By Joseph Zaleski
Crops need air, sun, water, and soil to thrive. When it comes to soil, however, quality usually trumps quantity. Rich and fertile land boasts a healthy mixture of phosphorous, potassium, and nitrogen, along with water, air, and soil micro-organisms that break down organic matter.
But what happens when these elemental building blocks are disrupted? The Green Revolution of the mid-20thcentury implemented a variety of practices, including the widespread use of pesticides and fertilizers. Yet, improperly applying the Green Revolution’s principles can sometimes do more harm than good. Overfertilizing and destructive land use practices, including deforestation, can deplete vital nutrients in soil, and no amount of inorganic fertilizer can replace fundamental topsoil. In addition, higher annual temperatures, more extreme weather events and persistent droughts, and increasing population are also exhausting the land. These conditions are creating a cycle of soil degeneration which is stunting agricultural yields and presenting farmers with a new crop of concerns.
Today, Nourishing the Planet provides five methods that farmers and scientists are using to combat rising soil infertility.
1. Cover Cropping / Green Manure: In our State of the World 2011 report, agroecologist and author Roland Bunch defines cover crops / green manure as “any plant, whether a tree, bush, or vine, that is used by a farmer to…improve soil fertility or control weeds.” In practice, cover cropsare planted alongside or interspersed with other crops to cut soil-eroding wind, prevent overexposure to the sun, and stimulate a healthy soil system. Just as farmers will turn to manure to bolster the soil, they can also clip and spread cover crops’ leaves as organic green manure.
Cover Cropping / Green Manure in Action: According to Roland Bunch, there are more than a million farmers now actively using cover crops / green manure worldwide. In Africa alone, there are over 120 plant species that are being used or could be used for this purpose. One promising example is the cowpea (also known as the black-eyed pea). This legume is both a nitrogen-fixer, which means that it takes nitrogen from the air and replenishes it in the soil, and deeply rooted, which makes it resistant to drought. Furthermore, the cowpea itself is a nutritious staple food for both people and animals.
2. Microdosing Fertilizer: According to the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), microdosing is defined as“the application of small, affordable quantities of fertilizer with the seed at planting time or as top dressing 3 to 4 weeks after emergence.” This precise process stands in stark contrast with the field-wide fertilization used by many farmers. Fertilizers are often very expensive for farmers in the developing world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.Microdosing can help reduce fertilizer costs, while also targeting the seeds farmers want to cultivate.
Microdosing in Action: ICRISAT has initiated microdosing programs in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, reaching over 25,000 small-holder farmers. The Institute reports that sorghum and millet yields have responded well to the technique – boosting yields between 44 and 120 percent – and that incomes have also increased by as much as 130 percent for some families. ICRISAT is working with agricultural extension services to better instruct farmers on how to effectively measure and apply fertilizer. The Institute has also lobbied private fertilizer companies to distribute their product in premeasured and prepackaged microdoses.
3. Using Wastewater for Irrigation: As urban areas grow in developing countries, residents and governments are struggling to find ways to properly dispose sewage and waste water. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization notes that wastewater contains most of the essential elements of fertilizer in the proper amounts. Effective treatment and application of wastewater could dually contribute to healthier urban areas and provide vital, organic fertilizer to rural areas.
Wastewater Irrigation in Action: Using effluent wastewater as an agricultural fertilizer could be an easy way for farmers, especially in cities, to fertilize their crops; but it can be risky. As Pay Drechsel wrote in State of the World 2011, “In Ghana and surrounding areas, polluted stream water is often used to irrigate vegetable crops. The problem is that the water often contains biological and chemical substances that are harmful to human health.” TheBill and Melinda Gates Foundation, however, recently announced a program that may make this a more practical option for farmers. The Foundation will be spending US$42 million in sanitation grants over the next few years to “reinvent the toilet.” The hope is that this money will help build better human waste infrastructure in urban areas, promote improved sanitation, and effectively capture the wastewater for use in energy and fertilizer.
