Indian environmental and spiritual leader Sadhguru is on a mission to restore the foundation of life on Earth through his Save Soil campaign. In this effort, he is determined to mobilize 4 billion people to pressure their governments to give more attention to soil health, which is largely overlooked in environmental policymaking, despite being the basis for all of our fundamental needs.
Partway through a 100-day global motorcycle journey he’s undertaken to raise awareness for the cause, Landscape News caught up with him in Bonn, Germany, to learn about why he’s chosen to focus on soil, how it’s connected to spirituality and more.
The transcript of this interview has been edited for content and clarity. Facts stated in this interview that are not hyperlinked were unable to be sourced by Landscape News.
What is the state of the world’s soil?
See, as a human being, to live you need clean water, drinkable water. You need breathable air, nourishing food. Being human beings, we need clothes, and we need shelter. The building that you build is from the soil. The body that you carry is soil. The food that you eat is soil. Clothes that you wear have always come either [from] cotton, silk, linen… Even the synthetic comes from the soil. There is nothing here in our life that we have taken from the sky. Everything has come from the soil.
So right now, we are talking about a soil extinction for the first time in the history of humanity, because for the first time, human civilizations have spread on a scale that they never have before. It’s unprecedented. There has never been this level of development at any time. It has happened to the Mayans, it’s happened to the Mesopotamian civilization, it’s happened to Rome as a city – that over-farming led to downfalls. But these were very localized areas of geography. This is the first time that it could be on a global scale.
And it’s an unimaginable disaster.
Was there a specific experience in your life that made you care about soil?
See, I’ve been living on a farm since I was 19 years of age. Even before that, my extended family, my grandfather, they’re all very large-scale farmers, very big farmers. Well, I didn’t live on farms at that time. But from the age of 19, I chose to live on a farm by myself.
I am not somebody who goes by knowledge that I read or I get exposed to. Unless I feel it and I experience it, it’s not real for me. So I’m like a worm. I’m not a scientist, I’m not an environmentalist. I’m like a worm. Because I’ve crawled through this Earth for six and a half decades. I know how everything affects me as a life. People ask, “How do you know?” But this is the thing with them. They are not living on the planet. They are living in their head. Their thoughts and emotions have become more important than the very cosmos in which they exist. Because I have nothing in my head, I live on this planet, so I feel everything that happens to the land.
When was that one moment? There was no one moment. But I must say this: when I was on one particular farm, and then I bought another, larger farm a little away, I bought a hill slope, which was kind of denuded and a little lost. I bought this because I needed a hill slope to fly my hang gliders. So I started farming there. Everybody thought I’m crazy, because this land was not good. The soil was not rich. So one afternoon I was just lying down under a tree on the soil, on the land. And I could just clearly feel in my body strongly how the old, little farm that I had, how good the soil was there and how it was here, distinctly, literally crying in a way, screaming at me, kind of thing. So I decided I would regenerate this thing, but I didn’t have the economics to do that. So I just used the weeds. I let the weeds grow, two or three crops of weeds, which would come up in 25, 30 days. They would just grow.
I used the weeds to regenerate the soil. In a matter of about 18 months’ time, my soil was rich, and I could grow things there. I successfully farmed for some time. So that experience was there at that time. I sat down and, about 15 to 17 basic crops that are common in Southern India, I made a writing about how could we grow these crops differently. For over 800 pages, I scribbled. And it was all in fun, loosely kept in one file. Unfortunately, an arson regarding the river water fight between two states happened, and in that, they burned up my document, which was in a car.
But it doesn’t matter those things. The important thing is as a life. The most fundamental thing in human beings is the life. Once you take the life out, we are an inert thing. Similarly, the soil: once you take the life out of it, it will become an inert sand.
Right now, unfortunately, most agricultural ministries in the world, in almost every country except a handful of nations, every nation treats soil as an inert substance that they can manage by adding a few chemicals here and there. This is what we need to change. The first thing is to change the narrative, which will change the human consciousness as to how we treat the soil.
In India, even today, farmers, before they step on the land, they will bow down to the soil because they call it their mother. See, when we say “mother,” it is not a biological thing that we have with our mothers. When we say “mother,” it’s a source. Right now we are using the word “resource” to describe soil. We must change it to “source.” It is the source of our life. It is from that that we have come. Even in the evolutionary process, it is from what is happening in the soil, organic matter, that we have evolved into this.
