Save the Soil to Save the Planet

,

Far from the usual premise of Hollywood’s dystopian future horrors, experts hypothesise that the next central instigator of catastrophic international conflict will be soil. Forget the zombie virus outbreak, what may be able to bring humanity to its knees will be far less fantastical.

The nutritional health of soil, and its ability to yield basic crops such as wheat, corn and lettuce, will arguably be the epicentre of geopolitical strife and violence in the decades to come.

No longer should the image of vaults prized open and the sheen of gold bricks be held. If the dialogue on protecting and enhancing soil health is not heeded and suggestions actioned, it is likely that the humble carrot and tomato will look to the world then, as mesmerising and out of reach as 15 carat diamonds looks to us now.

Image: Major General the Honourable Michael Jeffery

Major General, The Honourable Michael Jeffery has spent a life in service. From serving in our nation’s military, to executing his duties as Australia’s 24th Governor General, General Jeffery has sought to bring about insight and progress. 

He has partnered with ADC in the past across numerous global and national concerns and is no stranger to articulating areas of need and focus. Particularly in the vein of need, General Jeffery addressed The China Academy of Science regarding the topics of agriculture and soil this past July. While these topics may at first glance seem banal, they likely hold the weight of survival for our national and global populations.

GROWTH STARTS SMALL

Growing up in a small town on Australia’s western seaboard, General Jeffery’s early childhood opened his eyes to what soil could do with the proper use of water. His address at the ADC Forum China Mission, while evidenced and reasoned, invokes a particular onus to listen. He has experienced and seen that the planet is in serious trouble. Future food availability is in danger due to the serious damage being done to our soil, water and plant assets. When it comes to the issue of food security and access, the ‘code’ of the issue can only be explained as critical.

 

FEEDING THE TEN BILLION

To contextually understand the scope of food security, it is helpful to understand the statistics. The global population is set to reach 9-10 billion by 2050, an increase of about 3 billion from current day. The vital important of healthy soil and healthy landscapes to produce nutritious food is paramount.  

The concern over soil health is not a new one. General Jeffery draws attention to Franklin Roosevelt’s comments, “The history of every nation is eventually written in the way in which it cares for its soil” and “the nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself.” Jim Yong Kim, the President of the World Bank asked for the world to heed a similar warning, “fights over water and food are going to be the most significant direct impacts of climate change in the next five to 10 years.”

Even this year, Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General noted that issues regarding soil and water will likely contribute to the derailing of global social stability and security. “Food security is under threat around the world…With food insecurity, we must add economic insecurity as scarcities of staple crops cause price surges.”

His Excellency Guterres highlights that access to healthy soil and nutritious crops are already an issue for millions. One third of the world’s population is currently living in countries experiencing water stress, he argues that it water accessibility is reaching the point to be a catalyst for substantial conflict.

A GLOBAL CONTEXT

General Jeffery tells of how the planet is losing soil at a rate of around 1% per year due to erosion, aridification, desertification, urbanisation and other factors. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that every we with every meal consumed, a loss of 5kg of soil is sustained, soil loss is far outstripping natural cycles of soil formation. Compounding this issue is that of the loss of essential soil carbon, aquifers being depleted, river polluted and the grievous impacts of climate change.

General Jeffery explains that it is through the sustained practices of man and landscape that have also lead to the current climate. Nugatory agricultural practices have had exponentially increasing impact on the landscape since man altered from a nomadic lifestyle.

An example of this lies in the region known as the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East. 11,500 years ago farming commenced in this lush region yet deforestation, damming and large scale irrigation has excessive soil erosion, with salinisation turning once productive fields into barren saltpans. In conjunction with aquifers running dry and topsoil erosion, sober implications remain for present and future communities worldwide seeking to manage and derive nutrition from the landscape.

GLOBAL CHALLENGES TO SOIL HEALTH

A key indicator of soil health is its carbon content. General Jeffery explains that with a decrease in organic carbon levels, the soils capacity to hold water is greatly impacted. Additionally a critical issue facing agricultural output is that of water availability. Compounding these issues are further factors. Supplies for agricultural production and drinking are plummeting with aquifers in India, China, Sub Saharan Africa, the Middle East and California severely depleted as well as record low groundwater levels.

