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Attending to the needs of the soil

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

As the world gears-up to meet the needs of feeding nine billion people in 2050, a number of barriers need to be addressed.  Among these barriers are inadequate crop yields, food distribution problems and the potential adverse environmental effects of doubling food production. 

One of the foundational keys to maximizing production while minimizing environmental concerns is providing governments, non-governmental organizations and farmers with science-based information about soil.  While the developed world has relatively good information available about soil properties, this is not the case with less developed countries.  Without adequate soils information, government policy and farmer actions can potentially result in a wide range of unintended consequences including low yields, soil degradation and water pollution. 

Overlooking the importance of soil is hardly a new issue.  In 1943, the founder of the soil conservation movement in the United States, Hugh Hammond Bennett, said: “Too many people have lost sight of the fact that productive soil is essential to the production of food.” 

As we move forward to meet the challenges of feeding nine billion people, we need to remember Bennett’s warning and guard against overlooking the importance of having readily available information about each soil so that farmers around the world can make wise, enduring decisions about how they use their soils. 

While I was Deputy Chief of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, one of the divisions under me was responsible for international conservation work, including deployment of NRCS employees to serve on Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan and Iraq.  One of the people who served in Afghanistan told me he worked with farmers who were planting the same fields to small grain crops year after year but harvesting very small yields because the soil was not suitable for growing small grains.  There were fields better suited for small grain production, but lack of soils information prevented the farmers from making informed decisions about what crops to produce on what land, and the types of conservation measures needed for sustainable production. 

In the past decade, a group of farsighted scientists—led by a soil scientist and an economist—initiated GlobalSoilMap, an epic project to create a digital soil map of the world.  Currently, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, through a group named the Global Soil Partnership for Food Security and Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation, is working to get commitments from developed and developing countries to move forward with the project.  The goal is to create a 90 meter-by-90 meter resolution, three dimensional, soil map of the world.  Data imbedded in the global soil map will include the amount of soil organic material; the distribution of sand, silt, clay and coarse fragments in the soil; pH; depth to a restricting layer; bulk density; available water capacity; a soil chemical property related to nutrient availability called cation exchange capacity; and electrical conductivity.  This data will be available at six depths, giving agriculturists a three-dimensional snapshot of a soil’s strengths and weaknesses. 

Creating a global soil map is not only an historic project, but a key tool in bringing science to farmers around the world so they can help feed the world while protecting the environment.  Recognizing the importance of the global soil map project, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has provided $1 million to help get the project started and $18 million to help gather soil data in Africa.  Although additional in-kind assistance is being provided by governments from around the world, it is estimated that at least another $300 million is needed to complete the global soil map project.  The bulk of these funds are needed to collect field-level data in the less-developed countries, especially Africa, with the ultimate goal of producing information with the same standards and specifications across the world. 

The critical issues facing the GlobalSoilMap project are funding and resolution of technical issues across international boundaries.  To help move this project forward, the FAO’s Global Soil Partnership for Food Security and Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation launched its partnership in Western and Central Africa last week in Accra, Ghana.  However, much remains to be done. 

Back in 1943, Bennett warned: “Conservation farming put first things first by attending to the needs of the soil—by seeing to it that the starting-off place, the base, is put into sound health and kept that way.  Any other approach, no matter what it may be, always has and always must lead eventually to agricultural disaster.” 

For more background on GlobalSoilMap see:

Doug Lawrence Doug Lawrence (
President, Blackwoods Group LLC
View more posts by Doug Lawrence

1 comment on “Attending to the needs of the soil”

  1. C Simmons
    Posted Thursday, May 02, 2013 at 8:43:54 AM

    Doug is a forward thinker but always brings good sense along with him. Great soils info

The views and opinions expressed in AgChllenge2050 blog posts are solely the opinions of the authors, and not those of Farm Foundation, NFP.