Today we are the most sophisticated life on the planet, but we are an evolution from that. And even today our survival is dependent on that. When we die, we definitely go back to that. So soil is a key element. It’s not one more problem. It is the thing. If you don’t attend to this, then there should be nothing.
Why are you focusing your Save Soil movement primarily on agricultural lands?
I’m talking about only agricultural lands, because people like to talk about wetlands, forest lands, and oceans and things. All of them are important. But with forest lands and grasslands and wetlands, if you stay out of it – and out of the ocean also – if you stay out of it, everything will be fine there. You don’t have to go and manage anything. We are talking about agricultural soils, because this is a piece of geography that accounts for nearly 70 percent of the world’s land. This is a piece of geography that is tended to by human hands on a daily basis. Men and women are every day tending to the land. And this is in such a bad place. If you want to turn around something quickly, where human beings are tending to is the easiest place to turn something around, isn’t it?
How does this link to our food systems?
Right now, every responsible scientist is pointing out by 2045 we will be producing 40 percent less food, and our population will be well over 9 billion. That’s not a world you want to live in.
All I have to do is maybe die 10 years early, and my life is done. But young people will have to live. Right now the UN Food and Agriculture Organization says we are consuming the food that belongs to the unborn child. This hurts me in my heart. How is it that we can consume the food that belongs to the unborn child? The most defenseless life on the planet is the unborn child, isn’t it? How do we eat up that life’s food and feel great about it? I don’t know. It feels like crime against humanity for me.
What are some challenges for engaging farmers in soil restoration?
In India we’ve done some kind of a survey: right now, 63 percent of people are in farming. Not even 2 percent of the farmers want their children to go into farming. Similar kind of numbers are there in a whole lot of nations.
So they are not even thinking of farming long-term. They’re just thinking another 10, 15 years, let’s do it and be done with it. So we are in that kind of mindset. For this to be long-term, you have to give an incentive. That incentive should be attractive enough. The next part is that the businesses and industries should come in and give carbon credits. They must facilitate that process for the farmer. That’s the second level of incentive for the farmer.
And the third level of incentive is in the marketplace. Let’s say, right now, organic matter in the soil is 1.48 percent. You have an apple. What are the nutrients in this apple? Now I will raise my farm soil to 3 percent. What are the nutrients available in this? There’ll be a significant difference because of these extra micronutrients. What are the health benefits that one will get? What are the preventive health benefits one will get?
This science all exists already. We just have to correlate it, so it will find its own step. That is the third level of incentive for the farmer. With these three incentives packed in properly in every nation, the farmer will earn enough to be wanting to do it. Otherwise he doesn’t want to do it. His younger generation has already gone to university, and they’re gone. Maybe they’re working somewhere in information technology or something. In India, half the people – farmers, children – have all gone to information technology. I’m not saying it’s wrong.
It’s individual pursuit. It’s fine. But who is going to farm the food for you in the next generation? The fanciful things that are happening in lab-like atmospheres, I see some guy growing turnips on the wall, and he wanted me to see it when I went there. All of them were all ripe. I said, “Why are you not eating them?” He said, “No, a lot of people are coming to take pictures.” It’s all right for a show. It’s all right to feed a small community, maybe. But it’s not going to feed the world. The world’s food issue has to be sorted by enriching the soil. There is simply no other way.
Soil can absorb up to 20 times its weight in water. How does Save Soil address water security?
Two billion people are water-stressed. That means their daily, potable water is a challenge. They are saying by 2032 it will be 3.5 billion people. What is the reason for this? There are many reasons. But one thing we need to understand is the water that was here a thousand years ago is still here. It may not be where you need it, but it is still in the atmosphere. It has not gone to Mars or moon, alright? It has not gone anywhere. It’s here. It is here within this atmospheric bubble or on the planet somewhere. But you are not getting it, because it’s not where you need it. People are not getting it where they need it. So one place where it should be is soil.
Soil is capable of holding eight times – that is 800 percent more water – than all the rivers on the planet put together. But right now that capacity has gone down significantly due to lack of organic content and microbial activity. If you enhance the organic content in agriculture, we can measure this. This is something that we have manifested and documented well. If you raise the organic content to 8 to 10 percent, the irrigation requirement for that land will come down to 30 percent of what you’re using right now.
I am not very conscious of all the statistics across the world, but in the world, I believe, 67 percent of the freshwater that we use is going towards agriculture. In India, 84 percent of the groundwater is going towards agriculture. If you bring it down to 30 percent, where is the water stress? We will have enough water for everybody, and it will be in the right place where it should be. It should be neither flooding nor should it be all in the ocean. It must be in the soil. But soil is capable of holding water only when it’s organically rich. As organic content keeps going away from the soil year on year, what is happening is soil is slowly becoming sand. This is what is desertification.