At a macro level, General Jeffery highlights that the future of soil health and food production will be significantly challenged by many of the major global rivers being dammed or polluted. Elemental effects of climate change are also causing serious impacts on agricultural production. It is in comprehending the nuances of soil composition and health that answers may be found. General Jeffery speaks of the fact that soil contains twice as much carbon as the atmosphere and can be better used to draw down carbon dioxide from the air through photosynthesis.

POSITIVE POLICY

At a aggregate and micro level positive moves are being made. Recently the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), including Australia and China, endorsed the World Soil Charter comprising of 9 actions. Pertinent to soil health the following two are list:

“Promote sustainable soil management that is relevant to the range of soils present and the needs of the country.”

“Incorporate the principles and practices of sustainable soil management into policy guidelines and legislation at all levels of government ideally leading to the development of a National Soil Policy.”

Yet in seeking to address global concerns regarding soil health and sustainable food production, there is no better place to start than one’s own backyard.

AUSTRALIA’S SOIL SITUATION

Australia’s situation lies within the parameters of an agricultural landscape constituting 60% of the continent with millions of square km to contend with.

While many are pursuing positive practices there are significant land management problems within Australia. General Jeffery highlights that soil loss, wasteful water evaporation, over reliance on chemicals, loss of nutrients, erosion, salinity levels are all substantial issues that need to be tackled. These factors degrading soil quality are likely faced by countries globally, hence solutions to them will yield ubiquitous progress. For example, salinity problems have been overcome through the planting of perennial grasses, shrubs and trees.

THREE PRONGED APPROACH

It is to the strategic approach of answers and collaboration that General Jeffery turns. Through a three pronged strategy, he provides an avenue to positive results in the regeneration of the agricultural landscape and importantly, methodologies that the rest of the world can adopt.

Part of the answer, ironically, lies in the size of the problem. He highlights that issues of soil and food are global ones, affecting us all. There are issues that must be tackled by all. Countries have the opportunity to share success stories, knowledge and expertise, creating far reaching change.

Secondly, to engage in the effort of ‘Fixing Farm Soils’ would mean collating regenerative soil, water and plant management practices. To listen to farmers that are already on the journey to restoring soil health in conjunction with achieving economic productivity, environment and social benefits.

Thirdly, it is to the development, adoption and honouring of a national policy that local and national governments in Australia need to look. The aim within the policy, General Jeffery asserts is “to restoring and maintaining the health of the Australian agricultural landscape.

Pivotal to the executing of the policy ethos is in-depth comprehension of what constitutes health soil. General Jeffery explains that soil components such a microbial, fungal, mineral, water (hydrology) and plant content must be integrated as a whole. If all these elements are addressed, then soil health can be slowly restored. Imperative to the process is the conducting of good measurement systems, in conjunction with good science and long term processes.

General Jeffery explains that through Soils For Life, a not-for-profit organisation, wheels have been set in motion for urgent change to restore degenerated soil. Particular efforts have been prioritise, to safeguard sustainable food production and water availability for future generations and ensure improved social, economic and environmental outcomes for farmers, nations and the planet.

THE IMPORTANCE OF CASE STUDIES

As part of their efforts, Soils For Life is following 30 leading practice agricultural field studies and a proven mentoring program, set to expand to over 100 sites in 2 – 3 years. Their objectives include developing long term soil, water and agricultural research bases, while measuring performance outcomes so as to make these available to a wider farmer collective. Indeed to a greater soil science community, including government and public/private sectors.

General Jeffery advocates a key component of the strategic approach should be in facilitating farmer to farmer mentoring and an awareness of what farmers contribute to global wellbeing.

SUCCESS CASE STUDIES

Through an analysis of the case studies, General Jeffery highlights that encouraging successes can be examined and repeated. From semi-arid non-productive sand to good soil, a farmer has been producing highly nutritious grain and high quality wool fibre as well as building resilience into the land and increasing stock levels.

