To Ensure Food Security, Keep Soils Healthy

By Esther Ngumbi

Healthy soils are necessary to produce healthy food and achieve sustainable global food security. They also are a useful resource in the fight against climate change, as they absorb carbon from the air and store it. Recognizing these facts, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary has stated that soil health is a priority and invested in programs related to the issue. Ireland, too, has noted the urgency of this problem: This fall, the Kildare Council officials passed a motion calling on the government to protect Irish soils.

Other parts of the world, including Africa, must prioritize combatting soil degradation. One-third of global soils are degraded because of soil erosion, salinity, nutrient depletion, and pollution. Continuous tillage also contributes to unhealthy soils in Africa: Sixty-five percent of the continent’s land is degraded. Further, a recent U.N. report shows that over 1.3 billion people who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods are farming degraded land.

Unhealthy soils do not contain enough nutrients to support crop growth, leading to systemic food and nutrient security problems. Lower yields result in worldwide hunger and malnutrition, as well as amplify food-price volatility—sending millions into poverty. Without a way to afford food, hungry people may turn to alternative sources of income, such as joining a terrorist group. This is a looming crisis. To ensure global health and security, we must start by rehabilitating our degraded soils.

At the international level, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. (FAO) declared 2015 to be the year of soil. Prior to that, it had established a global partnership to showcase effective, on-the-ground initiatives to stop soil degradation and advocate for healthy soils. And in 2017, the FAO released the Global Land Outlook report that outlines further actions that need to be taken to reverse the worrying trends in the state of the world’s land resources. To complement the FAO’s efforts, many countries, research centers, NGOs, and institutions including the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and the Centre for Agricultural and Bioscience launched programs to improve and restore soil health.

Accompanying these initiatives is the promotion of scientifically proven soil health-building practices including conservation agriculture, mulching, reduced tillage, and cover cropping. Their adoption could prevent, or even reverse, widespread soil degradation. These practices can also help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and build and retain adequate soil organic matter, which is associated with other benefits, such as improvements to plant health and yields; increased soil water retention, which increases the ability of crops to tolerate drought; and expansion of biological diversity within the soil. Diverse biological organisms in turn play critical roles in soil ecosystems, including decomposition, breaking down pollutants, and cycling essential plant nutrients.

Continuous support at the country level from both public and private institutions is necessary to make these practices sustainable in the long term. Particularly, governments must put in place legal frameworks to regulate the use of soil resources. Farmers should be educated about and encouraged to adopt these proposed soil health-building practices.

Through the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the American government offers financial and technical support to farmers and agricultural producers to help them implement soil health-building practices. Individual states, too, have backed efforts to keep soils healthy. California, for example, launched the California Healthy Soils Initiative, which involves collaboration among numerous state agencies and departments.

Countries in the African continent also are ramping up efforts to support soil health. Ethiopia’s Soil Health and Fertility Ethiopian Soil Information System was set up to map the health status of the country’s soils. These data are used to inform policies and develop recommendations for Ethiopian farmers about best practices and which fertilizers and seeds to use. In Nigeria, the Agriculture Promotion Policy (2016-2020) outlines strategies to reverse widespread soil degradation.

Nonprofit organizations are also stepping up. The Soil Health Institute, based in North Carolina, plays a leading role in supporting fundamental and applied research on soil health-building practices in the U.S.

There is still more to be done, especially by African countries, such as Sudan, whose soils are degraded and that are consistently faced with droughts and other climate change-related extreme weather events. These countries should make this issue a priority by further investing in holistic approaches to building healthy soils.

Sustained commitment from governments and nonprofit organizations can be accompanied by financial incentives for farmers. Appropriate reward systems could facilitate the rapid adoption of soil health-building practices—and, in some areas, such systems already being enacted. The state of California has appropriated $7.5 million in the 2016-2017 financial year to reward farmers and ranchers who use cover cropping, reduced tillage, and mulch on their farms. The International Center for Tropical Agriculture, a nonprofit research and development organization, continues to finance incentive packages to promote the adoption of practices that enhance soil health.

Healthy soils are crucial to achieving sustainable global food security, fighting climate change, and protecting biodiversity. Therefore, the FAO, national governments, NGOs, and research institutions must continue to support and invest in efforts to halt and reverse the processes that make agricultural land unable to produce healthy crops.



Esther Ngumbi is a postdoctoral researcher at Auburn University in Alabama. She serves as a 2017 Clinton Global Initiative University Mentor for Agriculture and is a 2015 Food Security New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute. Reach her @EstherNgumbi.

[Photo courtesy of Pexels]