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Dirt Poor: is the world losing its soil?

09 Feb 2016

Dirt Poor: is the world losing its soil?

Each year the world loses over 80 billion tons of topsoil – the soil we need to grow our food. Reasons include the natural forces of wind and water – but more definitively human development encompassing deforestation, overexploitation for fuel wood, overgrazing, agricultural activities, and industrialization. Conventional agricultural methods see topsoil lost through water run-off, a decline in degraded organic material, and diminishing polysaccharides – the ‘glue’ which keeps soil in place.

Considering that we have been churning up the earth since Neolithic times, its not surprising that this precious commodity is taking a hammering. Add the volume of a burgeoning human population and the need for faster food production, its understandable that much of our arable land is becoming worn out. The year 2015 was declared the International Year of Soils by The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, to raise awareness of the continuing loss of this vital resource.

Despite what you may think, soil is not a renewable entity. It takes around 500 years for nature to produce an inch of topsoil. Last century’s farming techniques increased erosion more than ten times faster than the rate of nature. As the pace of farming continues, there is continual decline in the general health of soil. As contamination increases, crop yields fall, and human health declines.

In South Asia alone, the value of lost soil nutrition amounts to some $10 billion a year. It is estimated that the desertification of Sub-Saharan Africa will force millions of people from their homes in the next 30 years. So clearly the world is losing its soil – yet farmers are expected to produce at least 20% more food to feed the estimated 9 billion people that will inhabit the earth by 2050.

Are we facing a global crisis? Well, we could be if some very clever science wasn’t at work trying to save our soil by innovatively re-inventing farming techniques for the future.       

How do we  produce more food with fewer resources?

How much land do we need to feed all the people on the planet? How can we grow more food in smaller places without destroying the natural resources? How can we produce more food with diminishing resources such as water and topsoil? These are our pressing questions – and some of the answers reach back to the beginning of life on Earth.

Microbes

“Producing more food with fewer resources may seem too good to be true, but the world’s farmers have trillions of potential partners that can help achieve that ambitious goal. Those partners are microbes.” ~ The American Society of Microbiologists.

Bacteria, fungi, nematodes and even viruses, form mutually beneficial engagements with food plants. These microbes improve the plant’s ability to absorb nutrients and resist the such dangers as disease, heat, salinity in the soil, pests, drought and temperature fluctuations. They can even improve the flavours of food!  

Once a seed germinates this sends a signal to the soil and activates the bacteria which then enters the tissues of the plant, exchanging genetic information, growing colonies and assisting their host plant to grow in an enriched soil. The Rhizobia bacteria is a key ingredient to improving soil fertility and has long been used in sustainable agriculture.

However, modern microbiology has discovered literally armies of equally valuable microbes that can be used to impact positively on food production as the planet hurtles to that disconcerting figure of 9 billion people. Informing and educating farmers on the value of these bacteria – and how to harness them – will be a key focus of the next few years.

Hydroponic Farms

Hydroponics

How about growing plants without any soil at all? In fact, entirely above ground? Hydroponics are becoming an increasingly canny way to extract food from water scarce, soil depleted and space compromised areas. And it’s not a new idea. The discovery that plants don’t necessarily need the soil to grow but rather a watery slurry of carefully added and balanced mineral nutrients, is literally hundreds of years old. Here are the amazing benefits of the hydroponic method:

  • Mineral nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium – can be added to any watery supply and used to grow just about any plant.
  • Hydroponic farms use networks of plastic pipes with holes for plants; minerals are supplied in a watery solution to the plants’ root systems.
  • The food plants suitable to this compact system include: artichokes, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, beets, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and peas.
  • A more supportive system for the plant may be to run the solution through non-soil material such as gravel, coconut husks or even shredded paper.
  • Hydroponic plants tend to grow well and produce high yields.
  • The method allows plant roots to have a constant supply of oxygen.
  • Grown this way, plants have as little or as much access to water as they need.  
  • Water in hydroponic systems is also reused constantly, thereby lowering water costs.
  • Hydroponic farms can be set up indoors, growing fresh food year round. 
  • Plants can also be grown in a ‘stack’ formation, making use of smaller spaces.

Drip Irrigation

The water saving capacity of drip irrigation is not its only benefit – its contribution in the sphere of soil protection is considerable: 

  • Run-off is eliminated and there is no loss of soil with wasted water. 
  • There is a constant presence of water in the soil, helping to prevent erosion. 
  • Direct application to the roots means drip irrigation can work well where soil has already been compromised, working well in both shallow and marginal soil, and it is effective in most types of soil.  
  • Drip irrigation helps to improve the biological properties of soil, allowing bacteria, fungi and actinomycetes to increase, thus benefitting the roots.  
  • It protects the soil structure and therefore results in increased vegetation with more substantive root growth.   
  • Fertilizer, herbicides, nematicides and insecticides can be easily added to the water drip, enriching the soil and feeding the plant.

Designing the future

At Netafim we know that farmers are constantly asking questions with regard to growing more for less and at higher quality. Our vision is to find solutions through innovation and necessity. We are continually producing new ideas and improved technology to meet the challenges of humanity and food, earth and water. And the more we work with these elements, the more we understand the nature of our planet and our responsibility; the more we make the future possible.  


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