An international soil scientist is calling on the Government to focus attention on soil quality, which he described as the most important issue facing the world.
In a joint press statement Dr John Baker said soil quality is being ignored while the issues of global warming and water and air quality are frequently debated.
Ninety percent of our food comes from annually-sown crops growing in soil, he said, and in the next 20-30 years nations have to find a way of producing more food from the same amount of soil.
“Soil feeds us. It’s as simple as that,” Dr Baker says. “Yet we are pre-occupied with climate change while people are going hungry and we haven’t addressed the urgent need to feed another 50 percent of our population by 2050.
“The government and its ministries can provide leadership on this by recognising how we’ve been raping our soils for years and introduce measures to restore the essential nutrients.”
This message is being conveyed to the annual Cross Slot Conference in the American State of North Dakota this month and then to a seminar in England by Bill Ritchie, the General Manager of Baker No-Tillage.
The conference is being attended by up to 50 delegates from six countries. The line-up of speakers includes the Agriculture Commissioner for North Dakota, Doug Goehring.
Dr Baker says for generations the world has been stripping the soil of carbon and organic matter and giving nothing back.
“Every time we cultivate the soil we oxidise some of its carbon and discharge it into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. We have never made a serious attempt to replace this soil carbon that we’ve removed,” he warns.
“This source of carbon dioxide contributes up to 20 percent of the total carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere each year. Politicians get on the global warming bandwagon but never address one of the main causes that can be reversed.”
Dr Baker explains that carbon dioxide can’t be seen because it’s a colourless, odourless gas. People can see plenty of dust during ploughing and presume it will settle somewhere in time. But amongst the dust is carbon dioxide that disappears into the atmosphere unnoticed he says.
“The end result is that the organic matter and carbon levels in all of the world’s arable soils have declined cumulatively over the long period that’s elapsed since man began tilling the soil,” he comments.
“Most of the world’s arable soils that, may have had 6-16 percent of organic matter before ploughing, now have 0-1 percent as a result of tillage operations.
“That low level of organic matter won’t support the soil biology which lives on organic matter.”
Microbes and other soil organisms, such as earthworms, teem in healthy soil. Microbes hold the soil particles together and stop it eroding through the exudates they secrete.
They all play a significant part in maintaining healthy soil but are being destroyed.
The key question is whether the cumulative stripping of soil organic matter can be reversed.
Dr Baker acknowledges that spreading lots of organic manure on the ground certainly helps but says the world’s arable soils are far too extensive for this to be a total solution.
In calling on the Government to focus attention on preserving and restoring the quality of soil, he says scientific research should monitor soils already undergoing true low-disturbance not-tillage regimes – some for more than 10 years – to estimate how long it will take to get the world’s arable soils back into full health and production.