Soils, economic development, and climate change.

Image by United Soybean Board |

Image by United Soybean Board |

As we approach the beginning of 2015, a year which the UN has dubbed the year of soils, I would like to briefly consider this precious resource in light of two issues which remain dear to the heart of humanity, namely the economy, and (secondly) the environment.

Soils are a particularly precious resource – arguably the most precious resource there is. While it is not something that can be marketed or traded, such as gold, oil, or iPhones (except, of course, indirectly via the market for land), soils undoubtedly lie at the heart of any nation’s economic fortunes. For a given country, rich or poor, having healthy soils is a necessary prerequisite for experiencing stable, continued economic growth. Ultimately, all food, including that produced from livestock, in some way originated in soils. Worldwide, being insufficient in food production means that the economic future of a country does not bode very well. Having to import food implies that the nation must export other goods in order to balance their national account. It’s a lot easier to experience stable socioeconomic development if your nation is self-sufficient in the production of food – which itself is fundamentally linked to the quality of your soils.

Furthermore, it is estimated that the biophysical potential for C sequestration of the world’s soils – by either improving the quality of existing soils, or transforming land from low C to higher C uses – is in the same ballpark as annual greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. If humanity decides that they want to reduce GHG emissions by a large enough amount that will be able to slow the process of climate change, soils are going to be a large player in that effort. Indeed, soils arguably play a larger role in determining global GHG emissions than do the world’s forests. Forests are a larger C storage sink on a hectare by hectare basis; much more of the world’s land is covered by plains, drylands, and grasslands than is covered by forest. This implies that the future of these lands will play a larger role than the future of the world’s forests in combating climate change. 

Given the importance of soils for both environmental remediation, as well as economic growth and stability, it is therefore particularly worrisome that, each year, roughly 5-6 million hectares (Mha) of soils worldwide undergo desertification. This is a quandary, because you might think that maintaining healthy soils would rank high on the list of a country’s objectives for economic development. Agricultural production necessarily relies on having healthy, fertile soils. But in many countries around the world, the opposite is happening. Improper land management, poor farming practices, and deforestation, are leading to declining soil fertility.

For example, the African country of Niger serves as a case in point of the economic impact of land degradation. Located in central Africa, the country’s northern ¾ is occupied by the Sahara Desert, and the bottom ¼ is occupied by the grasslands of south Africa. Its national land management strategy therefore has a critical impact on its future economic development, because expansion of the desert areas will inevitably lead to declining agricultural output, and hence increased reliance on food imports. Indeed, this is what was happening for the majority of the twentieth century. Due to a combination of poor legal frameworks that provided disincentives for planting trees, as well as overgrazing by pastoral livestock farmers, the fertile region in the south was undergoing land degradation and desertification. The loss in soil organic matter decreased crop productivity, and made the country more exposed to the impact of drought. The declining soil quality reduces the capacity of the land to store water, which enhances the negative impacts of droughts. Indeed, a severe drought in the period 1977-1985 led to the death of about half the country’s livestock population. This, as well as other frequent severe droughts, is believed to have led to thousands of human deaths, and has led to Niger being classified as one of the poorest countries in the world.

However, since the 1980’s, the country has enacted a number of reforms which has provided incentives for forest protection and reforestation, and proper management of agricultural land. Integrated soil fertility management – a term which encapsulates the optimal combination of management and technology for maintaining agricultural productivity – was promoted and adopted by many of Niger’s land holders. This includes the combined use of organic inputs (manure), judicious use or inorganic inputs (fertilizer), millet-cowpea rotations in order to restore nitrogen and carbon in land, and intercropping. The combination of factors leading to enhanced soil quality is widely believed to be part of the reason Niger has experienced a decline in poverty, and has experienced a rise in its human development index relative to other African countries, since the beginning of the new millennium. 

The take home message of this is that governance and its effects on the incentives of landholders has a major impact on land degradation and land improvement. By allowing communities to own and benefit from trees, Niger provided incentives for the reforestation of nearly 3 million hectares of land in the past few decades. By providing the means by which farmers can optimally manage their land, soil fertility rose and agricultural output increased. Being situated on the fringe of the Sahara desert, the economic future of this country is critically dependent on its land management policies. Its recent history shows that human actions have a very real impact on land quality in the long run. This poses both a risk and an opportunity in the face of climate change. Countries that take the steps to protect forests, and enhance soil quality, will experience stable agricultural production, while simultaneously mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.

This article was originally posted via Sustainable Collective, which has since joined forces with The Starfish Canada.