Spiritual guru and the founder of Isha Foundation Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev at the #SaveSoil Press Meet in New Delhi

“India’s average life expectancy has moved up from 28 years to 74 years- all of us are alive because of green revolution. But the time for course correction has come” – Sadhguru

On 21 March, 2022, Sadhguru embarked on a lone motorcycle journey across Europe, Central Asia and Middle East trying to build a global consensus for policy-driven action to save soil from extinction. While on a 100-day, 30,000 km motorbike mission to save soil, Sadhguru halts at New Delhi on World Environment Day June 5th, 2022 to talk about growing desertification

Namrata Kohli | New Delhi

You have brought the world’s attention on soil. But why soil amongst other ecological issues?

We have all been fed upon the breasts of our mothers. The soil is the mother of our mothers. The soil is the very source of our body and our life. It is important that the whole of humanity raises voice to their governments so that at policy level, decisions are taken to save soil. We need to protect the soil, for ourselves and for those who are yet to be born. United Nations has warned us of how rapid soil degradation could lead to a severe global food crisis. They said something and I was pained to hear this – ‘today’s dinner what you are eating is food that belongs to the unborn child’.

You have been travelling globally to make people aware of the deteriorating soil quality and urging governments to legislate policies aimed at improving soil health. What has been the response from across the world?

The response from other nations has been nothing short of spectacular. Nearly 2.5 billion people have spoken about soil since we started the movement on 21st March. 74 nations have come on board already. I also addressed the Corp 15 where 197 participated and soil has become the main theme of debates and discussions in all these nations today where it was not in the picture or agenda, till recently. So what is the impact of this whole movement on rest of the world. So far 2.5 billion people have supported but our aim is to get 3.6 billion people which amounts to 60% of the adult population in the world because when 60% of the adult population in the world speaks, no democratically elected government will ignore that. This is the basic metric with which we are going. Already we have signed MoUs with many nations, largely with agriculture or Environment ministers of those nations. Especially now with Ukraine war, people have realised how food security apple cart can just change within a couple of months. What they have assumed is for good certainly is upside down. Already bread prices in Europe are up by nearly 70% and many fear, it could be 200% by end of June or July. People are fearing severe famines in 6-7 nations in the world simply because of this one war unless something changes about the war.

Commonwealth nations which are 54 in number have made a declaration that they will definitely go this way. We are setting up a kind of a handholding mechanism for smaller nations. They are also in the process of signing up a 25-member scientific committee which will handhold small nations which don’t have capability to set up scientific committees. 9 UN agencies are working with us. It is progress for sure.

You have signed MoUs with the governments abroad. What kind of an MoU is it?

The Mou is a simple understanding to take the thought further and get into action. This articulation has happened in the form of an MoU. We are setting up groups of qualified volunteers in these nations wherever we have an MoU. Caribbean nations have asked us to grow 8-10 crops that they normally grew as a part of soil regeneration process. Similar things are being asked of, in UAE and Indonesia. Farmers, scientists are being brought here.

To increase organic content means we are giving food to microorganisms – that is what keeps the soil alive. Wherever I went in the agricultural ministries across the world, I found that everybody knows what is the problem, everybody knows what is the solution, but they needed someone to come and bell the cat. The thing is that I don’t hold any office. I am not a minister or a bureaucrat. In fact, I am a man without any authority over anything. It is just that in so many decades of activity, we have earned a certain amount of love and respect from people. That’s about what it is.

How serious is the soil issue in India and the rest of the world? How does the problem in India garner far more complexity than perhaps the rest of the world?

One important thing is that in India, the load of population on land that we have, is very heavy. We have only four percent of the world’s land and over seventeen percent of the world’s population which is a difficult proportion to handle.

There is not a single nation in the entire world which has minimum 3 percent organic content which is the base level to call soil a soil. The highest organic content that you find on an average is in the Northern Europe which is 1.48%, Southern Europe is 1.2%, US is 1.25-1.3%, India is 0.68%, Africa is 0.3% – so the entire world is driving towards a famine. If we don’t course correct now, that’s where we will go.

Just 60-70 years ago, there used to be famine almost everywhere in the world particularly in our country. Last two generations we have eaten well and suddenly we have forgotten there is such a thing. Once again, we are driving towards a famine but as a generation, we have the privilege to turn this around. We could be that generation which turned this around from the brink of a disaster. It’s not rocket science; it doesn’t need extraordinary financial outlays. Right now, we are facing near desertification of soil, but if we show relentless commitment and keep moving in the right direction, we will be there in 8-10 years.

I think in India, the resolve is there and so also in many desert nations like UAE, Saudi Arabia, Israel. In fact, Israel is producing 94% of its food requirement upon its own tiny little piece of desert- only 17% of Israel’s land is tenable, 54% is proper desert but they are growing 94% of the food that they need. Saudi Arabia you have an image of sand dunes but they have levelled sand dunes and made into farmlands. I have kept abreast of what’s been happening there and it is quite incredible but that is a very expensive way of doing things. Most nations cannot afford to do it the way they have done it. But the incredible thing is they have turned harsh deserts into fertile lands when the rest of the world is busy in turning fertile lands into harsh deserts.

Was the Green Revolution the culprit of it all – eroding the nutritional value of soil in a significant manner with excessive use of fertilizer and pesticides?

