By Carlos Vicente Alberto
Sustainability Lead, Europe & Middle East
In 1985, during my final project at the School of Agricultural Engineers in Madrid, I embarked on something that may still seem strange to those unfamiliar with agriculture: growing plants without soil. The idea was to design a farm producing chicory using hydroponics, something that my classmates found novel at the time.
Hydroponics research was no gimmick – multiple crops can be grown this way today. But the fact remains: we need high-quality soil to grow the vast majority of our food, and we need to protect and conserve this natural resource as we look to extend access to balanced meals to our growing population.
Erosion is the enemy of good soil health. As topsoil is eroded, it loses its ability to retain water, oxygen and nutrients for crops, and we run the risks of reduced harvests and diminished water quality. One need only recall the “Dust Bowl” in the United States during the 1930s to get a picture of what that might mean.
Although there are no reliable estimates of the amount of land, on a global scale, that needs to be replaced every year, estimates talk of 2 to 5 million hectares (or 5 to 12.5 million acres) that are lost to soil erosion every year and an additional 3 million hectares (7.5 million acres) that are lost every year as the result of severe soil degradation.
Conservation International sums up the situation in this powerful video featuring actor Edward Norton.
We need to protect the soil to protect our access to balanced meals, and our quality of life. Sustainable farming is an important part of the answer. A major way that farmers are reducing erosion is through a practice called conservation agriculture. Through modern farming practices, farmers are able to dramatically reduce – or completely eliminate – the tilling (plowing) before planting new crops. Less tilling, or no tilling at all, means that less topsoil is lost to water and wind erosion.
A recent study, The Importance of Conservation Tillage as a Contribution to Sustainable Agriculture: A Special Case of Soil Erosion”, conducted by the Institut für Agribusiness in Germany, has shown several benefits of sustainable farming and conservation tilling, including:
- Conservation tillage reduces soil erosion by more than 50 percent.
- It enhances soil biodiversity through a higher abundance of earthworms.
- It increases soil organic carbon by about 30 percent.
- It reduces greenhouse gas emissions between 4 and 11 percent.
- Diesel consumption is reduced by 30 percent and labor by 25 percent.
- Conservation tillage has no adverse impact on crop harvests, but reduces farming production costs by more than 20 percent.
We face significant challenges to save the soil that helps us to produce the food we need to nourish a growing population. But through collaborative advances in farming, we have new tools, including conservation agriculture, which help us meet those challenges in a sustainable manner.