Is soil our secret weapon against climate change?

Is soil our secret weapon against climate change?

The Huffington Post

Marco Marzano de Marinis

November 11, 2016

What if one of the planet’s secret weapons in the fight against climate change was all around us?

What if every country had it in abundance, and it could also be used at the same time to give a better life to those most in need?

Too good to be true?

Most of us might guess that the answer lies in clean energy, car-pooling or ramping up recycling only – but then you would be missing a big opportunity that’s literally right under our feet: soil.

With COP22 under way after entry into force of the Paris climate deal last Friday, focusing on soil could help us move from having a clear target to making actionable progress for the development of a sustainable agricultural sector, worldwide.

The intersection between climate change and agriculture is crucial to understanding the key role farmers play in mitigating climate change.

Soil is one of a farmer’s greatest assets. It is a critical component of the farming system, making a vital contribution to food security, effective water and energy utilization. An efficient use of soil can deliver multiple benefits in addition to mitigating climate change effects.

Some estimates suggest soil can store up to 1,000 kgs of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide per hectare of land. In a process known as carbon sequestration, plants “breathe” in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), and store it via their roots in the ground, as soil organic carbon. This game-changing approach could offset up to 15% of global fossil-fuel emissions, complementing crucial efforts to decarbonise the energy and transport sectors.

And it’s not just carbon sequestration that makes soil such an important ally in the fight against climate change.

Healthy soils are the basis of more productive food and agricultural systems, which are needed to meet the increasing demand for food from a growing world population, and to boost world food security and nutrition. High priority must be given to producing more sustainable and high quality food, fostering efficiency, and ensuring farmer gains, as well as strengthening economic growth, particularly in rural and remote areas. These are the critical catalysers to tackling climate change while achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

So it is clear that by keeping our soils healthy, we’ll be play our part in combatting global warming while scaling-up healthier food systems and nutrition for all.

The bad news is, it is estimated that around a third of all soils are currently degraded due to issues like erosion, nutrient depletion, acidification and pollution. That is why improving soil health is a key component of a new strategy dubbed “climate-smart agriculture”.

Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA) aims to achieve three main objectives: 1) sustainably increasing agricultural yields and incomes, 2) adapting agricultural practices to be more climate-resilient and 3) reducing or removing greenhouse gases, wherever possible. These three objectives would lead to the triple win of improving food security and people’s livelihoods while also minimising the amount of greenhouse gas released.

Agricultural tools, such as organic and mineral fertilizers, play an important role in achieving CSA’s triple win. By increasing agricultural productivity, they can boost food security. When applied efficiently and effectively, they can help farmers mitigate climate change. Fertilizers themselves do have their own carbon footprint (roughly 2.5% of global GHG emissions) and though it is expensive to reduce associated industrial emissions, there are great opportunities to manage this and lower the sector’s carbon footprint.

Meanwhile, on the farm, we need to continue to build farmers’ capacity, focusing on sustainable soil and micronutrients best management practices to ensure that their application is as efficient as possible. For example, farmers in the United States now have GPS technology built into their tractors that can calculate the exact needs of the soil. Armed with this information, a farmer can apply exactly the right type of fertilizer, in exactly the right quantity and reduce excess getting lost to the environment. This is known as the 4Rs of nutrient stewardship.

Increasing investment in research and innovation programmes (R&D) and in soils information systems are critical factors for enhancing the mitigation potential of the whole agricultural sector. In this regard, young farmers in particular need proper access to education and information to become innovation-ready for maximizing good soil management ensuring better land use.

Applying organic sources of nutrients such as animal manure and crop residues is also key. While mineral fertilizers provide high amounts of nutrients that plants need in order to grow strong, organic resources contain organic carbon, which is also essential for healthy soil. So applying both of these types of nutrients together provides optimal results. This approach is known as Integrated Soil Fertility Management.

And it doesn’t end there. A concerted effort to restore the world’s degraded soils to a healthier state will have a profound impact on the world’s poorest people. Small-scale farmers in developing countries, who struggle to grow enough food for their family are often found in areas of low soil fertility.

In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, as much as 65% of arable land is estimated to be degraded. It is no coincidence that fertilizer use is around one-tenth the global average in this region. Access to appropriate fertilizers for these farmers is going a long way to boost yields. In Ethiopia, for example, a first-of-its-kind digital soil map has revealed which soils are deficient in which nutrients region by region. Locally-blended fertilizers that are tailored to these needs are now available, and farmers are harvesting as much as 65% more, as a result.

The Paris climate Agreement is a landmark achievement. But we must swiftly move from pledges to progress. Prioritising soil health will pay off big in the fight against climate change – so let’s not ignore what is right underfoot.

Marco Marzano de Marinis is Secretary General of the World Farmers’ Organisation (WFO)

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, in conjunction with the U.N.’s 22nd Conference of the Parties(COP22) in Morocco (Nov. 7-18), aka the climate-change conference. The series will put a spotlight on climate-change issues and the conference itself. To view the entire series, visit here.

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