Hunger solutions from the soil

Healthy, living soil is the most essential element in ensuring food security. Yet it is often ignored by policy planners

Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

The global population, which stood at 6.1 billion in 2000, is estimated to reach 8.5 billion by 2030 and 9.7 billion in 2050. India has 2.4% of the world’s arable land and more than 17% of the global population. Meeting the demand for fibre and food to feed this growing population from scarce land resources is one of the major challenges of the new century—a fact that was highlighted on 16 October, World Food Day.

Climate defines the agricultural production systems of the world. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts a rise in global temperature of 1.1-6.4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Estimates show that each one degree rise in temperature will cause grain yields to decline by 5%, posing a serious threat to food security. To address the issue of food security in the context of climate change, we have to understand the climate, soil and agricultural production continuum.

Agricultural soils are among the largest reservoirs of carbon and hold the potential for extensive carbon sequestration but increased temperature can lead to the soils releasing carbon and enhance the carbon concentration in the atmosphere. Rising levels of atmospheric carbon can influence the growth and productivity of agricultural crops. Decreased soil quality, due to loss of soil organic matter, will affect essential soil properties, including nutrient availability, soil structure, water-holding capacity and erosion capacity. Therefore, the soil-plant/crop-atmosphere continuum poses serious challenges under changing climate scenarios with reference to scale, scope and magnitude.

Healthy, living soil is the basis of food security and nutrition. Soil organisms account for a quarter of the planet’s biodiversity. Soil invertebrates perform vital functions which contribute to the nutritional content and help maintain soil structure, and health. Soils also perform the essential functional role of water storage and purification.

Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. The major share (over 97.5%) of human food needs originates on land while the rest (less than 2.5%) is supplemented by aquatic systems. In the last few decades, advances in agriculture technology have led to increased food production and bolstered food security. India’s achievement in attaining food self-sufficiency in food production has been impressive. The net availability of foodgrains per capita has increased from 144.1kg per year during 1951 to 179.3kg per year during 2014 (GOI, 2016).

However, the expansion and intensification of agriculture, including crops, livestock and forest-based systems, has led to soil degradation and loss of biodiversity, and greatly affecting environmental and human health. The “Status Of The World’s Soil Resources” report released by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO, 2015) has documented seven major threats in the Indian context. These are soil erosion both by water and air; salinization/alkalinity; acidity; organic carbon losses; nutrient imbalance; pollution/contamination by toxic substances; and soil sealing and capping.

According to the IPCC, reduction in the quality of soil, compounded by climate change, will lead to a worldwide decline in agricultural production, thereby threatening food security and stability of food prices. FAO places high priority on restoring degraded soils, sustainable management of land and water resources and the promotion of agricultural systems and agro-ecological practices that nurture soil biodiversity. The practices include organic farming, zero-tillage, crop rotations and conservation agriculture. Additionally, FAO promotes the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices tailored to local contexts, enabling smallholder and marginal farmers to make considerable productivity and income gains, while increasing the resilience of their agricultural activities to extreme variable weather.

These strategies can be useful to address the issues of climate change and food security by sustainably increasing farm productivity without affecting the soil health and water resources. FAO, in partnership with the government of India, has undertaken projects that work on crop productivity and water management. It worked in seven drought-prone districts of Andhra Pradesh on groundwater conservation for improved crop production. This model gained great relevance to the list of national priorities in the context of management of common natural resources and poverty alleviation.

FAO is also collaborating with the Union ministries for agriculture and environment on a green agriculture project, focusing on eco-restoration of one million hectares of degraded land; self-replication through sustainable business models and conserving keystone species in project states—Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, Odisha, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand.

Strategies on agricultural production should focus on sustainable production, enhanced natural resource management, reduced soil emissions, and mitigating the risks of climate change.

Perhaps the most essential and often ignored element in ensuring food and nutrition security is healthy, living soil. In this light, the Soil Health Card scheme of the government is a laudable effort that has reached out to approximately 30 million farmers to improve agricultural productivity and soil health.

Shyam Khadka is the representative in India of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

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