March 13, 2013
It’s Not Just Dirt: Using Sustainable Agriculture and Soil Biodiversity to Feed Earth’s Growing Population
Currently the world’s population is estimated to be slightly over 7 billion, increasing at a rate of about 1.1% per year. Developed countries tend to produce the most agriculturally, while less-developed countries produce fewer crops, but have the densest populations. Even though we produce enough food to feed all 7 billion people on Earth: 19 million people in developed countries suffer from starvation, while 906 million people in under developed countries around the world suffer from starvation (Worldhunger.org). Currently there is an unequal distribution of food across the globe. If we can’t feed the current world population, how will we sustain Earth’s continually increasing population?
The current agricultural crisis is not only a U.S. problem, but also a world problem. Current agricultural practices deplete the land’s natural resources and will not be able to sustain Earth’s increasing population; the only way to mitigate this issue is through the use of Sustainable Agricultural Practices (SAP).
Sustainable Agricultural Practices are not a defined set of agricultural practice, but rather methods that aim to maintain long-term production without degrading natural resources (Rodriguez, Molnar, Fazio, Syndor, and Lowe). The most common sustainable agricultural practices include conservation tillage, crop rotation and diversity, integrated pest management, water management, and soil diversity and testing. The most important and central component towards maintaining sustainable agriculture is maintaining soil biodiversity.
Without maintaining soil resources issues such as erosion, poor nutrient content, and inability to produce necessary crop yield can occur. Approaches to these issues have been widely studied and programs have been instituted in almost every country by a government or local agency that produce guidelines and regulations on maintaining good soil biodiversity. Despite the global importance of soil management different countries take varied approaches to the issue and some have much more stringent requirements for things such as nutrient content and erosion control.
In the United Kingdom the Department for Environmental, Food, and Rural Affairs, or DEFRA, has requirements for ranchers and farmers known as the Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions, GAEC. The main goals of DEFRA is to prevent soil erosion and particulate runoff from fields, maintain organic matter, and allow for good soil structure. DEFRA focuses on a preemptive approach rather than one that deals with issues after they have occurred. Their literature warns of the dangers of “poached soil”, that is, soil that has been compacted by hoofed animals, as well as consequences and ways to mitigate waterlogging. An interesting factor was a legal limit on nitrogen use in areas that have been defined as Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZ’s).
In comparison, the United States has information released by the USDA. While the literature focuses more on solutions rather than maintaining natural balances, the USDA does stress the idea of interconnectedness and relationships between soil management, water, and air quality. It also links biological, physical, and chemical properties of soil to create a holistic view of soil management.
In a more stark comparison the government agency of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) brings a much more basic approach to soil management. In Kenya, due to low food supplies and variable soil conditions the focus of the information given to the people is that of utilizing the best suited crops to their area, directions on spacing and when to fertilize, and how to use pesticides and natural alternatives, all in the hopes of increasing food security. While much simpler than the guidelines and regulations of more developed countries like the US and UK, KARI is making steps towards giving subsistence farmers food and water security while teaching sustainable soil practices and not further degrading the land.
As a nation the United States is extremely apprehensive towards the adoption of SAP such as maintaining soil biodiversity. Barriers to adopting SAP include lack of knowledge, social, and economic factors. There is not a lot of access to information on cropping systems, machinery, soil management, and government funding available to farmers. Many farmers wrongly assume SAP will yield fewer crops; they do not have the money to hire more workers and purchase new equipment. Farmers also feel societal pressure to adopt the same systems used by their peers.
The United States has programs such as The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) that provides financial and technical support to agricultural producers who would like to adopt SAP for up to ten years. Most farmers are not aware that programs such as this exist. In order to remedy this problem in the United States government and the private sector must get involved in making SAP a priority.
With the world population on the rise it is critical to find a way to feed and sustain the increasing population. The only viable option to remedy this global issue is for nations to raise awareness about the issue by educating farmers and consumers on soil practices and to implement standards for sustainable agricultural practices that will provide a steady and high-yield food source that does not degrade the environment or deplete the soil.
Authors: Ashley Brady is a sophomore at USC working towards a bachelor degree in Environmental Studies and Ryan Gobar is a junior at USC also working towards a bachelor degree in Environmental Studies.
February 8, 2012
In 2009, concerns over the lack of water availability in California dramatically escalated—the issue was named by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor at the time, as a statewide emergency. Some even believed that following two “critically dry years,” the year 2009 became the most “severe drought year in California history” (water.ca.gov). However, a winter of persistent snowstorms brought close to 61 feet of snow to the Sierra Nevada’s, 143% of normal levels and the second highest levels the state has ever seen (Huffington Post); the drought was over. Today, it is apparent that we need not focus our immediate concern on the California drought, as California remains in the clear and consistently is a victim of this repetitive drought cycle–our history proves that drought in California is nothing new. Instead of focusing on the dry conditions, it is important that we realize our anxiety is a result of water crisis issues that need our attention: California’s aging water infrastructure, its immensely growing population, and the new prospect of climate change. These issues make up the true water emergency faced daily by Californians.
Looking back at California’s drought history proves several points about the state and droughts. First, California is no stranger to droughts. Over the past 35 years, the state has experienced 3 major droughts, one being the most severe ever recorded. Second, the state has been able to respond strongly to survive a drought through statewide policy and conservation efforts. California’s government has taken the necessary steps and measurements to sustain itself and prepare for future droughts. Third, droughts are a normal phenomenon that should be expected in California. The reason droughts have occurred is due to the climate of the region that tends to fluctuate between wet and dry cycles, meaning droughts are inevitable. Thus, if droughts are to be expected they should not be the biggest concern in California, but rather other issues that influence the water crisis in the state, like its aging water infrastructure.
California’s water infrastructure is critical for supplying water for agriculture, the population, and environmental protection throughout the whole state. Lately, these variables have caused a rise in water demand that the current infrastructure cannot support, mainly because it is aging. The major component of the infrastructure is the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta which has weak, aging levees that, if broken, can drastically jeopardize the state’s water distribution for vital use. If major investments aren’t made to upgrade the aging infrastructure in the future, California won’t be able to sustain itself through drought at a time when climate change and population growth in the state exacerbate the growing water crisis.
California is relentless when it comes to growing population numbers. In 1900, California housed about 1.4 million people, and today, according to the 2010 Census, has close to 38 million people. This immense jump has placed much strain on the infrastructure of the state and contributes to the environmental issues–such as climate change–now plaguing the surrounding ecosystems. The main contributors to climate change are exacerbated by human activities, such as burning fossil fuels to produce carbon dioxide. Climate Change is creating a huge problem for California’s water sources, as seen through changes in sea level, snowpack, and river flows. According to the California Department of Water Resources, scientists predict our Sierra Nevada snowpack, which provides one-third of our water resources, to lose approximately 20 percent of its volume. This, along with the increasing population, will soon become a huge contributing factor to the California drought pattern, and needs to be addressed immediately.
Caroline Smith and Sergio Avelar are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.