How can we enhance life in the soil?
There are many methods of doing it. Many. Dozens of methods, or even, let’s say, 100 different ways of doing it. But the source of organic content is only two items: plant life and animal life. There is simply no other source anywhere. Right now, what has happened is, in these efforts of industrialized agriculture, we have removed all the plant life from the land except the monocrop that you’re growing. All the animals have gone out, because the machines are doing the work. So now there is no organic content going back into the thing.
But we have fertilizers. We throw fertilizers, and suddenly crops grow up in a big way. That happens for 10, 15, 20 years. But after that, once the organic content is lost, fertilizer will not work. If you want to experiment with this, take all the best fertilizers, throw it in the desert, and see what comes out of it, because there is no organic content. So the little bit of organic content that is there, you are exploiting that. When I say a little bit, in Northern Europe, it’s just about 1.48 percent, it’s the average. In Southern Europe, it’s around 1.1 to 1.2 percent. In Africa, it is 0.3 percent. In India, it’s 0.68 percent. In U.S., about 1.25 to 1.3 percent. So literally across the world, we are not even achieving the minimum of 3 percent. Three percent organic content is not the ideal. It is a starvation diet for the microbes, just to keep them alive for future generations.
Soil needs to enhance itself. As I said, at least 8 to 10 percent organic content. If that happens, irrigation requirements will come down. Just look at the amount of water, power, time, energy we are spending in irrigating lands, simply because they are not able to hold water. If you go into any forested area, here in Bonn, if there is a forest close by, you go – you don’t need any implement. With your finger, if you dig like this, within three inches, you will see, even if there’s been no rain for over two months, it will be always moist.
That’s how land should be.
What has yoga taught you?
I learned from a very traditional teacher of classical yoga when I was just 12. The rest of the yoga has happened from me internally, not by learning from outside. People are always thinking yoga means a certain amount of physical things to do. Well, the physical aspect is just understanding the geometry of your existence. If you align your geometry with the cosmic geometry, in some way, you are one with it.
The word “yoga” essentially means “union.” When I was 25 years of age, I discovered one day, if I simply sit here without messing with my mind, every cell in my body burst into ecstatic states, literally dripping ecstasy and blissfulness. So I experimented with this for a few weeks, and then I realized this is it, this is the way to do it. I knew how to do that. So then I sat down and made a plan that – at that time the population was 5.6 billion people – so I made a plan, in two-and-a-half years’ time, I will make the whole world blissful. Here I am, 40 years later. Now, I have brought down my objective to halve the population.
What has the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic taught you?
Everyone noticed that when we are not excessively busy, suddenly the atmosphere seems to be better, everything seems to improve in the city. So this is something that’s noticed across the world. But unfortunately, what I see is once the pandemic is a little down, everybody with a vengeance wants to get back to what they think is normal. I think after that experience, we should have created a new normal that is far more friendly. A certain number of people are doing it, but most people are trying to get back to the old normal rather than creating a new normal. So this was a good respite for us.
Unfortunately, over 6 million people lost their lives. That’s a different matter, that is a misfortune. But as human beings, it only demanded for us a change of lifestyle. It didn’t take our life per se, thanks to the vaccines, medicines, medical professionals around the world who worked 24 hours of the day. But the important thing is we should have come to a new normal. Probably, in many ways I see wherever I go, there’s a little more propulsion for conservation activity now, probably because of the pandemic. So a pandemic is not something that we invite upon ourselves, but when it has come, let’s make the best out of it.
How should individual wellbeing be connected to larger climate change discussions?
Individual wellbeing is a very illusory thing. It only works on the surface. In this world, all life is deeply enmeshed. We are not a singular life by ourselves; we are a consequence of various other lives. As you sit here, 60 percent of your body itself is microbes. All of them should do well. If they’re not doing well, you will not do well. So this idea of individual life has to go. We are a life as a phenomenon. In that phenomena, we have an individual experience. That is the benediction of nature: that for such a tiny piece of life in this universe, we have an individual experience. We can sit here, wonder about the universe. That is the magnanimity of creation. But we must give up the idea of individual wellbeing. You must feel life in a much larger way than the boundaries of your body. Only then, real conservation will happen. This is why I’m out like a mad man riding a motorcycle 30,000 kilometers at this stage in my life.