4. Reintegrating Livestock: As many as one billion people around the world “rely on farm animals for their livelihoods,” according to researchers from the International Livestock Research Institute. But animals are not only important for their egg and meat production, but also because they can be integrated into larger agricultural systems. Animal manure can be an effective – and inexpensive – way to boost the health of organic topsoil.
Livestock Integration in Action:International organizations are beginning to recognize the potential and value of these integrated farming systems. The African Wildlife Foundation’s Heartland program and the multinationalTerrAfrica project are both promoting sustainable land and water management practices in drought-prone areas of the continent. In Botswana, the Mokolodi Nature Reserve is both a wildlife preserve and an educational center, sending staff to teach local farmers sustainable ecoagriculture and integrated livestock farming techniques.
5. Preventing Nitrogen Leaching (Inhibitors): Nitrogen is essential to healthy soil. Chemical fertilizers andnitrogen-fixing plants, such as legumes, can help provide nitrogen to soils. Yet, nitrogen, like water, follows a cycle that includes leaching or escaping from the ground as a gas. Poor land management, erosion, overfertilization, and chemical runoff can all contribute to nitrogen depletion, which will leave the land dry and unusable. To combat nitrogen loss, soil scientists have been experimenting with chemical inhibitors that will keep vital nutrients in the ground longer.
Inhibitors in Action: Studies show that chemical inhibitors do actively stimulate the nitrogen cycle, keep more nitrogen in the soil for longer periods, and may increase crop yields. Dr. Bob Hoeft at the University of Illinoisrecorded 15-20 bushel / acre increases after using chemical inhibitors. Internationally, tests in Brazil found a marked increase in sugarcane production after applying the chemical nitrogen-fixers. These inhibitors are not the absolute solution to nitrogen depletion, but if they are used in small doses properly with natural nitrogen-fixers and better land management, they can rebuild healthy soil into the future.
Are labor and knowledge-intensive farming practices practicable in regions suffering from pervasive soil infertility? Are there any examples of farm extension services keeping up with the educational demands of these techniques?
Joseph Zaleski is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.
To read more about boosting soil fertility: What Works: Farming with Trees, What Works: Healing the Soil with Agriculture, and Innovation of the Week: School Food Gardens Support Food Security and Education in the Cape Flats.
Managing our soil and water resources in a sustainable and equitable manner needs a new political vision, which can be expressed through the proposed Land Acquisition Bill and the recently formed Global Soil Partnership.
On the basis of a proposal I had made three years ago, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) launched a Global Soil Partnership for Food Security and Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation at a multi-stakeholder conference, held in Rome from September 7 to 9. Even with all the advances made in capture and culture fisheries, nearly 90 per cent of food requirements will have to come from the soil. Land is becoming a diminishing resource for agriculture, in spite of a growing understanding that the future of food security will depend upon the sustainable management of land resources as well as the conservation of prime farmland for agriculture. In its report submitted in 2006, the National Commission on Farmers has emphasised the need for replacing the 1894 Land Acquisition Law with a 21st century legislation that safeguards the interests of farmers and farming. Union Minister for Rural Development, and Drinking Water and Sanitation Jairam Ramesh is to be complimented for introducing in Parliament a National Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill 2011, which pays attention not only to acquisition but also to the rehabilitation and resettlement of affected families.
A high-level panel of experts set up under my chairmanship in 2010 by the U.N. Committee on Food Security (CFS) has recently submitted to the CFS a report on Land Tenure and International Investments in Agriculture. It analyses the potential impact of acquisitions, particularly in Africa, on food security. It has been estimated that 50 million to 80 million hectares of farmland in developing countries has been the subject of negotiations by international investors in recent years, two-thirds of them in sub-Saharan Africa, widely recognised as a “hot spot” for endemic hunger. We found little evidence that such large-scale acquisitions have helped to provide food and jobs to the local population. More than three quarters of the deals are yet to demonstrate improvements in agricultural output. The panel identified several steps that governments should take towards more effective and equitable land tenure systems, starting with creating more transparent systems for registering, tracking and protecting land rights, in particular of women, tribal families and other vulnerable groups who depend on common property resources for the security of their livelihoods. Satellite and aerial imagery used in biophysical surveys is blind to the rights and institutions that govern how land is actually used on the ground. According to the World Bank, the “land rush” is not likely to slow. As a result, the landless labour population will grow, leading to greater unrest in the rural areas of developing countries.
