October 16, 2013

Commentary - Climate Resilient Agriculture starts with Soil Protection

This commentary is part of a series organized by The Chicago Council's Global Agricultural Development Initiative and the World Food Prize to examine the relationship between biotechnology, sustainability, and climate volatility in the lead up to this year's Borlaug Dialogue.

By Dr. Rattan Lal
Rattan Lal, Ph.D., is a Distinguished University Professor of Soil Science and Director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center, The Ohio State University, and an Adjunct Professor of University of Iceland.

The extreme weather and drought the U.S. has experienced in 2012-13 may become a new norm and the impacts of global climate change will be even more severe in certain regions, known as global hotspots, in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and South America. These regions are already prone to declining agronomic yields and increased food insecurity due to the adverse effects of climate change.

The international community is now experiencing the effects of greenhouse gases trapped in the atmosphere. Between 1800 and 2013, the atmospheric concentrations of CO2 increased by 43 percent.  This rapid increase is mainly attributed to the depletion of ecosystem carbon pools through common practices of the industrialized world, such as land use conversion, agricultural activities, fossil fuel combustion, and cement production. Agricultural activities in particular have been a predominant source of greenhouse gases (GHGs) through the human history. And more CO2 was emitted from agricultural activities than fossil fuel combustion prior to the 1940s.

By 2050, global population is projected to surpass 9 billion people and, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, agricultural productivity needs to increase by 60 percent to meet the future challenges. Faced with widespread soil degradation, dwindling fresh water resources, and extreme weather-related catastrophe, the prudent strategy is to adopt agricultural systems with built-in resilience against drought and other extreme climate events.

Climate-resilient agriculture is integral to any strategy of adapting to and mitigation the potentially catastrophic effects that climate change may have on the world’s agricultural production and global food security. And one of the focus areas should be on soil organic carbon (SOC) levels.

Soil organic carbon (SOC) is the carbon stored within soil, and it plays a vital role in the health and productivity of the soil. Typically Agro-ecosystems are depleted of their SOC by 25 to 30 percent in well-managed soils and by 70 to 80 percent in poorly managed soils. The critical SOC concentration in the surface 8-inch layer (20-cm depth) is about 1.5-2.0 percent.  Many smallholder farmers are already grappling with current levels at 0.1 percent or less in well-known hotspot areas. Such soils already have low adaptability against severe droughts because crops don’t always have sufficient water storage capacity coupled with shallow rooting depths. In such systems, soils with depleted SOC, may only be cultivated with minimal inputs. As a result, the soil can only produce small yields.  In contrast, sustainably managed soils can be a major sink of atmospheric CO2, produce high agronomic yields, and support growth and development of a farmer, and the community. 

Sustainably managed soils can increase food security by producing greater yields on less land, with less water, and less energy.  At the same time by maintaining SOC concentration in the soil, such a system will be able to effectively adapt to global climate change.

In addition to maintaining SOC concentrations, some other climate-strategic adaptive approaches include:

  • Preserving forests, savannas, prairies, and wetlands;
  • Restoring degraded soils, agriculturally marginal lands, and wetlands;
  • Recarbonizing the biosphere by sequestering C in soils and forests; and
  • Adopting “sustainable intensification” on agricultural lands through producing more from less land area, low consumption of water and fertilizers, less input of energy, decreased emission of CO2 and other GHGs, and narrowing the large agronomic yield gap.
  • Using site-specific soil and water management practices for sustainable intensification such as conservation tillage, complex cropping systems including cover crops and agroforestry, integration of crops and livestock, integrated nutrient management combining organic manures and biological nitrogen fixation along with mycorrhizal associations and inorganic fertilizers, managing soil biota to enhance  disease – suppressive attributes, precision farming, water harvesting and recycling using micro irrigation etc.

Adoption of climate-resilient agriculture would be a major paradigm shift. Producing more crops and livestock per unit input of land, water, and energy in an ever-changing and variable climate, however is the key strategy to sustainably manage the food-climate-soil nexus and ensuring positive developments in global food security in the face of potentially catastrophic decline in agricultural productivity. 


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


1,000 Days Blog, 1,000 Days

Africa Can End Poverty, World Bank

Agrilinks Blog

Bread Blog, Bread for the World

Can We Feed the World Blog, Agriculture for Impact

Concern Blogs, Concern Worldwide

Institute Insights, Bread for the World Institute

End Poverty in South Asia, World Bank

Global Development Blog, Center for Global Development

The Global Food Banking Network

Harvest 2050, Global Harvest Initiative

The Hunger and Undernutrition Blog, Humanitas Global Development

International Food Policy Research Institute News, IFPRI

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Blog, CIMMYT

ONE Blog, ONE Campaign

One Acre Fund Blog, One Acre Fund

Overseas Development Institute Blog, Overseas Development Institute

Oxfam America Blog, Oxfam America

Preventing Postharvest Loss, ADM Institute

Sense & Sustainability Blog, Sense & Sustainability

WFP USA Blog, World Food Program USA


Commentary - Is Feed the Future delivering results? Yes – with some limitations.

Robai Nyongesa, a smallholder farmer in western Kenya, used to struggle to grow enough maize to feed her family. Last year, she was able to harvest 20 bags of maize from 1 acre of land, a fivefold increase over her previous poor harvests. Her large harvest enabled her to feed her three children, and to hire a tutor to give her children private lessons at home.

Photo of the Week

Farmers of the Faulu group in Bungoma South, Kenya, stand proudly in front of Beatrice Masila’s sorghum that has now grown taller than they are!

Call for Innovators: Bridging Dairy Data Gaps

Dairy, especially milk, can play an important role in providing essential nutrients to a woman of child-bearing age, a gestating or lactating mother, and children.

Commentary - Building a More Nutritious Future for All

A silent crisis is happening right now. It affects 165 million children globally, robbing them of the future they deserve and leading to more child deaths every year than any other disease. In a world of plentiful, nutritious foods and advanced science, this is unacceptable.

Commentary - Nourishing a Stronger Future

With less than two years until the end of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the health and development communities are looking back at what has been accomplished, and looking ahead to where we have opportunities to do more.

Commentary - Solvable problem

Whenever I have the privilege of spending time among the people that the World Food Programme (WFP) serves, I come away enriched with precious extra knowledge and inspired by the new ways in which governments are tackling the world’s greatest solvable problem – hunger.

The Chicago Council’s #GlobalAg summit in one word? Innovation.

With an introductory message from USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah and keynote remarks from Helene Gayle, CEO of CARE; Lauren Bush Lauren, founder of FEED; and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, this year’s event was global agriculture’s version of the Oscars.

Commentary - Food Aid Reform: Making Every Dollar Count

Today, almost 1 billion people are hungry. By 2050, world population will top 9 billion, only increasing the demand for food, fuel, and natural resources and straining our ability – and the planet’s ability – to feed and nourish all.   

How the U.S. Can Lead on Food Security

Our national discourse is driven by a few topical issues with the occasional political scandal sprinkled in. With the economic recovery, immigration reform and the IRS controversy dominating today’s conversation, it’s no surprise that a monumental issue like food security gets lost in the shuffle.