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Cornell University

Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition

Optimizing Soil Health

A seedling growing in reddish dirt

As its population continues to rise, India will need to produce more food with fewer resources. Ensuring optimum soil health is a key prerequisite to achieving the necessary level of crop production. TCI’s Soil Health Project focuses on soil health enhancement to increase agricultural productivity, reduce malnutrition, and improve the rural environment.

In current Indian production systems, it is very common to focus only on chemical enhancements like fertilizers to boost production. In contrast, the soil health approach is holistic and comprehensive, addressing the physical, chemical, and biological attributes of soil.

Together with researchers in the Soil and Crop Sciences Section at Cornell’s School of Integrative Plant Science, TCI has developed a “soil assessment framework” for Indian agricultural land. This framework uses basic physical, chemical, and biological indicators to assess soil functioning, identify constraints, and develop new management practices based on actual conditions to improve soil functioning.

Building Soil Health Infrastructure

TCI works to improve soil management practices by raising awareness of Cornell’s comprehensive soil assessment framework among India-based institutions and NGOs, while also developing soil-health-testing infrastructure in India.

Working with TCI Faculty Fellow Dr. Harold van Es, TCI established a partnership with Dr. Rajendra Prasad Central Agricultural University (DRPCAU) and helped build a soil health laboratory on its campus in Pusa, Bihar, complete with the equipment necessary for comprehensive testing. TCI researchers, including TCI scholars, conduct training sessions at the DRPCAU lab, instructing scientists and doctoral students to use the soil health assessment framework.  Several DRPCAU M.S. and Ph.D. students have completed research projects on sustainable soil management practices using laboratory and assessment frameworks.

Long-Term Experimentation

TCI researchers and partners conduct long-term experiments in Bihar, collecting and analyzing soil samples from farmer fields. These experiments contribute to the development and implementation of soil health “scoring functions” for the state.

Establishing Soil Management Guidelines

Continuing research under the Soil Health Project aims use the comprehensive soil health assessment to develop soil health management guidelines for major crops in Bihar, India. Researchers work to identify appropriate management techniques that address primary soil constraints, using testing on farms in the region to determine the most effective interventions.

Based on this research, TCI aims to produce training materials for soil health management and work with local organizations and government offices to mainstream improved practices in Bihar.