The loss of land for food security has to be measured not only in quantitative terms but also in respect of land use. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, American farmers will, for the first time, harvest during 2011 more maize for ethanol production than for food or feed. In Europe, about 50 per cent of rapeseed is likely to be used for biofuel production. The plant-animal-man food chain (particularly beef and poultry products) will need several times more land for producing a calorie of meat, as compared to a calorie of cereal or vegetable.
The sudden escalation in the price of rice and wheat observed in 2008 was largely due to a steep increase in the price of fossil fuels, leading to a rise in input costs. The growing diversion of farmland for fuel production in industrialised countries, increasing consumption of meat on the part of the affluent, and loss of land to roads, houses and industries are likely to lead to acute food scarcity, severe price volatility and high food inflation by the end of this decade. Experts have pointed out that “the Arab Spring” had its genesis in food inflation. This is why I have been stressing that the future belongs to nations with grains, and not guns.
On the basis of widespread consultations, the FAO has recently prepared “voluntary guidelines on the responsible governance of tenure of land, fisheries and forests in the context of national food security.” These will be considered at the next meeting of the CFS in October 2011. There are elements here worthy of consideration by the committee of Parliament, which will go into the provisions of the Land Bill. For example, one of them states, “subject to their national law and legislations and in accordance with national context, States should expropriate only where rights to land (including associated buildings and other structures), fisheries or forests are required for a public purpose. In no way should expropriation or forced eviction be made for private purposes.” The guidelines also recommend that “States should ensure that women and girls have equal tenure rights and access to land, fisheries and forests, independent of their civil or marital status.” Business models should involve steps which will help to generate employment opportunities and strengthen the livelihood security of the poor. “Food security first” should be the motto of the Land Bill. Large-scale investment in biofuels is a risk and must be avoided, unless there are situations, as for example in Brazil, where such investments provide a win-win situation for both food and energy security. Land tenure is key to protecting land rights. The Central and State governments should have accessible systems for registering, tracking and protecting land rights, including customary rights and common property resources.
In 1981, member-states of the FAO adopted a world soil charter, containing a set of principles for the optimum use of land resources and for the improvement of their productivity as well as conservation. The charter called for a commitment on the part of governments and land users to manage land for long-term advantage rather than short-term expediency.
International interest in the conservation and management of soil resources for food security and climate change adaptation and mitigation has grown in recent years, because of increasing diversion of land for non-farm uses. In May 2011, at a conference at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies e.V., Potsdam, Germany, a Global Soil Forum (GSF) was formed for enhancing investment in soil resources assessment and management. The forum, with financial support from Germany and a few other donors, was to help identify key technological options to enhance and sustain soil-based ecosystem services, to safeguard food security in the long-term. To emphasise the need to conserve soil biodiversity, the European Union has prepared a comprehensive European soil biodiversity atlas.
Over 15 years ago, a Global Water Partnership (GWP) was formed to stimulate attention and action at the national, regional and global levels on sustainable water security. It was conferred the status of an international organisation by the government of Sweden in 2002. India is a partner. Land use decisions are also water use decisions and hence the organisation of a GSP to work closely with the GWP is timely. The GSP will specifically address soil degradation, conservation of soil biodiversity, gender and social equity, climate change and soil health management for an evergreen revolution in agriculture. It will provide multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional platforms for mobilising the power of partnership in managing threats to food security arising from climate change and “land rush.”
