By Donald R. Marvin
The biggest threat to global food security is not climate change, drought or shortage of farmland. It is the alarmingly poor quality of our agricultural soils.
A May 2015 study led by scientists at the University of California was published in the journal Science. It argues that poor soils will be the greatest single threat to global food security during the next century.
The United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization designated 2015 as the International Year of Soils. It has initiated more than 100 education and advocacy programs about soil health worldwide. Even Pope Francis, in his June 2015 Encyclical on the environment, decried the "sickness" of the world's soils.
It’s time for all farmers worldwide to embrace new practices that reduce soil erosion and revitalize soils depleted by poor farming practices and decades of chemical inputs. To meet the food production challenges ahead, we need a Green Revolution 2.0 that revitalizes the precious land on which crops are grown.
World agriculture's first Green Revolution got rolling in the mid-1940s under the leadership of Norman Borlaug, an American biologist whose work developing new and hearty seed varieties earned him a designation as "the man who saved a billion lives" – not to mention the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
Thanks to the worldwide efforts of Borlaug, the first Green Revolution produced dazzling results: a tripling of yields of some crucial crops, production of more food on less land, vast expanses of woods and rainforests spared from clear-cutting and cultivation, and better nutrition for millions worldwide. The Nobel Committee chose Borlaug because "more than any other single person of this age, he has helped to provide bread for a hungry world."
Just as Borlaug's Green Revolution focused on developing new plant breeds and crop varieties, the Green Revolution 2.0 must focus on a new target: protecting and improving the world's soils.
First, more farmers need to adopt conservation tillage (also known as "no-till farming"). This means allowing plant material – both cover crops and debris from harvested crops – to remain on top of the soil rather than burying it via deep plowing, which dries and erodes the plant material and kills off natural bacterial flora and fungus that help the soil retain moisture.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 62 percent of U.S. cropland is farmed using at least some conservation tillage techniques. Holdout farmers who cling to old, soil-desiccating tilling practices need to be educated and persuaded to change their methods by local farm bureaus, extension services and enlightened fellow farmers.
A second area of great promise for soil health lies in precision agriculture, a fast-growing discipline in which farmers go high-tech, voraciously consuming data about their fields, using data sources as diverse as GPS-equipped combines and visual data from satellites and aerial drones. Early-adopter farmers are already relying on decision-support software that spews out work plans for where and when to plant seeds and apply soil-enhancing amendments. Cool stuff.
A third focus of soil-enhancement innovation is happening in the plant microbiome – a miniature world where millions of microorganisms coexist, with a dizzying variety of shapes, sizes and functions.
By studying the human microbiome, medical researchers are developing new treatments for such human ills as Crohn's disease and diabetes. Likewise, plant researchers are probing into the plant microbiome – also called the phyto-microbiome -- a realm that includes not just microorganisms found in soil, but also those that colonize the roots of the plant and enter plant tissues to form beneficial partnerships.
Healthy soils can contain up to 25,000 species of microorganisms per gram of soil. Depleted soils might contain only one-fifth as many. Soils also need to contain a healthy mixture of microorganisms, including fungi, yeast and bacteria, if they're to produce large crop yields with minimal disease loss.
Plant scientists at places like McGill University, University of California, the National Academy of Sciences and Clemson University are working in concert with private industry to design and conduct experiments applying nutritive microbial solutions to crops.
Even traditional suppliers are investing in development of microbial solutions that could move agriculture into a more sustainable future. In 2013, U.S.-based Monsanto and Denmark-based Novozymes invested $300 million to create a BioAg Alliance, intending to "boost research and commercialization of sustainable microbial technology."
Much of the original Green Revolution focused on adapting plant microbiology to existing soil conditions. In Green Revolution 2.0, agriculture must continue to shift the center of attention to innovations that nurture and enhance the soil itself.
Donald R. Marvin is President and CEO of Inocucor Technologies, Inc., an agriculture biotechnology company based in Montreal, Quebec.
1 "Human security at risk as depletion of soil accelerates, scientists warn," US Berkeley News Center, May 7, 2015. http://news.berkeley.edu/2015/05/07/soil-depletion-human-security/