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 27, 2012
Agriculture requires fertile soils and is therefore dependent on a high level of soil biodiversity. However, agriculture itself has a major influence on biodiversity. For sustainable farming, a farmer should manage his soil’s health, ensuring that the soil will support crops for years to come. The FoodandAgricultureOrganization has historically encouraged scientists and farmers to share research and experiences for the benefit of agricultural development programs and farmers. As soil is fundamental to agriculture, it is also fundamental to human health and food security. It is important that we conserve soil biodiversity and the manage soil for the value of its ecosystem services.
One common agricultural practice, the use of fertilizer, is advantageous to the soil biota. For example, mineral fertilizers can increase the abundance of nematodes. However, because soil biodiversity is very sensitive to the changes in soil pH and the concentration pore water salts, using fertilizer might decrease the soil biodiversity. It is important to use the appropriate amount of fertilizer to avoid damage to the soil organisms.
Pesticides are also commonly used, and can affect soil biota. Soil organisms can be exposed to applied pesticides, so it’s important that the pesticides don’t harm the soil organisms. Testing has led to the development of regulations to ensure that when used properly, pesticides will not cause unacceptable harm to the soil organisms. When planning for fertilizer and pesticide use, a farmer can work towards improving soil biodiversity. By using an appropriate amount of fertilizer and pesticides, the farmer can stimulate plant and soil organism growth while decreasing the risk towards soil organisms.
The farmer can use several physical techniques to manage his soil. The first is planting his crops. By providing plant cover for the soil, the farmer protects his soil and the organisms with in his soil from wind or water erosion. Further, cultivation of row crops such as sugar beet, maize, potato and vegetables provides only partial soil coverage and protection, leaving the land vulnerable to erosion. Large field areas are often devoid of any morphological structures, such as hedges, that could potentially mitigate erosion from wind or water. The farmer might also reduce or even stop tilling the fields. Intense mechanical soil treatment that disturbs the soil pore system is a common cause of erosion. Reduction may improve soil structure, increasing water capacity, and decreasing erosion. The consequence of the erosion is usually the loss of humus and nutrients from the upper soil, leading to reduced fertility.
As such, agricultural practices and following natural processes can have tremendous influences on soil and soil biodiversity. To maintain adequate food supply, and reach sustainable agriculture, conservation of soil is the most important factor in today’s agriculture business. Farmers can conserve soil biodiversity by using contemporary agricultural techniques that cause fewer disturbances to the soil than traditional techniques. Although soil analysis may be an extra cost to production, the benefits would outweigh the cost. With analysis and proper planning, the farmer will be able to enjoy his soil for a lifetime. Through effective soil management, the farmer can avoid stripping the land of nutrients.
As the world’s population grows and its food needs increase, we must work to relieve population pressure on food supply. Soil biodiversity is the key factor for sustainable agriculture, and thus the practices to conserve soil biodiversity are important. As the soil biodiversity and agriculture are the basis of human food supply, we need to take action to preserve our soils.
Wonho Jung and Christopher Miranda are undergraduates in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
September 25, 2011
Agriculture is an important multi-billion dollar industry in the United States that plays an important economic and social role. In recent years, the concept of sustainable agriculture has emerged out of the increasing concern for long-term farm productivity and the effect of agricultural practices on the environment. Sustainable agriculture is an alternative approach to agriculture that incorporates integrated farming systems to produce environmental goods while protecting resources and enhancing future environmental quality. The key to creating sustainable agriculture is improving and maintaining soil biodiversity, but this cannot be done until the economic and social issues related to farming are addressed.
Soil biodiversity is a central component of sustainable agriculture since without it the availability of arable soil would decrease, therefore making soil management techniques crucial in sustainable farming. Soil is the home for a myriad of organisms, bacteria, fungi, and microbes, which all play key roles in soil quality and health, in turn affecting agriculture. The function of these soil biota are “central to the decomposition processes and nutrient cycling” and therefore “affect plant growth and productivity, as well as the release of pollutants in the environment.” Soil biodiversity is key in sustainable agriculture’s goal of producing adequate amounts of nutritious food while maintaining environmental quality and conserving natural resources.
Sustainable farming is extremely intertwined with three variables: environment, economy, and society. Environmental factors sustainable farmers must take into account are biodiversity, recycling of nutrients, waste, and avoidance of pollution, to name a few. Although most attention is usually places on the environmental facet of sustainable agriculture, the economic and social influences play increasingly crucial roles in its success. Economically, concerns of profitability, especially compared to other farms, and maintenance agricultural raw materials are important for farmers to take into consideration. The social dimension includes the “retention of an optimum level of farm population, the maintenance of an acceptable quality of farm life, and the equitable distribution of material benefits from economic growth.” The struggle for many sustainable farms is that environmental, economic, and social factors do not always coincide and therefore priority must be given to certain interests over others. For example, sustainable agriculture techniques such as crop rotation, conservation tillage, cover cropping, nutrient management, and multicrop farming can become costly and do not necessarily yield the biggest profit margin. Conversely, due to competition from other farms, sustainable or not, in order to stay in business farms must have a maximum output of crops.
Organic farming is a type of sustainable farming that prohibits the use of synthetic products, including fertilizers and pesticides, and stresses maintaining soil productivity and quality. In 1995, the National Organic Standards Board defined it as “an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity.” Since organic farms do not use unnatural pesticides and fertilizers, they tend to rely more on natural nutrient cycles than do conventional farms. These types of farms must be creative in the ways they replace chemical fertilizers and frequently practice crop rotation, maturing, cultivation, and mineral fertilizers. Since many of these practices are more time consuming and costly than traditional chemical fertilizers, organic farms rely on higher prices for their produce in order to ensure profitability. By increasing their prices, organic farmers do not have to choose between being environmentally sustainable and making an economic profit.
Due to the increasing global population rate and more demand on agricultural resources, sustainable agriculture is becoming more important and necessary, however it is crucial to remember the role of soil biodiversity in its success and how economic and social factors play an important role in its effectiveness and implementation.
About the authors: Ariana Verdu and Lily Phillips are working towards their bachelor degrees in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.