Nature and Biodiversity

Focusing on soil health can help us feed the world's growing population without harming the planet: Here's how

If we can improve soil health on a global scale, it is possible to feed the planet's growing population without compromising the fight against climate change.

If we can improve soil health on a global scale, it is possible to feed the planet's growing population without compromising the fight against climate change. Image: OCP Group

Iliass Elfali
Managing Director - Corporate strategy, Sustainability and Innovation, OCP Group
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Climate and Nature

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate
  • The Food and Agriculture Organization predicts a 60% increase in crop production will be required by 2050 to keep up with global food demand.
  • To meet this demand — and sequester huge volumes of greenhouse gases in the process — soil health must be a priority.
  • Ultimately, delivering on this spike in demand will require the introduction of precision agriculture to apply the right source of fertilizers as and where needed, in the exact volumes required.

Agriculture contributes around 25% of worldwide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and has historically been seen as a zero-sum game: either reduce emissions and fall short of producing the food the world needs or expand to feed a growing global population and accelerate climate change.

However, advances in soil science have shown that investing in soil health can increase food production and reduce GHG emissions in parallel.

By focusing primarily on the need to increase food production, conventional high-yield agriculture practices have driven many detrimental side effects, including loss of biodiversity, degradation of soil and water and worsening air pollution.

In response, there has been a push in recent years towards more climate-smart practices. However, these techniques do not necessarily increase overall yields, and with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) expecting global food demand to require a 60% increase in crop production by 2050, they risk failing to maintain even current levels of global food security.

Furthermore, many alternative techniques designed to reduce GHG emissions are capital-intensive or require access to complex infrastructure alongside advanced technological innovations. This makes them ill-adapted for agriculture in the developing world.

The agricultural industry should instead focus on easily scalable solutions across a wide range of environments that can be customized to meet specific local requirements, especially in developing regions.

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Soil: our most overlooked asset

Soils have historically been the most overlooked asset in improving agriculture and mitigating climate change.

Despite being the source of 95% of the food we produce, there is a lack of detailed understanding of the role soil can play in both agriculture and combating climate change.

The FAO estimates soils can sequester the equivalent of around 10% of manufactured carbon emissions over 25 years. Recent modelling indicates the potential for even higher levels of sequestration, ranging from half of annual global CO2 emissions on a conservative basis to estimates that our soils could potentially sequester more CO2 than we currently emit annually. A recent study found that closing yield gaps through sustainable intensification of agricultural yields can almost eliminate land clearing, particularly in Africa. This method involves applying customized fertilizers to the soil, which is an important component in closing yield gaps, especially in the poor soils of the tropics. Preventing biodiversity loss and reducing land clearance is critical —changes in land use have historically been responsible for over a third of agriculture's GHG emissions.

By maximizing the soil's potential, it is possible not only to meet future global food demand but also to reduce GHG emissions through carbon sequestration and the reduction of land use.

Soils worldwide have nutrient limitations that reduce their potential to deliver increased yields and maximize carbon sequestration. In fact, 46% of soils are limited in phosphorus alone. Rebalancing soil nutrients requires ongoing investment, but not the kind of investment farmers might expect; this investment does not require that they spend significant capital on new infrastructure and technologies. Instead, soil health is improved simply by providing the soil with the nutrients it needs. The first step is often to replace conventional fertilizers with customized blends designed to correct soil nutrient imbalances while encouraging plant growth.

Precision agriculture against climate change

The real prize, though, is in moving to precision agricultural techniques that enable the targeted application of fertilizers with the right nutrients, delivered in the right place at the right time.

Precision agricultural techniques mean farmers can optimize the effectiveness of the nutrients they add to their soils while minimizing waste. Importantly, precision agriculture does not translate into higher costs for farmers. Instead, it provides farmers with an economic incentive to manage the nutrition of their soils more efficiently while maximizing the potential for soil-based carbon sequestration. For example, following extensive soil mapping in Ethiopia, the development of customized fertilizers that matched soil and plant needs enabled farmers to increase their yields by up to 37% at a lower price.

Agriculture is in a unique position. Unlike other industries, it has the potential to mitigate GHG emissions while increasing its output of products, in this case, food. Investing in soil health should be widely embraced as a readily scalable and proven method of reducing global emissions, closing the global yield gap and improving the resilience of agriculture against climate change.

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