Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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UN Year of Soils Addresses Global Farm Issues

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, December 15 / 14

Zack Gross

The Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations celebrated the first World Soil Day on December 5th, just ten days ago, and declared 2015 International Year of Soils.  The FAO’s Director-General made this declaration at the organization’s headquarters in Rome, while parallel events took place in North and South America and in Asia.

The Year of Soils official slogan is “Healthy soils for a healthy life” and soil is referred to as a “silent ally” of life on Earth.  After all, where would humanity be without the means to grow food for ourselves as well as feed our cattle? 

2015 will see a major effort by the UN to raise awareness of the need for sustainable management of the soil and for advocacy in a time of climate change.

Back in the spring of 2013, it was Thailand which brought this idea for International Year of Soils to the FAO and the Resolution was endorsed by 146 member nations.  The UN has recognized the challenge of soil degradation in both the developing and developed worlds, thus making it an issue that farmers face everywhere. 

One of the focus events in 2015 will be a major exhibit at World Expo 2015 in Milan, Italy, called “Feeding the Planet: Energy for Life

When the idea of a Year dedicated to soils was agreed upon by the FAO, it was also done in the context of the UN wishing to strengthen its partnerships with civil society organizations and the private sector so that greater cooperation might lead to new research, education and action on this vital issue.  With the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set to “expire” in 2015, this is also an opportunity to highlight work yet to be done on hunger, agriculture, fisheries, forestry and rural poverty.

The FAO is touting Nicaragua, Central America, as a country that has met the first of the eight MDGs: to “halve the proportion of its people suffering from hunger”.  Between 1990 and 2010, undernourishment decreased in that country from 55% to 20%.  Brazil has also been singled out for decreases in hunger among its population and its assisting African countries to deal with their food insecurity issues.

Jose Graziano da Silva, FAO’s Director-General, estimates that one-third of soil in the world has been degraded and that over 800 million people face hunger and malnutrition every day.  With global population growth, the soil will be required to produce 60% more food, rather than less.  By 2050, he says that world arable and productive land per person will have dropped to 25% of what it was in 1960. 

Issues we must tackle include erosion, depletion of organic matter, compaction and salinization, all the result of poor management techniques.  The soil, along with providing us food, also offers shelter, fuel, medicines and clothing.  Growth of plants and forests offer organic carbon to help us mitigate the effects of climate change.  Also in the soil are bio-diverse organisms, from earthworms to bacteria, all adding to the “circle of life

One large and long-awaited project being undertaken by the UN for Soils Year is the production of a new soil map for African farmers.  This resource will offer a soil health diagnosis and advice on crop yields for forty-two countries.  Poor farmers will receive from local extension workers free high-resolution maps created with satellite data and soil samples taken from across the African continent, along with the education and training needed to improve their unique situations.

This Global Soil Map is being assembled by scientists at the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture while the African Soil Information Service will deliver the programming.  The $18 million to finance this initiative is coming from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

People involved in this project say they are trying to bring African farmers into the 21st Century by providing them with the technology and know-how to improve their crop yields.  Their hope is to be able to deal with growing demand for food, the need for better soil health and the ability of countries and organizations to effectively cooperate on food and agriculture issues.  East, West and Southern Africa, all three regions south of the Sahara Desert, will participate.

Disagreement exists on some issues related to this soils campaign.  Critics argue that past “green revolutions” have depended too much on agrichemicals that are not accessible to every farmer.  As well, hybrid plants may take the place of traditional varieties, which might have smaller yields but which farmers can take seed from at each harvest for use next cycle, thus maintaining their independence from the corporate sector.

However this plays out, it is clear that there is urgent concern about our future food availability.  Some European countries along with China – and some corporations – are actually buying up land in Africa in order to ensure a backup food supply for their people in case of climatic catastrophe.  This can’t be a good trend.  We need to ensure food security for all.

Zack Gross is a former Executive Director of the Marquis Project and continues to work in the international development sector.

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