Soil anaemia also breeds human anaemia. Micronutrient deficiency in the soil results in micronutrient malnutrition in people, since crops grown on such soils tend to be deficient in the nutrients needed to fight hidden hunger. With the addition of the GSP to the GWP, and with the likely adoption of the guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land and other Natural Resources, we have the global instruments which can assist nations to safeguard and strengthen the ecological foundations of sustainable agriculture and for overcoming endemic, hidden and transient hunger. What is needed is the conversion of global instruments and guidelines into socially sustainable and equitable national regulations, on the lines recommended in the experts report on land tenure. The Land Bill has a much wider significance than just preventing land-grab. The critical role soil plays in food security and climate change adaptation and mitigation has to be widely understood.
Along with oceans, soils offer opportunities for storing carbon. For example, it is estimated that global net primary productivity (NPP) may be about 120 Gt C/year. Most of it is returned to the atmosphere through plant and soil respiration. If 10 per cent of NPP is retained in the terrestrial biosphere like wetlands and mangrove ecosystems, 12 Gt C/year can become a part of a terrestrial carbon bank. Increasing soil ‘C’ pool by 1 t/c/ha/year in the root zone can increase food production by 30-50 million tonnes. Thus, soil carbon banks represent a win-win situation for both food security and climate change mitigation.
Managing our soil and water resources in a sustainable and equitable manner needs a new political vision, which can be expressed through the proposed Land Bill. The year 2012 marks the 20th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit and the 40th anniversary of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. This will be an appropriate occasion to launch a soil and water security movement through education, social mobilisation through gram sabhas, and legislation like the Land Bill.
(M.S. Swaminathan is Chairman, MSSRF, and Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha.)
New effort to assure soils future generations
7 September 2011, Rome – FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf warned today that pressure on the world’s soil resources and land degradation are threatening global food security. He called for a renewed international effort to assure sufficient fertile and healthy soils today and for future generations.
Diouf was speaking here at the start of a three-day meeting to launch a new Global Soil Partnership for Food security and Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation.
“Soil is an essential component of the world’s production systems and ecosystems,” Diouf said. “But it is also a fragile and non-renewable resource. It is very easily degraded and it is slow, difficult and expensive to regenerate,” he added.
Soil resources across the globe are subject to increased pressure from competing land uses and are affected by extensive degradation processes that rapidly deplete the limited amounts of soils and water available for food production, Diouf noted.
According to FAO, in Africa alone 6.3 million hectares of degraded farmland have lost their fertility and water-holding capacity and need to be regenerated to meet the demand for food of a population set to more than double in the next 40 years.
In 1982 FAO adopted a World Soil Charter spelling out the basic principles and guidelines for sustainable soil management and soil protection to be followed by governments and international organizations.
“However, there have been long delays in applying the Charter in many countries and regions of the world. New efforts to implement it must be made as soon as possible,” Diouf said.
Besides helping implement the provisions of the World Soil Charter, the Global Soil Partnership is intended to raise awareness and motivate action by decision-makers on the importance of soils for food security and climate change adaptation and mitigation.
The partnership is also aimed at providing favourable policy environment and technical solutions for soil protection and management and at helping mobilize resources and expertise for joint activities and programmes.
The Global Soil Partnership will complement the 15-year-old Global Water Partnership initiated by the United Nations Development Programme and the World Bank in 1996 to coordinate the development and management of water, land, and related resources in order to maximise economic and social welfare without compromising the sustainability of vital environmental systems.
Short-term interventions to provide food, water and basic needs such as seeds and fertilizer to kick-start agriculture is the usual response to food crises and extreme weather events such as in the Horn of Africa. However, longer-term and large-scale measures are needed in order to build greater resilience to degradation, drought and climate change and reduce human vulnerability to disasters.
The Horn of Africa crisis, with the ongoing famine in Somalia, is the most severe food security emergency in the world today. Besides issues of insecurity and governance, the crisis is caused to a large extent by inadequate soil and water management policies and practices.
The Rome meeting is expected to start work on an Action Plan on sustainable soil management that will develop synergies between partners and bring together work currently being done separately on soil survey, assessment and monitoring, soil productivity, soil carbon, soil biodiversity and ecology and soil and water conservation.
Popularized during the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, fertilizers helped boost crop yields and transformed India into a nation that could feed itself. But now their overuse is degrading the farmland. WSJ’s Geeta Anand reports.