Soil is the foundation of human existence. It provides food, shelter, medicine, clean water and clean air through its function of regulating biological, chemical and physical processes. The concept of soil security is to protect, maintain and enhance the quality, quantity and function of soil ecosystem services from degradation and potential threats.
Climate change may impose such threats to the availability, access and use of soils to sustainably produce abundant and high-quality food and other commodities, as well as ecosystem services. The enormous threat to soil security posed by climate change heightens the urgency to protect this vital resource we depend on for food to feed humanity. The link between soil security and food security has been demonstrated in many parts of the world, with soil degradation leading to a dramatic decline in food availability and, with the population set to increase to 10 billion by 2050, providing warning signs of future food shortages.
Pillars of Soil and Food Security
Dimensions of soil security proposed by some scientists include, but are not limited to, availability, accessibility, utilization, and stability. These are clearly similar to the dimensions of food security:
- Availability is one of the important pillars of soil security, which refers to soil quality and the spatial distribution of certain soil types.
- Accessibility involves the conditions or mechanisms by which land users negotiate and acquire title to occupy and use a particular soil.
- Utilization concerns the use or purpose of a given soil, and the ability to manage and generate optimal private and public goods and benefits from the soil.
- Stability refers to the governance and mechanisms or methods that guarantee and improve the first three dimensions.
These dimensions and their interactions can have major implications for soil sustainability and food security. Soil security is amply affirmed in the many policy frameworks articulated in President FD Roosevelt’s letter to all state governors regarding the Uniform Soil Protection Act, “A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”
The severity of threats to natural resources, including soils, needs to be closely linked to national security and the development of policies to safeguard other physical needs related to the protection of soils, such as food security and social and economic stability. This value framework of soils as a natural resource in need of conservation must remain an existential perspective for policymakers to formulate global and national policies.
The degradation of soil health and productivity over the past few decades has been enormous, millions of acres of land worldwide have lost significant actual and potential productivity, and soils cultivated by small landowners in the tropics and subtropics are severely depleted Soil organic carbon. These soils are highly vulnerable to degradation through erosion, structural damage, loss of biodiversity and overall deterioration in quality.
Under these conditions, crop yields depend on erratic rainfall and have to deal with additional biotic (pests and pathogens) and abiotic (drought, heat) stresses. The effects are more pronounced in less developed countries leading to famine, social chaos, and economic and political chaos. The decline in yields of many crops, such as corn, soybeans, wheat, and others, is largely due to declining soil health due to massive losses of soil organic matter exacerbated by extreme climate events such as drought, heat, and extreme flooding.
The current ongoing drought in many parts of the world highlights even clearer examples of climate extremes and their impact on soil security and food security. Here, in many parts of the U.S., a lot of arable land has been left unused, plus production is down close to 10% to 40% this year.
In California alone, for example, direct agricultural losses from droughts over the past two years have totaled $3 billion, and some 752,000 acres of farmland could fall fallow this year because of water scarcity, reports a new study funded by the California Department of Agriculture. The impacts of climate change on food security stem from impacts on water availability, which lead to yield declines and biomass production as an important mechanism for building soil health and security.
A Vision for Soil and Food Security
The inextricable link between soil security and food security requires a new transformative agricultural system that is resilient enough to overcome climate challenges and restore soil resilience. Such a system is economically and environmentally sound; it can regenerate soil systems and enhance soil functions as an important basis for high-quality and abundant food production.
Widely known as the climate-smart agriculture system, this new system will require a shared commitment from farmers, the agricultural industry and government agencies. A climate-smart agricultural system is an integrated system that combines elements of natural systems necessary to establish soil biodiversity, plant diversity and fauna integration for robust and sustainable food production systems.
These components of such a system could have synergistic effects in addressing climate extremes, enhancing carbon capture from the atmosphere, and subsequently increasing soil carbon sequestration. These are fundamental elements of soil security and food security: developing a sustainable system that balances productivity, socio-economic and environmental outcomes to correct the single-definition, one-dimensional approach of the Agricultural Revolution, which focuses on increasing food production and intensification , allowing environmental and ecosystem services to be set aside.
In order to transform the agricultural system into a more balanced and sustainable system, major agricultural industries need to embrace climate-smart agricultural systems through real contributions to soil and food security, and re-examine agricultural intensification at all costs (soil erosion, greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, etc.).
Al-Kaisi is Professor Emeritus of Soil Physics (Soil Management and Environment) in the Department of Agronomy, Iowa State University, Ames.