SOS: Save our soils

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

The United Na­tions has de­clared 2015 to be the In­ter­na­tional Year of Soils, and April 19-23 marked this year’s Global Soil Week. Such events, though not ex­actly glam­orous, do not re­ceive nearly the amount of at­ten­tion they de­serve.

In­tact soils are an in­valu­able and ir­re­place­able re­source, one that per­forms myr­iad func­tions in achiev­ing the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity’s main devel­op­ment and en­vi­ron­men­tal goals. And now they are in ur­gent need of pro­tec­tion.

Healthy soils are cru­cial to hu­man nu­tri­tion and the fight against hunger. We rely on them not only for food pro­duc­tion, but also to cre­ate new drink­ing wa­ter. They help to reg­u­late Earth’s cli­mate, stor­ing more car­bon than all of the world’s forests com­bined (only the oceans are a larger car­bon sink), and are es­sen­tial to main­tain­ing bio­di­ver­sity: a hand­ful of fer­tile soil con­tains more micro­organ­isms than there are hu­mans on the planet. Two-thirds of Earth’s species live be­neath its sur­face.

But ero­sion and con­tam­i­na­tion are plac­ing soils un­der se­vere stress. World­wide, 24 bil­lion tons of fer­tile soil is lost an­nu­ally, partly ow­ing to the growth of cities and in­fra­struc­ture. In Ger­many alone, con­struc­tion projects claim an av­er­age of more than 75 hectares per day. In­ap­pro­pri­ate agri­cul­tural prac­tices are also to blame: the lib­eral use of syn­thetic fer­tiliser, for ex­am­ple, dec­i­mates or­gan­isms in­hab­it­ing the soil and changes its struc­ture. It takes mil­len­nia for fer­tile top­soil to form; in many places, a cloud­burst is now all it takes to wash it away.

At the same time, global de­mand for food, fod­der, and biomass for fu­els is grow­ing, in turn driv­ing up the value of land – a fact that has not es­caped in­ter­na­tional in­vestors’ at­ten­tion. Ac­cord­ing to a World Bank es­ti­mate, 10-30% of arable land world­wide – land that would be used by mil­lions of small­hold­ers, pas­toral­ists, and in­dige­nous peo­ple – has been af­fected by large-scale in­vest­ment.

The strug­gle to se­cure land rights for in­di­vid­u­als and com­mu­ni­ties has thus be­come a mat­ter of sur­vival in much of the world. Ac­cess to land is one of the key de­ter­mi­nants of hunger, and it is even more un­equally dis­trib­uted than in­come. Some 20% of house­holds af­fected by hunger are land­less, and 50% of food-stressed house­holds are small­holder fam­i­lies.

In Europe, we have long since out­grown our do­mes­tic agri­cul­tural land, so now we “im­port” it on a grand scale from the global South. Just pro­duc­ing the fod­der needed to cover the Euro­pean Union’s meat con­sump­tion re­quires an area of agri­cul­tural land in Brazil the size of the United King­dom. If ev­ery hu­man ate as much meat as the av­er­age EU cit­i­zen, 80% of the world’s arable land would have to be ded­i­cated to pro­duc­ing it, com­pared to 33% cur­rently. And let us be clear: given that 100 calo­ries of fod­der pro­duce at most 30 calo­ries of meat, us­ing fer­tile land for this pur­pose is sheer waste.

This trend will be ex­ac­er­bated to the ex­tent that the “green growth” that many gov­ern­ments are promis­ing re­lies on bio­fu­els to re­place fos­sil fu­els like oil and coal. Bio­fu­els do not ben­e­fit the cli­mate nearly as much as wind or so­lar en­ergy sys­tems, yield­ing only one-tenth the en­ergy per square me­tre. As a re­sult, the bio­fuel re­quire­ments con­tained in the EU’s 2030 Frame­work for Cli­mate and En­ergy would need a fur­ther 70 mil­lion hectares of land – an area larger than France.

Pro­tect­ing soils need not un­der­mine pros­per­ity. On the con­trary, sus­tain­able soil-pro­tec­tion prac­tices can ac­tu­ally boost agri­cul­tural yields – es­pe­cially those of small­hold­ers. Crop di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion, re­cy­cling, and soil cover can all con­trib­ute to living, fer­tile, and ac­tive soil ca­pa­ble of op­ti­mal wa­ter man­age­ment.

One ap­proach, so-called agro-ecol­ogy, is based on small farm­ers’ tra­di­tional knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence, mak­ing it read­ily adapt­able to lo­cal con­di­tions. A study of agroe­co­log­i­cal farm­ing prac­tices by Jules Pretty in 2006 ex­am­ined 286 sus­tain­able agri­cul­tural projects in 57 coun­tries and con­cluded that yields had in­creased an av­er­age of 79%.

De­spite the proven suc­cess of such meth­ods, the use of syn­thetic fer­tilis­ers has in­creased by a fac­tor of more than five over the past 50 years, and many African gov­ern­ments spend up to 60% of their agri­cul­tural bud­gets to sub­si­dize them. Par­tic­u­larly in trop­i­cal en­vi­ron­ments, such prod­ucts lead to the de­struc­tion of the top­soil and bio­di­ver­sity loss (and the runoff is trans­ported to the oceans, where it dam­ages marine ecosys­tems). And, though their main com­po­nent, ni­tro­gen, could be pro­duced bi­o­log­i­cally and sus­tain­ably, that would run counter to the in­ter­ests of a hand­ful of pow­er­ful fer­tiliser pro­duc­ers and dis­trib­u­tors.

Pol­i­cy­mak­ers must ad­dress the fol­low­ing ques­tion: How can poor peo­ple pro­duce enough food to es­cape hunger and des­ti­tu­tion in a man­ner that protects soils, mit­i­gates cli­mate change, and pre­serves bio­di­ver­sity?

De­spite the is­sue’s ur­gency, ap­proaches like agroe­co­log­i­cal pro­duc­tion are not be­ing pro­moted to any se­ri­ous ex­tent any­where. Events like the In­ter­na­tional Year of Soils and Global Soil Week of­fer an op­por­tu­nity to change that – from the ground up.

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