Common themes are vital to the discourse and actioning of soil management. Integrating the management of soil, water and plant assets must be done together as well as in collaboration and sharing, between farmers, between organisations and governments.

NATIONAL DIRECTION AND AGREEMENT

General Jeffery endorses a common national soil policy, in the effort to ‘fixing the policy’. He argues that in order for regeneration of agricultural landscapes to occur, there is a need of national agreement on aims and objectives. He proffers that the unanimous aim should be “To restore and maintain the health of the agricultural landscape by integrating the management of soil, water and vegetation assets.” The benefits yielded will be cross-spectral, landholder, country and global community. Governments need to agree and declare key national and natural strategic assets of soil, water and vegetation and their integrated management across ministerial portfolios. The hand of collaboration must be extended between agricultural and environment ministries, trade, regional development, defence, the private sector and the larger community.

JOINING THE URBAN AND RURAL

Bolstering the structure of the policy should be certain key components. General Jeffery advocates that the recognition of farmers and the reconnection of urban and rural communities is a necessary and immediate goal. There needs to be a stocktake of knowledge and regulation. Who knows what? What is it that we don’t know? Where must information be transferred? In order to encourage the often gruelling task of stewarding the landscape, farmers need to be publicly recognised and rewarded for good practices and paid fair price for products.

General Jeffery highlights the disjuncture of knowledge between urban and rural dwellers. In order for the future flourishing of the planet, city dwellers need to understand where their food originates and the importance of healthy soil and landscape to their survival. Additionally an awareness of the significant contribution farmers have to the process of food is a great opportunity to facilitate knowledge, empathy and care towards the soil and food production.

Soil For Life promotes the establishment of school gardens in primary and junior schools, in collaboration with rich resources and syllabus’, so that teachers and students alike may grow in their understanding of natural growth. General Jeffery argues that it is through the next generation learning about soil, its vital components, the importance of water and the need for diverse vegetation that significant strides can be made for global safety and progress.

HONESTY, KNOWLEDGE DEFICIT AND PROGRESS

Policy must be ingrained in the soil, there must a close examination of the knowledge base surrounding soil, water and agriculture with an honest appraisal of scientific shortfalls and a refocus of research priorities. In order for strides to be made in the right direction, we must acknowledge where we have failed or are struggling in the present. Broad acre soil carbon management and the reduction of evaporation/runoff are key areas General Jeffery believes we can start.

STRATEGIC APPROACHES

General Jeffery advocates that in order to move forward as a united front, on an issue that will affect every single life of earth the following measures should be taken:

Under the call to action for the global community:

  1. A) Agreement of national objectives to ‘restore and maintain the health of all agricultural landscapes.
  2. B) Agreement on 3 components of healthy landscape; soil, water and plants as declared key national/global natural strategic assets, to be managed accordingly and in integrated way.
  3. C) Farmers who are caring for large area of our arable land globally are doing so on behalf of city dwellers – they need to be supported, rewarded and recognised as primary carers of planet’s agricultural landscape.
  4. D) A reconnection of urban dwellers with rural roots – i. – educating young through vegetable gardens in primary schools with coordinated syllabus and teacher resources.
  5. E) A stocktake undertaken of our current national knowledge base on soil, water, plants and food nutrition, in order to share that knowledge and define key gaps.
  6. F) Establish 100 leading practice farming case studies (as in Australia) to provide scientific backup underlying successful farming practices.
  7. G) Facilitating a communication mechanism, to disseminate results, solutions, practices – for adoption by all agricultural communities.
  8. H) The consideration of independent national advocates in all countries – to share information, promote the importance of sustainable, regenerative agricultural practices – to have healthy soil for future generations.

General Jeffery argues that healthy soil is vital for sustainable and sustaining life as it impacts all society. He simply states, if you eat, you should be involved. This should matter to you. To save the planet, he calls, we must save the soil.