By Judith D. Schwartz, Author, Chelsea Green Publishing
This post is part of a series produced by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, marking the occasion of its fifth Global Food Security Symposium 2014 in Washington, DC.
Taking on food security amidst the threat of increased climate instability is a formidable task. In food-producing areas around the world the best-laid plans are haunted by the specter of weather abnormalities, notably floods and drought. But once we bring land function—the ability of land to sustain plant and animal life—into the picture, we open up new strategies for building security into the food supply. An emphasis on floods and droughts—whether there’s enough rain or too much all at once—leaves the impression that we’re at the mercy of the elements. By contrast, a focus on land function creates a sense of agency: specifically, it draws our attention to the many ways we can enhance soil’s ability to retain water, organic matter, and microbial life, thereby offering resilience in the face of flooding and dry skies.
Though largely invisible to the general U.S. public, land degradation due to human impact is a huge problem across the globe. According to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), each year upwards of twelve million hectares (thirty million acres) of productive land is lost to desertification; this means an area the size of South Africa is slipping away every decade. Some 1.5 billion people, primarily in dryland regions, depend for their food and livelihoods on land categorized as degraded. What’s important to keep in mind about desertification, and, more generally, land degradation, is that it’s not something that simply “happens”; rather, it’s caused by such actions as overcultivation, deforestation, poor irrigation design, poor livestock management, and the use of technology ill-suited to the landscape.
Many of the problems we attribute to climate change are in fact the direct result of land degradation. Exposed soil loses carbon. Low-carbon soil retains less water, so rainfall evaporates or streams away. Without moisture, the ground becomes a hot plate and microorganisms die. This dynamic sets up the scenario for flooding (when rains arrive) or drought (when it doesn’t), the type of situation that’s led to famine in, say, the Horn of Africa, widespread food insecurity, and global financial losses in the tens of billions of dollars. Functioning land has soil carbon, plant cover, and the capacity to hold moisture. In the event of heavy rain, water is absorbed by soil and filters into aquifers; with more moisture in the “bank,” such land can support plant and microbial life if rain is sparse.
An appreciation of land function sheds new light on approaches to bolster food security. For example, the best genetics in the world won’t increase yields if one attempts to grow crops on depleted soil. While heavy nitrogen fertilizer can temporarily mask soil depletion, it ultimately alters the soil’s microbial balance and pH in a way that reduces fertility—leaving farmers on a costly and counterproductive agro-chemical treadmill.
The stresses to food security are daunting, and the prospect of changing weather patterns adds to the collective alarm. However, there is good news: a shift toward considering land function introduces proven restorative practices that boost resilience to weather extremes while minimizing the cost of inputs. It’s simply a matter of starting with the soil.