Famine is a terrible way to end human life. And that was a very common thing in the early 20th century and even before that. In a scramble of wanting to go beyond the famine situation it was a bridge that we built in the form of a green revolution. But we stayed on the bridge for a bit too long. In many ways, most of the nations made the same mistake. In India, it’s starker because of the populations that we have.

India’s average life expectancy in 1947 when British left was 28 years. Today we have reached 74 years which is a significant enhancement of life. All of us are alive because of green revolution. But the time for making the correction has also come. There is a variety of knowledge and far more gentler technologies to preserve soil now and today our nation can afford this because of the economic development and capabilities that we have developed, which was not there with us in 1950s.

What kind of incentives should be given to the farmers?

If I put it very simply, the first thing is that government has to offer an incentive to the farmer to take their land from 0.5% organic content to 3%. Nearly 62% of land has 0.5% organic content, and this is close to desertification. Substantial incentives from the Government’s side like ‘If you get your land to 3% organic content, we will give you this much’ will work. 47.3% of the land in country is farmed by small and medium farmers. Giving incentives to them is easy thing to do- what is Rs 100 for a small farmer may be Rs 10 for a big farmer in his perception. For the big farmers, incentives could be worked out differently – it could be structured differently from small and medium farmers.

Next thing is carbon credit. Last 7 years we have been trying to crack carbon credit system but we have failed miserably. It looks like a maze- endless number of applications, filling this form not going anywhere. This is designed for the industry and the same thing is being put for the farmer. And no way can he fulfil these conditions. We are requesting the PM to formulate a carbon credit system which will suit the farmer. If that calculation is made differently, then how you measure smoke coming out of chimneys versus what the ploughed land is doing and organically rich land is doing are different things. If that kind of thumb rule is developed, and farmer gets a carbon credit, that will be the second level of an incentive.

The third level of incentive is when you go to the marketplace, they say this mango is organic. What about the rest- are they inorganic? I am saying organic has just become a marketing name. Nobody has to fulfil any particular requirement in that. Instead of that if you say this mango comes from a field which has 3% organic content there is enough science to tell us what are the micronutrients extra present in this mango. What are the preventive health benefits? What is the lowering of stress that happens in the healthcare system? How productive they will become. There are many benefits for the country. If my mango comes from a 6% organic content it must sit on a higher shelf. You pay more. Instead of eating 6 mangoes, you eat one mango and you get the same nourishment.

Before ‘Save Soil’ you spearheaded the Rally for Rivers movement which created many ripples. What kind of results did it exactly yield?

Rally for Rivers has become the official recommended policy for all the 28 states in the country. We planted over 57 million trees in the farm land by the farmer on his land along with other crops. Wherever we have done this, the soil organic content went up and crossed 3% and is somewhere in the range of 4-6% in most places. Nutrient level in the produce has gone up significantly. Water tables have come up. Wherever we raised organic content to 8-10% the irrigation requirement comes down to 50% of what they were using earlier. In Karnataka, now there is a subsidy that if a farmer plants a tree, we take a picture of that, we geo code it in collaboration with ISRO. Every tree is geo coded – there are youth volunteers like LIC agents who are paid 50 paise per tree. This has inspired millions of farmers to go for it now. It will enhance water retention quality of the soil which will be wonderful for Cauvery. We must understand in the last 70 years in the Cauvery basin, we have removed 84% of the tree cover. In the Ganga basin which accounts for 25% of India’s geography and 33% of India’s agriculture, we have removed 92% of tree cover. Now in both these regions, tree plantations are going big time.

Based on success of Cauvery calling, UNCCD has recognized this as the largest project of that kind in the world that is being successfully implemented and well documented and there is scientific evidence as to how improvements are happening. Looking at the success of it the GoI made 13 detailed project report for 13 river basins. India is a land where we think in terms of river basins. GoI allocated 19,000 crores for these 13 river basins. This is how policy moves but this has taken me 11 years. These 13 river basins account for 67% of India’s land. If we implement these 13 river basins in next 12 years, 67% of land will be above crisis for sure.

Why do you say that soil has become the most unifying factor in the world?

As human competence increases and as human beings get more and more empowered with technology and various other means of education and empowerment, it becomes extremely important that we find some common denominators among us no matter what is your political ideology, what is your religion, what is your caste. All that doesn’t matter. The point is that all of us have come from the soil, and when we die, we will go back to the soil. The only choice we have is will we realise this now or will be only realise this when we are buried. Today, we are constantly looking for what are the differences between us and how many ways we can divide people and this has become a way of life. In the name of something so fundamental as gender, caste, creed, nationality, religion, race – in so many ways we are always finding ways to divide ourselves. But soil can be a common factor.

Finally, you travelled the world on a bike. Why a motorbike, and why not any other means of transport like a car?

If I flew around in a plane, it wouldn’t work very well. If I drove a car across the world, I knew it wouldn’t work. You want me to walk, that would kill me. You want me to cycle – that would also kill me. So, I chose an option which is dangerous but not sure death.

Last 30 years I have been talking about soil. And everybody was saying that this is wonderful and then they would go back to sleep. I knew I had to do something. As I have no instruments of power in my hand, the only way I could do something is to put my life to risk and this is what I did. Suddenly they all woke up and by now, 2.5 billion people have responded in 75 days.

It is not about the motorcycle or music or the journey, it was all about moving people.

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