Soil is one of the key natural resources and constitutes the basis for the global food system. Furthermore, as it is a non-renewable resource, its degradation has very serious consequences, which are still too often largely ignored in the discussions about the future of our planet.
In the context of the predicted global population increase to more than 9 billion people by 2050, growing pressure on the finite land and water resources as well as the impact of climate change, our current and future food security depends to a great extent on the state of soils around the world. It is estimated that around 95% of our food is directly or indirectly produced on soils. Soils are also indispensable for delivering numerous other key ecosystem services. However, in many regions of the world soils are subjected to the increasing pressure caused by agricultural intensification, competing uses of land by livestock farming, forestry and urbanization as well as the necessity to meet food, energy and other needs of the growing population.
It is predicted that if the world population exceeds 9 billion by 2050, agricultural production will have to increase by 60% globally and by up to 100% in the global South countries. One needs to remember, however, that agricultural intensification and advances in farming technology in the past 50 years allowed on one hand to increase productivity, but on the other often led to many negative consequences for the environment, in particular to soil degradation, which jeopardizes the ability to maintain production in these areas in the future. Available data suggest that about 33% of global soils are already moderately to highly degraded because of erosion, salinization, compaction, acidification, nutrient depletion and chemical pollution. This hampers significantly soil functions and one should not forget that forming 1 cm of soil can take up to 1000 years.
Soil health and its fertility have a direct influence on the nutrient content of food crops and their yields. Soils supply plants with essential nutrients, water, oxygen and root support. They are also the living environment for a great number of various organisms which directly influence food producing plants. In the context of climate change soils serve as a buffer protecting delicate plant roots from drastic fluctuations in temperature. Healthy soils contribute also to mitigating climate change by maintaining or increasing its carbon content.
In order to effectively protect soils in the world diverse approaches are needed. This include, among others, implementing appropriate policies, investment in sustainable soil management, stopping soil degradation and supporting its restoration, development of targeted soil research and education programmes as well as creating soil information systems. Of key importance is wide promotion of sustainable soil management, in other words using agricultural methods which improve soil quality and reduce their degradation. Among these methods are, for example, using ecological and traditional farming techniques, reducing or forgoing the use of agrochemicals, increasing soil organic matter content, promoting crop rotation, keeping soil surface vegetated, using permanent soil cover, reducing or forgoing tillage, agroforestry etc. It is estimated that these and similar practices could lead to an average crop yield increase of 58%.
You can learn more about the importance of soils and their protection from the infographics presented below (click to enlarge), which were produced by FAO in connection with the ongoing International Year of Soils.