Global Soil Partnership

Can we ditch intensive farming - and still feed the human race?

Sustainable agricultural solutions to meet food demands  

The media coverage on soil is getting stronger and stronger at global level, and the Guardian, together with other top tier newspapers in the world, covers the topic of soil at relevant time.


On 28 Jan. 2019 an interesting article “Can we ditch intensive farming - and still feed the world?” by Fiona Harvey was published on the Guardian (UK). It investigates on how we can close the gap between production and consumption through innovation, from urban farming to agricultural drones.

With a growing population expected to top 10 billion by 2050 and the need to double food production in the next 30 years, soil degradation is a worldwide problem which endangers human life on Earth. Ninety-five percent of our food comes from soils: conserving and sustainably managing them is critical in successfully feeding the growing population. Along with the findings published in the World Resources Institute Report on Dec. 2018, “compared with 2010, an extra 7,400tn calories will be needed a year in 2050. If food production increases along current lines that would require a landmass twice the area of India” … And, our global soils are in danger as never before.

Intensive farming practices include growing high-yield crops, using fertilizers and pesticides and bringing more land under agricultural production were used as the answer to filling the production gap, but there are unwelcome side effects.

Soil pollution poses at risk agricultural productivity, human health and the health of all organisms on Earth.  Pesticides, which have helped boost cereal and fruit production might “spell the end for many of the earth’s remaining forests, peatlands and wild areas, and release the carbon stored in them”, worsening the effects of climate change. Fertilizers which have enhanced the productivity of many degraded soils have also had unintended harmful consequences. It will suffice to consider the example of the “dead zone” discovered in the Gulf of Mexico in 2018. Chemicals used on agricultural fields affect climate change, through the release of greenhouse gas nitrous oxide, and cause air pollution through ammonia.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, as “the world’s leading body charged with care of our future food supply”, points at organic farming as the most obvious alternative to industrialized intensive farming, Even though, “organic farming often produces less, and more expensive food”. Mr. Rob Percival, head of Policy at the Soil Association, declares that: “organic farming can feed the world”, as the yield of organic agriculture is greater than previously calculated, and that “when the environmental and other damage caused by high energy and chemical inputs in non-organic farming are factored in, organic food is cheaper for society and better for the planet”.

The problem is that, for many small holder farmers, the investment and time needed to meet legal standards may be a serious challenge. Agroecology, as the broad variety of farming techniques that seek to lessen the environmental impact of farming, could be widely adopted as an alternative to industrialized agriculture. For example, sowing crops such as cover to suppress weeds helps return organic matter to the soil, rotating crops, including vegetables such as legumes fixes nitrogen. Improved farming techniques can help increase the food supply and get a higher level of nutrients in the nourishment you produce.

The article cites the Status of the World’s Soil Resources report, from 2015, by the ITPS, which states that at least a third of global soil resources are degraded or highly degraded. Side boxes dedicated to crucial data on global soils, focuses on the work done by FAO and the way to sustainably run soils. The principles of permaculture, biodynamics and paludiculture to manage peatlands require close attention to the soil itself and the crops, as well as the new horizons disclosed by urban farming. 

It further discusses the false myth of industrial farms, which was said to produce most of global’s food. Recent estimates contribute to shape a different picture:  With more than 570m farms worldwide; 90% of which run by an individual or family, which produce about 80% of the world’s food. So, small farmers seems to be key to the transition, says Ronald Vargas, Soil and Land officer at the FAO and Global Soil Partnership Secretary. Many small farmers are poor and insecure, but FAO considers investment in smallholder production “the most urgent and secure and promising means of combating hunger and malnutrition, while minimizing the ecological impact of agriculture”.

The article goes ahead mentioning innovation and tech that could help improve efficiencies and yields – on both sides, industrial farms and smallholdings: “GPS, drones and fine-grained data on topography, soils and other aspects of farmland to allow farmers to target specific areas with fertilisers, pesticides and water, instead of blanket spraying”, but also real-time monitoring over plantations, mobile phone revolution, vertical farming and hydroponics. “Industrial agriculture exploits the available natural resources of our planet to an untenable and unsustainable extent,” continues Mr. Vargas. “The basic strategy to replace human labour with farm machinery, agrochemicals and fossil energy is a dead end in times of climate change, dwindling oil reserves and over-exploited natural resources.” In conclusion experts are inclined to the hypothesis of a second revolution that will encompass not just the standard mode of farming and current growing methods, but also the adjustment of consumption patterns and a shift in the whole economics of food, involving farmers, retailers, governments and consumers.

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