Saving soil: digging for solutions beneath our feet
Agriculture doesn't have to degrade soils – it's possible for food production to enrich the earth, restore nutrients, conserve water, and prevent erosion.
One of the most overlooked ingredients in farming exists right beneath farmers’ feet—healthy, fertile soils.
Unfortunately, this vital ingredient is being degraded and eroded at unprecedented rates across the world. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 25 percent of the planet’s land is highly degraded, and only 10 percent is improving.
All continents are experiencing land degradation, and the loss of soil quality is not only an issue for farmers, but for all of us.
Deforestation, for example, is causing China's Loess Plateau to erode rapidly. Overgrazing of grassland in the Western United States is reducing soil depth and creating desertification. In India, overcutting trees and crops is reducing soil fertility and threatening wild medicinal plants. Farmland plowed for commercial agriculture around the world exposes topsoil and increases erosion. In fact, Brazil loses 55 million tons of topsoil every year because of soybean production.
But agriculture doesn’t have to degrade soils—it is possible for food production to enrich the Earth, restore nutrients, conserve water, and prevent further erosion.
This week, Food Tank is recognizing 14 exciting projects and individuals who are facilitating important dialogue about the importance of soil and actively addressing the threats of soil degradation and erosion around the world.
1. The documentary film Dirt! The Movie creates a conversation about the under-appreciated source of life and material beneath our feet. The film brings together geographically diverse stories of soil restoration and connects the environmental, economic, social, and political importance of soil.
2. Founded in Sarajevo, the Center for Forestry and Environmental Action works to rebuild and replenish areas in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the surrounding region. The organization provides practical and professional support to farmers and businesses, by promoting sustainable planting and agricultural practices.
3. Perennial grain crops may also help prevent soil degradation, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Michigan State University is examining the ability of perennial grains to reduce soil erosion in five African countries including Ghana, Mali, Malawi, Tanzania, and Ethiopia.
4. The Green Asia Network actively works to combat desertification across the expanses of northern Asia. In Mongolia, China, Russia, and other central Asian countries, this organization fund raises to reforest barren landscapes, educate local citizens and farmers on the detriments of soil degradation, and hosts festivals and cultural exchanges highlighting successful efforts being made to improve soil quality and farming practices.
5. The Land Institute, based in Salina, Kansas, works to support sustainable farming and combat destructive agricultural practices while promoting polyculture systems. The Institute views the degradation of soil as a contributing factor to a host of other environmental problems, including declining crop yields, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, and dead and contaminated zones resulting from toxic runoff.
6. The International Erosion Control Association (IECA) highlights solutions to slow soil degradation and erosion in Central and South America. Through education, public events, and on-site consultations, IECA promotes sustainable efforts to improve soil quality in the region.
7. Matt Liebman, the Henry A. Wallace Chair for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, envisions a future for Iowa where farming practices protect soil and water quality. His research includes livestock reintegration and organic soil management. Liebman found more diverse and longer crop rotations can greatly reduce fertilizer, herbicide, and fossil fuel inputs while increasing crop yields.
8. Agronomist Roland Bunch presents sustainable solutions to soil degradation through the use of cover crops and green manures in his book Restoring the Soil. Cover crops and green manures can improve soil fertility and control weeds by increasing organic matter in the soils without the use of expensive inputs.
9. Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL) is a non-profit organization “dedicated to protecting soil resources, empowering communities and transforming waste into resources in Haiti.” Co-founded in 2006 by Dr. Sasha Kramer and Baudeler Magloire, SOIL utilizes EcoSan or ecological sanitation, a “low cost approach where human wastes are collected, composted, and recycled for use in agriculture and reforestation.”
10. The Savory Institute supports sustainable grasslands through holistic management practices. Through research regarding productive methods of care, informing and shaping political policy, identifying and establishing market incentives, and increasing public awareness, the organization strives to remove global barriers to successful land management in order to support soil.
11. In the United Kingdom, the Soil Association campaigns for humane, healthy, and sustainable food, farming, and land use. Founded in 1946 by a coalition of scientists, nutritionists and farmers, the Soil Association supports and promotes best practices by farmers and brings food systems closer to organic principles. The Association inspects and certifies organic farms and businesses.
12. Scientists have compiled the first soil atlas of Africa to help the general public, policymakers, land users, and scientists understand and manage the continent’s key resource. The 176-page atlas aims to inform stakeholders of the continent’s varying patterns of soil, and the need to conserve and manage it sustainably.
13. Rodale Institute is committed to research in organic agriculture, improving soil, and advocating for practices that support farmers. The Institute started the Farming Systems Trial (FST) in 1980: the United States’ longest running side by side comparison of chemical and organic agriculture. Results for more than 30 years have shown organic yields match or are greater than conventional yields.
14. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) implemented the Soil and Water Conservation and Agroforestry Program (SWaCAP) in the Kingdom of Lesotho, where most of the soil is derived from sandstone or shale. The objectives of SWaCAP are to promote soil and water conservation as part of farmer’s normal agricultural activities and in a way that increase yields and incomes.
These projects show that the ground beneath our feet may be the most important ingredient in alleviating hunger and poverty across the world. What are other projects in your community protecting soil for future generations?
• This article originally appeared at Food Tank, a think tank focused on feeding the world better. Food Tank researches and highlights environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable ways of alleviating hunger, obesity, and poverty and creates networks of people, organizations, and content to push for food system change.