Digging deep in the year of soil

Agriculture, Climate Change, Food & livelihoods, Food security

The health of soil has a significant impact on food security, climate change adaptation and livelihoods. As the UN has declared 2015 to be the year of soils, Daniel Morchain explains why it is vital that we raise awareness of the devastating impact soil degradation can have and the difficult questions we need to ask if we are to address the issue.   

Soil degradation is becoming a big problem in vast areas of the planet. In Sub-Saharan Africa it is an important driver of food insecurity and hunger. In many other parts of the world, soil degradation is increasing disaster risk. Degraded soil is less able to absorb rainwater, so it can increase both the impact of floods and the likelihood of floods happening in previously flood-free areas. Unsustainable soil and land management can also lead to yield declines, loss of livelihoods and forced migration.

Soil degradation results from a wide range of land management factors and short-sighted policies

Soil degradation results from a wide range of land management factors (including deforestation, monocropping and  overgrazing), as well as inappropriate and short-sighted agricultural policies promoted by governments, economic models principled on short-term gains (or bust!), and rising meat consumption in global diets. Global warming and the resulting climate change impacts (such as changing and less predictable rainfall patterns, rising temperatures, heavier rains and stronger storms) undoubtedly contribute to accelerated soil
deterioration. Degraded soil also reduces yields and cannot store as much carbon, thus putting additional pressure on hunger globally and increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

So it’s good news that 2015 is the UN’s year of soils. Raising soil’s profile in the international agenda should be a priority. My hope is that attention is drawn to the full complexity of the issue, and not reduced to technical discussions that avoid uncomfortable topics such as: “what it would take for the soil (and water) conservation agenda to rank higher among national governments’ priorities” and “why small-scale farmers aren’t engaging in sustainable soil and water
conservation practices by default
“. I also hope that this yearlong soil platform will recognise the value of grassroots actions and promote their influence, and not, on the contrary, focus on fast-tracking approaches that legitimise top-down, control-based philosophies and strengthen the private sector’s grip around the soil agenda.

Why we can’t rely on technology alone

Without intending to question or diminish the role of technological advances in meeting the growing global food demand, it is a mistake to only look ahead for solutions without looking back. It is a mistake for the following reasons:

  1. It is unrealistic to think that innovations will reach and be taken up by a large portion of small-scale farmers in the short to mid-term, and, if they do, that they would necessarily benefit farmers.
  2. These technologies create a dependency (see, for instance, GMOs) that can lead to a nasty downward spiral of debt, and are often incompatible with long-term soil fertility preservation.
  3. The much needed new farming generation risks losing valuable indigenous knowledge transfer from an old and ageing farming population. These indigenous practices combined with fostering the joint development of technologies between private sector and small-scale farmers, and evolving thinking around agroecology, hold great potential to reverse soil degradation trends. 

The year of soils needs to address uncomfortable questions that shed light on why farmers frequently manage soils with a short-term perspective. Technical discussions such as these are due this year. But we also need to ensure that the agenda of the year of soils addresses the more uncomfortable questions that shed light on why farmers frequently manage soils from a short-term perspective. These include: unequal access to resources for women, such as land, credit and other agricultural inputs, and their under-representation in
decision-making forums in countries around the world; conflict, domination and power imbalance blocking small scale farmer progress, such as the occupation-related barriers experienced by Palestinian small-scale farmers in the West Bank when accessing and managing scarce natural resources or growing and transporting their produce to market; and land tenure insecurity in Central America and in many other regions, which drives small-scale farmers to plan for just one cropping season, excluding consideration of sustainable practices such as planting
bushes or trees (in addition to crops) that in a few years’ time could diversify their income and reduce their risk.

A disappointing UNFCCC COP in Lima last month reinforces the urgency for fruitful discussions around soil; that is, around issues that feel more tangible and immediate to more people (even climate sceptics). Making sustainable soil management practices a real option for small-scale farmers, and encouraging large-scale producers to start seeing beyond the current financial year by buying into the sustainable land management agenda, may prove to be what buys a little more time while a good international climate deal,
hopefully, continues to be cooked up (and we should know by now that we won’t always have Paris…).

The bundle of issues mentioned here should be reflected in an invigorated and comprehensive soil management agenda. Soil-related discussions have a very human face; seven billion, in fact, from Nebraska to Niger to Naples to Nepal. And this means that consumers need to understand that their decisions have direct implications and are critical to the fate of soils and the natural environment. Let’s put some soul in the year of soils!

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Author: Daniel Morchain
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.