By Erica Oakley, Humanitas Global
By the year 2050, we’ll need to feed a global population of nine billion. That’s two billion more than we attempt to feed today – with 805 chronically hungry and two billion suffering from micronutrient deficiencies. How then, will we be able to feed nine billion in the future if we continue using agricultural practices that are causing unprecedented damage to the environment and ourselves? If we don’t make changes, we can’t and we won’t.
One major change that we can make: focusing on soil! The United Nations has declared 2015 to be the International Year of Soils. It’s an opportune time to bring this forgotten, yet vitally important, resource to the forefront. If we’re to create systems that produce healthy, nutritious food, it’s going to have to start with changing how we look at soil today.
Soil is a non-renewable, incredibly vital resource that is important to sustaining animals, plants, and humans. To be able to fulfill its many roles – including water filtration system, plant growth support, recycler of nutrients, pollutant filter, carbon storage, and buffer against floods, droughts, and climate change – it has to have the right mix of nutrients, diverse microorganisms that live within it to break down organic matter, and water.
Unfortunately, due to unhealthy agricultural and land management practices, the nutrients in our soil are depleting at alarming rates. Monocropping, increased reliance on pesticides and fertilizers, and poor grazing practices are just a few of the unsustainable practices that are used today. These intensive agricultural practices are stripping nutrients from the soil every growing season and yielding crops with lower nutrient content.
So what are some of the ingredients and techniques for a healthy agroecosystem to produce more nutritious foods while also improving the vitality of our soils?
- Cover crops: Plant cover crops (such as rye, clover, cowpeas, millet, or sorghum) to manage erosion, pests, and weeds, and replenish the nutrient and fertile content of soils.
- Livestock: Get away from industrial agriculture and factory farms. Make livestock a part of the healthy farming ecosystem and install systems to appropriate deal with animal waste.
- Windbreaks: Plant borders of trees or shrubs to protect soil against erosion due to wind.
- Organic fertilizer: Utilize crop waste and animal manure to naturally fertilize the soil and crops. If synthetic fertilizer is absolutely required, use it sparingly in a targeted microdosing rather than broad coverage.
- Wastewater: Given that 70% of water is used for agricultural purposes, it’s important to find avenues to utilize wastewater for irrigation purposes and reduce overall water usage.
- Irrigation: Use sustainable irrigation techniques and drought-resistant farming techniques.
- Crop rotation: Rotating the planting of crops is important for fertilizing soil and reducing problems of pests and disease.
- Tillage: No-till farming helps protect soil by increasing the amount of organic matter and nutrients in the soil and decreasing the amount of carbon dioxide that is released into the air. Not tilling also increases the amount of water that can permeate the soil, reduce erosion, and make soils more resilient.
We’ve come to a split in the road to feeding ourselves today and future generations. We can continue on our current path, one with unsustainable agricultural and land management practices. Or, we change course and take a healthier, more sustainable, and environmentally-friendly path. I vote for the latter.