Skip to main content

Soil Economics - The "Science" in the economics

We feature a collaborative blogpost by our Research Associates,  Nikita Taniparti and Suraj Nair.

The Earth is covered with soil: soil on farmlands, soil on the sea floor, soil on our shoes as we walk into an apartment. But past its omnipresence, soil is a microcosm of biodiversity in and of itself. Laden with a whole host of microorganisms, nitrates and potassium, and trace amounts of elements like selenium and zinc, soil is replete with life and energy. In an effort to give soil more attention, there is a growing trend in the field of development economics to look more closely at the “economic value” of soil. This value refers to how we can and do use soil as a resource. Specifically, past just the financial value of land, how do famers and agricultural experts calculate a value for soil that is used for farming?

(Image Source: Modern Farmer)

We can cite various possibilities, like asking farmers how much money they would sell their land for, or calculating the annualized value of crop yields, or even measuring how much money is spent on farming equipment. What if though, we can measure the change in all of these things? What if we can measure how people allocate economic resources to affect soil quality? Could an increase in income lead to a corresponding increased investment in fertilizers, or other soil improving technologies? Or maybe a drought demands that lands be left fallow for many months, leading to the renewal of essential minerals. Ultimately these can be boiled down to tracking the quantities of a few key compounds and particles present in the soil, which are both measurable as well as indicative of investment in soil.

So how can we test this soil? Soil testing involves many different scientific methods, all with varying levels of accuracy, efficiency, expense, and reliability. In many economic impact studies, these tests look to examine the correlation between economic indicators and productivity of agricultural land, which is partly determined by soil quality. Some tests involve elaborate equipment that can capture on-the-spot readings, and some necessitate being analyzed in labs located in a different city. Others still, are somewhere in the middle: they allow for relatively valid and feasible measures, and they can be assessed in the field itself.

This meeting of the sciences – the economics of soil quality and the chemistry of soil quality – is where the fun is. We’ve talked about how the nature of soil can speak to various economic indicators. But what about actually carrying out these soil tests?  In the study we are conducting on the impact of financial inclusion on agricultural outcomes, we went through an extensive piloting phase that brought to the surface many challenges while engaging with soil testing methods of various kinds. While lab tests are expensive – costing up to Rs 1250 per sample – in house soil testing kits that are available online are significantly less costly. These in-house testing kits are portable and easy to use, but deliver results of a poorer quality than the lab tests. 

Thus, there are a myriad of issues to be addressed when considering the methodology and implementation of these processes. When choosing a kit, the results have to be corroborated with standardized results from a certified lab, to ensure that the samples give us the results we’re looking for. Additionally, kits that are available for purchase in India will probably yield more promising results because they were designed and calibrated keeping the Indian soil context in mind. Then, to ensure comparability across samples from different respondents, the depth at which soil is extracted should be consistent. Not to mention that even within a relatively restricted geographical boundary, soil quality can vary dramatically.

Perhaps most importantly, the surveyors need to be trained about each of these aspects, and then need to master the instructions prescribed by the soil testing kit. While we might not need a Chemistry degree to use the soil kits, it certainly requires us to have paid attention in what few Chemistry courses we were in.

This taught us a great deal. For instance, we use color-coded scales to determine acidity in the soil (pH). First, this involves mixing the reagents with precision and patience, and then holding the color comparison charts up against the light, and then agreeing upon which color the sample can be matched with. Supposing we take certain readings, only to discover 3 months later that the sample needs to be re-taken, 3 months is enough of a time period for the soil chemistry to change, which could lead to an undesirable bias in the data. The list goes on; there are obviously advantages as well as disadvantages to approaching such a complex and delicate aspect of our study. The costs are steep, involving a lot of financial and non-financial efforts, but many argue that the benefits are definitely worth it.

In the end, we are capitalizing on the nature of accessible and relatively practical scientific methods to measure less concrete concepts, like economic prosperity and resource valuation. If soil quality can stand testament to things like investment in technology, changing practices, or changing input mix, then that’s a big step in the direction of using objective measures in the realm of development economics. Thinking about development and poverty requires not just a theoretical model of change or a proposed intervention plan, but also such initiatives that aim to bring together various disciplines and sciences.


Popular Posts

Vocationalisation of education in India: Current Scenario, Key Challenges and New directions

“Every handicraft has to be taught not merely mechanically as is done today, but scientifically. This is to say, the child should learn the why and wherefore of every process.” - Gandhi’s Philosophy of Education

The greatest challenge in Indian education system today is to provide skill based education to the youth. This is exacerbated by a mismatch in demand and supply for the skilled workforce. The penetration of vocational education and training remains poor not only in rural areas, but also in urban regions where there is a higher installed capacity to impart the same. This post is an attempt to make the readers understand the need of vocational education in India. Also, this is an attempt to summarise a few recommendations on the same. 
A recent survey (61st round) conducted by the NSSO found that:

1. The percentage of population that completed primary education was 70%, but less than 10% went on to complete a graduation course and above. Almost 97% of individuals in the age bracket…

Rockstar of Financial Inclusion: Business Correspondent Model of India

About Author:  Jatinder Handoo is a social business enthusiast and a branchless banking practitioner. Currently works at FINO PayTech Ltd and is based out of Mumbai. He is reachable at
India is a hot bed of financial exclusion. A country which houses nearly 16% of the global population  has more than 65% of its people outside the formal financial system (Global Findex 2012). The Indian banking system has adopted multiple approaches to make universal financial inclusion a reality right from early days Indian post-independence banking system. Be it bank nationalization in 1969 or formation of Regional Rural Banks. Formation of NABARD or fostering microfinance through Bank-SHG linkage programme in early 90’s. A shimmering ray hope was rekindled with the growth of JLG based microfinance, however later studies made it clear that the model is credit led, concentrated predominately in the southern region of India thus could not be seen as painting complete financial…

A Platform for Knowledge - Enabling people to learn ..

I received a rather interesting link/website via my email today. The link read as MR University and all I could think of was, "Ok, this must be another website portal of some university or college". Well, on clicking the link and looking through the contents of the site, I was pleasantly surprised. The site is an online education portal or platform that allows users or teachers to upload short videos on topics or lessons they wish to impart. First topic that I come across is Development Economics.
The intent of the website is eloquently put out by the two economists, Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok in the intro video. What started as a blog focusing on economics and its various implications in understanding why things are the way they are around us, has now an interesting addition. A video portal titled MRUniversity or Marginal Revolution University that focuses on online education with subjects pertaining to economics. It brought back to my mind,…