Healthy soils are fundamental to landscape regeneration and sustainable food production.
Soil health refers to the physical, mineral and biological condition of the soil and its potential to sustain biological functioning, absorb water and promote plant and animal nutrition and health. Such resilient soils are better able to retain function during, and recover after, stress or disturbance - such as too much or too little rain.
Healthy soil can be achieved through a combination of sound water management and a biodiversity of functional vegetation. Together, supported by the constant flow of solar energy, soil, water and vegetation management are the process drivers to a healthy regenerative landscape.
However, despite good practices of many of our farmers and land managers, our soil health has been depleted. Carbon content is severely reduced, due to a lack of organic matter, and resultant water-holding capacity is poor. Nutrient availability for plants and animals has been compromised by poor soil health and structure and the ever-increasing reliance on chemical inputs.
This then compromises the health and wellbeing of every one of us world-wide.
Our Degraded Landscape
The realities of an increasingly arid and degraded landscape will impact significantly not only on the productivity and viability of agricultural enterprises but also on the health of our environment and the wellbeing of every Australian. Signs of degradation include:
severe salinity and erosion
declining soil health
diminishing river flows
high evaporation rates
decreasing availability of groundwater
rising input costs for fuel and non-organic fertilisers
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that one quarter of the world’s 13 billion hectares of land is degraded.
Regrettably, for the past 10,000 and particularly the past 100 years, we have drastically compromised soil health for yield and profitability, and have:
mined and degraded soils and natural resources from our land and ocean
cleared 75% of the earth’s primary forests and their carbon draw down
depleted over 8 billion hectares of our former deep organic soils
created over 4 billion hectares of man-made deserts
applied ever increasing amounts of chemical fertilizer particularly in monoculture farming enterprises, and
in the process, used 150% of the sustainable resources of the planet.
In addition, water scarcity affects every continent and more than 40% of people on our planet. By 2025, 1 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity. It is alarming to note that most of the world’s great rivers including the Indus, the Ganges, the Euphrates, the Nile, the Rio Grande and the Murray Darling are in poor condition. The North China plain is running out of water, as is Lake Chad and the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. Critical aquifer irrigation resources in India, the Middle East and in South Western USA are being depleted. And 3 billion people globally have no running water within a kilometre of their homes.
The ramifications of population pressure, dwindling food resources and rising prices have been the trigger for 60% of all conflicts worldwide over the last 18 years.
Watch the animation produced for the first Global Soil Week in 2012 highlighting our dependence on soil and our need to protect it:
In the face of this, it is becoming clear that globally we face a very serious problem: how do we almost double the globe’s sustainable food production by 2050 to meet a projected population increase to around 9 billion? The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates an increase in food demand by 70% in 2050 with 220,000 new mouths to feed every day.
How do we meet this challenge:
when there will be less available agricultural land?
where soils are likely to be increasingly degraded?
where there will be substantially less water?
where farming input costs will be higher?
where R & D funds are likely to be inadequate?
where the effect of climate change will increasingly impact?
Restoring the earths’ natural biosystem is fundamental to our future. Only this will enable us to provide sufficient food, fibre and water for a growing population.
Even in Australia, notwithstanding some fortuitous rainfall events, actions of innovative farmers and some good science, we are facing the reality of climate extremes and interrelated challenges including:
an increasingly arid landscape - particularly in the southern half of the continent, where much of our farming land is degraded
more salinity and erosion - in WA, salinity has been spreading at the rate of about a football ground per hour
increased erosion – over 1 million kilometres of Australia’s rivers have been incised
more erratic and unreliable rainfall, excessive evaporation, diminishing river flows and decreasing dam storage
longer drought - and consequently more bushfires
more severe storms, cyclones and flooding
population growth with more demand on resources and the need for more food production
higher farming input costs
...and a changing climate full of contrasts:
Australia needs to redesign itself to ensure resilience of our agriculture system and the ecosystem on which it depends.
Read about how Soils for Life is seeking to address these national and global challenges.