT Tata Center’s soil health team, consisting of faculty members Chintan Vaishnav and John Hart, postdoc Michael Bono, and graduate students Ron Rosenberg and Soumya Braganza, has traveled the length of India to grapple with this issue. From the tiny steppe farms of the Himalayas to hot, dry fields in the plains of Karnataka, they’ve talked to farmers and mill owners, held workshops, and gotten their hands dirty with the very soil that’s at the crux of their project. And back in the lab at MIT, they’ve worked to create a combined technological and systemic solution that farmers can afford.

It turns out there’s a lot more to it than just creating a working technology – and that goes for almost any serious development problem. Chintan Vaishnav shared with us some of what he’s learned not just about soil health, but about implementing any kind of solution to help vulnerable communities.

How did you start to approach this question of improving soil health?

We chose between two dominant and opposing philosophies. One is that you start with the field because these farmers obviously know something about soil health or they wouldn’t be getting any agricultural productivity out of their farms. The other is that you start in the library and focus on the chemistry and communications part of the problem. We decided to do the former.

I think if we had started in the library we could have focused much more on what we assume, instead of what farmers actually told us. This is not to say that chemistry and communications aren’t part of the core of our project; they are the core. But one thing we learned in the field is that soil health is not at the top of the priority scheme of a farmer, so we have no delusion that if we solve soil health they would be all over it. They won’t be.

So the farmers may not think this issue is as important as you do?

For some farmers, having enough water is a much bigger problem than the quality of soil. Animals attacking the crops in the mountains could also be a bigger problem. Each one has a different contraption to try and stop this. Being able to afford the right kind of seeds; all higher problems than soil health. But part of the issue is an inefficient government structure [for soil health testing] that has lead to even greater mistrust. So starting in the field has pushed our research in a different direction.

What other unexpected challenges have arisen?

We are beginning to learn that even after we create a solution for understanding soil health on the farm, there are going to be associated problems of policy and infrastructure. For example, there’s the urea subsidy. The government subsidizes urea, so it’s much cheaper than other fertilizing chemicals. Our soil testing device may tell farmers that they should get some combination of urea or DAP and some specialized chemical that’s more appropriate for their soil condition. You may give that recommendation but ultimately they will go and buy urea because that’s what’s available at the local shop and that’s what they can afford.

How do you deal with that?

The lopsidedness of this structure is something one can go after in terms of public policy. One can also create a more customized mix of fertilizer at a reasonable price by engaging somebody who can mix it at a scale that’s affordable. So a small farm may not be able to afford it but maybe a fertilizer company can afford to make it available regionally, something that’s at least comparable to the subsidized fertilizer. Ultimately people have to see that by using this alternative to urea their productivity is indeed going up. Then there would be some push to change the public policy. One would have to work with trusted partners who can convey this message. In Karnataka we have the Deshpande Foundation, and in Uttarakhand we have Himmothan.

There may be other ways. For instance, you can tell a farmer, ‘Hey, you try this in 1/10th of your field you keep the other 9/10ths the way you normally do it.’ And then once they begin to see the increased production, they can expand it to 3/10ths of the field, and so on. You can’t expect them to convert all at once.

workshop hubli

It’s crucial to have a way of disseminating your solution. How can soil testing reach farmers at large scale?

There are three main channels we’re looking at. One is that you plug into a system that is already trying to do this. So the government system is already trying to increase the soil testing. They are being paid to do it so they have incentive to do it, and maybe you can ease their task.

Another way is to create micro-entrepreneurs. For instance, in the mountain situation you find that almost every individual and every household is doing more than one kind of job. So one could train such an individual to do soil testing and provide recommendations, and create a model for them by which they offer that as a service for farmers around them. A single soil test may cost a farmer 500 rupees but this person can offer it for 200 rupees as a service. So this person is actually making some margin of profit from every test that they do, so they are interested in going around selling this service. It prioritizes it for them and it’s an additional stream of income.

The third option, which would be in between, would be some of the corporate type of farm who works with 20,000 + farmers. A sugar mill wants better sugar cane, that’s their way to get profitability. They want better quality exports, so it plays directly into their business model. In this scenario you don’t touch the margin of an independent farmer, you touch only those who work with these corporations. That’s a downside. In the end, I think we will have to work with multiple models.

Check out our video series Exploring Indian Agriculture for more on the soil health project!

Photos by Ron Rosenberg and Ben Miller