Soil: Our Silent Ally in Food Production

Soil Health is clearly an international concern which affects countries all over the world.

By Julio P. Yap, Jr.

It can take up to 1,000 years to form just one centimeter of soil, and with an estimated 33 percent of the world’s soils currently degraded, raising awareness about the importance of soils is a top priority for this year and beyond.

According to the Food and Agriculture (FAO) of the United Nations, the year 2015 has been recognized as the International Year of Soils to raise awareness about soils—sometimes referred to as our ‘silent ally’—and the need to sustainably manage and protect soils worldwide.

The FAO disclosed that representatives and scientists from 19 countries in Asia are now examining best practices and common challenges they face in protecting and managing the region’s soils…the very foundation for food production relied on by billions of people.

“Soil is the basis for food, feed, fuel, and fiber production, and for many critical ecological services,” said Hiroyuki Konuma, FAO Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific.

He added, “Soil is the reservoir for at least a quarter of global biodiversity, and therefore requires the same attention as aboveground biodiversity, yet the critical importance of soil to our daily lives is often overlooked.”

FAO said that soils play a key role in the supply of clean water and resilience to floods and droughts. Plant and animal life depend on primary nutrient cycling through soil processes, and the largest store of terrestrial carbon is in the soil. Thus, its preservation may contribute to climate change mitigation.

However, in Asia, as in other regions of the world, soil degradation has become a serious problem and the degradation is occurring—even escalating—at a time when the region needs soil more than ever.

The area of productive soil is limited in relation to current technologies and is under increasing pressure of intensification and competing uses for cropping, forestry, pasture/rangeland, and bioenergy, to satisfy the demands of the growing population for food, energy production, settlement and infrastructure, and raw material extraction.

“Most of the arable land in our region is already fully utilized, yet by 2050, in order to meet the needs of an additional two billion inhabitants of our planet, we will need to increase food production by at least 60 percent. In order to do that, we must sustainably manage and protect our soils,” Konuma pointed out.

“There is an anonymous saying that ‘whatever mankind does, even when we produce the most marvelous artwork, we depend on a few drops of water and 10 centimeters of soil,’” he added.

Soils: Foundation for Vegetation

Soils and vegetation have a reciprocal relationship. Fertile soil encourages plant growth by providing plants with nutrients, acting as a water-holding tank, and serving as the substrate to which plants anchor their roots.

In return, vegetation, tree cover, and forests prevent soil degradation and desertification by stabilizing the soil, maintaining water and nutrient cycling, and reducing water and wind erosion. As global economic growth and demographic shifts increase, soils are placed under tremendous pressure, and their risk of degradation increases greatly.

Managing vegetation sustainably—whether in forests, pastures, or grasslands—will boost its benefits, including timber, fodder, and food, in a way meets society’s needs while conserving and maintaining the soil for the benefit of present and future generations.

The sustainable use of goods and services from vegetation and the development of agroforestry systems and crop-livestock systems also have the potential to contribute to poverty reduction, making the rural poor less vulnerable to the impacts of land degradation and desertification.

Key Challenges

Soil degradation is in many cases the direct result of poor soil management. The consequent decline in vegetation and its products such as feed, fiber, fuel, and medicinal products has an adverse effect on soil productivity, human and livestock health, and economic activities.

“Healthy soils are the foundation of global food production and ought to become a key agenda item in public policy,” said Moujahed Achouri, Director of FAO’s Land and Water Division.

He emphasized that soils are essential for achieving food security and nutrition and have the potential to help mitigate the negative impacts of climate change. “Pressures on soil resources are reaching critical limits,” Achouri added.

In addition to sustaining 95 percent of food production, Achouri said that soils host more than a quarter of the planet’s biodiversity, are a major source of pharmaceuticals, and play a critical role in the carbon cycle.At the same time, the level of soil degradation is “alarming” and has the potential to threaten food security and send many people into poverty.

Sustainable soil management, in turn, can contribute to the production of more and healthier food.

As this developed, the FAO called on the international soil community and policy makers to work together towards reducing soil degradation, and restoring the already degraded land.

Global Spotlight on Soils

The International Year of Soils aims to raise awareness about the often-unrecognized benefits of soils to human health and sustainable development.This highlights the need for including soil issues in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are currently being discussed.

“If humanity’s overarching need for food security and nutrition, climate change mitigation, and sustainable development is to be met, soil resources have to be given the global attention they deserve,” Achouri said.

For more information, visit FAO.

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s October 2015 issue.

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