GUELPH, ON/ Troy Media/
Each year, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) makes a point to celebrate one aspect of agriculture. Last year was the year of the family farm, which was a sound decision. In developing countries, the acknowledgement of the importance of family enterprises in agriculture was welcome news, as it depends largely on family-owned operations to ensure food security in many parts of the world.
This year, a more undervalued ingredient in the recipe for healthy agriculture will be showcased by the FOA: soils.
This choice is undeniably a stroke of brilliance on behalf of the FOA. Soils are to agriculture what foundations are to buildings. Largely hidden from the public eye, soils in agriculture ensure the health of our entire ecosystem. Even if you don’t care much about agriculture, soils still matter. They honour the ecological footprint of a region by making a significant difference to the flavour of produce (Foodies, take note). The localization of food and the concept of terroir products have a different meaning when considering the power of soils. As a result, raising awareness of the status of soil preservation around the world is significant, and timely.
The FAO has rightly recognized the fact that soils do not have much of a voice. Unlike family farms, or even cooperatives, the United Nation’s agency responsible for hunger alleviation has often focused on issues that are often described as politically charged. Conversations related to soil are rarely contentious, even if injudicious soil preservation practices have led to famines and food crises over the last few centuries. It is not difficult to believe that most consumers have seldom thought of the importance of soils in agriculture when buying food: why should they? For most of us, the connection between poverty alleviation and sustainable development through improved soil management is less than obvious. It seems the FAO this year has opted to galvanize discussions on an arguably lacklustre, and ostensibly non-political, issue. On that basis alone, the FAO should be lauded for its leadership.
Soil sciences in recent years have served us well, but climate change adaptation and mitigation have complicated the issue. One way to offset Mother Nature’s hidden agenda is to better support research in the area. Some studies suggest that the earth is losing 12 million hectares of arable land a year due to climate change. Given that we need to increase agricultural output to make our planet’s food supplies secure, complacency should be our last option. Hopefully, with better science, promoting effective policies and actions for the sustainable management and protection of soil resources will become an achievable goal for many regions around the world.
That said, it is difficult to address the issue without addressing land management. Unlike soils, land grabs are a political, and uncomfortable, issue. As Canadians, it is difficult to appreciate how space can be such a significant challenge in agriculture, but in many parts of the world it is an ongoing and crucial one. Countries cannot create land – at least not yet. Access to sufficient arable land is an imminent problem for many developing nations around the globe. To become more food secure, many countries are leasing and buying land abroad. While debating on whether land grabs by foreign investors are acceptable or not, it is critical we make our land more efficient for our changing needs.
Fundamentally, the human race is running out of new agricultural frontiers, and better science may allow us to make fewer mistakes in our search. The stakes are high, and we should all hope that 2015 will bring good fortune to those called upon to make better policies in soil sustainability.
– Sylvain Charlebois is a professor of food distribution and policy at the University of Guelph in Ontario.