It is estimated that 95% of our food is directly or indirectly produced on our soils.
Healthy soils are the foundation of the food system. Our soils are the basis for agriculture and the medium in which nearly all food-producing plants grow. Healthy soils produce healthy crops that in turn nourish people and animals. Indeed, soil quality is directly linked to food quality and quantity.
Soils supply the essential nutrients, water, oxygen and root support that our food-producing plants need to grow and flourish. They also serve as a buffer to protect delicate plant roots from drastic fluctuations in temperature.
A healthy soil is a living soil
A healthy soil is a living, dynamic ecosystem, teeming with microscopic and larger organisms that perform many vital functions including converting dead and decaying matter as well as minerals to plant nutrients (nutrient cycling); controlling plant disease, insect and weed pests; improving soil structure with positive effects for soil water and nutrient holding capacity, and ultimately improving crop production. A healthy soil also contributes to mitigating climate change by maintaining or increasing its carbon content.
Why is soil organic matter so important?
Soil organic matter – the product of on-site biological decomposition – affects the chemical and physical properties of the soil and its overall health. Its composition and breakdown rate affect: the soil structure and porosity; the water infiltration rate and moisture holding capacity of soils; the diversity and biological activity of soil organisms; and plant nutrient availability.
Nutrient exchanges between organic matter, water and soil are essential to soil fertility and need to be maintained for sustainable production purposes. When the soil is exploited for crop production without restoring the organic matter and nutrient contents,the nutrient cycles are broken, soil fertility declines and the balance in the agro-ecosystem is destroyed.
Soils are a crucial ally to food security and nutrition
Food availability relies on soils: nutritious and good quality food and animal fodder can only be produced if our soils are healthy living soils. Over the last 50 years, advances in agricultural technology and increased demand due to a growing population have put our soils under increasing pressure. In many countries, intensive crop production has depleted the soil, jeopardizing the soils productive capacity and ability to meet the needs of future generations.
Maintaining a healthy soil implies managing the land sustainably
With a global population that is projected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, compounded by competition for land and water resources and the impact of climate change, our current and future food security hinges on our ability to increase yields and food quality using the soils that are already under production today.
Holistic production management systems that promote and enhance agro-ecosystem health that are socially, ecologically and economically sustainable are necessary in order to protect our soils while maintaining high productive capacities.
Farmers play a central role in this aspect. Numerous and diverse farming approaches promote the sustainable management of soils with the goal of improving productivity, for instance: agroecology, conservation agriculture, organic farming, zero tillage farming and agroforestry.
Ultimately, a better understanding of the linkages between soil life and ecosystem function and the impact of human interventions will enable the reduction of negative impacts and allow to capture the benefits of soil biological activity more effectively for a more sustainable and productive agriculture.
A number of FAO projects in the area of sustainable land management and soil conservation are currently underway around the world. These include, promoting conservation agriculture in Lesotho, strengthening capacity for sustainable organic farming in Palau and growing poplars for food security in China.
Publication: The importance of soil organic matter