Archive for the ‘Soil’ Category

Feb26

Agricultural Population Growth Marginal as Nonagricultural Population Soars

Share
Pin It

The global agricultural population—defined as individuals dependent on agriculture, hunting, fishing, and forestry for their livelihood—accounted for over 37 percent of the world’s total population in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available. This is a decrease of 12 percent from 1980, when the world’s agricultural and nonagricultural populations were roughly the same size. Although the agricultural population shrunk as a share of total population between 1980 and 2011, it grew numerically from 2.2 billion to 2.6 billion people during this period.

The world’s agricultural population grew from 2.2 billion to 2.6 billion people between 1980 and 2011. (Photo Credit: UNDP)

Between 1980 and 2011, the nonagricultural population grew by a staggering 94 percent, from 2.2 billion to 4.4 billion people—a rate approximately five times greater than that of agricultural population growth. In both cases growth was driven by the massive increase in the world’s total population, which more than doubled between 1961 and 2011, from 3.1 billion to 7 billion people.

It should be noted that the distinction between these population groups is not the same as the rural-urban divide. Rural populations are not exclusively agricultural, nor are urban populations exclusively nonagricultural. The rural population of Africa in 2011 was 622.8 million, for instance, while the agricultural population was 520.3 million.

Although the agricultural population grew worldwide between 1980 and 2011, growth was restricted to Africa, Asia, and Oceania. During this period, this population group declined in North, Central, and South America, in the Caribbean, and in Europe.

In 2011, Africa and Asia accounted for about 95 percent of the world’s agricultural population. In contrast, the agricultural population in the Americas accounted for a little less than 4 percent. Especially in the United States, this is the result of the development and use of new and innovative technologies as well as the increased use of farm machinery, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation systems that require less manual labor.

(more…)

Nov21

Iroko Trees Fight Climate Change

Share
Pin It

By Kristen Thiel

Iroko trees are native to the west coast of Africa. Sometimes called Nigerian teak, their wood is tough, dense, and very durable. Their hardwood is so sought after that the trees are often poached and are now endangered in many regions of Africa. But a new scientific discovery may aid in reforestation efforts.

Iroko trees can serve as long-term carbon sinks. (Photo Credit: DJ Obruni)

Oliver de Schutter, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, has found that Iroko trees can serve as long-term carbon sinks and can potentially play a role in the fight against climate change. Iroko trees and microbes can turn carbon dioxide emissions into soil-enriching limestone, a process that packs a one-two punch: carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere, and dry, acidic soil is made more fertile for agriculture.

When the West African Iroko tree is grown in dry, acidic soil and treated with microbes, it produces a very specific mineral. When the microbes are introduced, the tree combines the calcium already in the soil and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to produce a mineral limestone. This mineral limestone is then stored in the soil around the Iroko tree’s roots.

Normally, biomass (such as trees) does not store carbon dioxide—the gas is used in the process of decomposition. But carbon in the form of limestone has a staying time that may span a million years. This makes a great case, according to the Swiss researchers, for the preservation and sustainable management of tropical forests to fight against the greenhouse effect.

Iroko trees are just one of many species from Africa and the Amazon that can turn carbon in the atmosphere into mineral limestone. In this study, scientists looked at several microbe-tree combinations to identify which was best for locking up carbon dioxide as limestone, and the Iroko-microbe pathway showed the greatest results.

“By taking advantage of this natural limestone-producing process, we have a low-tech, safe, readily employed and easily maintained way to lock carbon out of the atmosphere, while enriching farming conditions in tropical countries,” said Dr Bryne Ngwenya of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences.

There is also great potential for reforestation projects to help reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the developing world. Reforestation schemes that involve the use of microbes and Iroko trees together could improve the carbon sequestration balance of carbon trading initiatives, improve soil fertility, and even promote the implementation of agroforestry projects to benefit rural communities.

Are you familiar with Iroko tree restoration efforts? Let us know in the comments section below!

Kristen Thiel is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture program.

Mar11

Argan Oil: Too Much of a Good Thing?

Share
Pin It

By Carol Dreibelbis

Most people have heard of the health benefits of using olive oil instead of butter or other saturated animal fats. The monounsaturated fats in olive oil have been shown to reduce levels of harmful cholesterol, and as a result nutrition experts have touted it and other aspects of the Mediterranean Diet as heart healthy.

Photo Credit: Jane Alexander

But olive oil isn’t the only celebrated oil from that region of the world. In Morocco, argan oil has been consumed by the Berber people for centuries. Berbers add the deep yellow, toasty-flavored oil to couscous, serve it alongside bread, or eat it on its own. Argan oil has been shown to reduce cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood, and recent research by France’s Institut Pasteur, Morocco’s Lipoproteins and Atherosclerosis Research Laboratory, and others suggests that it might contribute to the prevention of various cancers, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes.

Beyond the health benefits of consuming argan oil, there are also important environmental benefits associated with its production. The same deep root systems that make argan trees well adapted to heat and frequent drought in southwestern Morocco also protect the land against soil erosion and desertification. Meanwhile, argan trees provide shade and protection for crops or pastureland, presenting opportunities for agroforestry.

Arguably, however, the most noteworthy impact of argan oil production is social. This rare oil has captivated a global audience, primarily because of its use in cosmetics. As a result, market prices have been on the rise (making it the most expensive edible oil in the world), and argan oil producers—largely local Moroccan women—have been reaping the benefits.

Because the process of extracting argan oil is extremely labor intensive (it can take 50 kilograms of seeds to produce just half a liter of oil), the women who produce it by hand are frequently part of production co-operatives, such as the UCFA (Union des Cooperatives des Femmes de l’Arganeraie). Founded in 1999, this innovative co-operative produces and markets argan oil and is supported by the Moroccan government as both a conservation and development strategy. Today, the UCFA unites 22 smaller women’s co-operatives. The women who make up these groups gain status, a steady income, and, in some cases, an education through their work.

Yet the argan oil boom has been a double-edged sword. Argan trees and the area in which they grow are threatened by overuse and deforestation. A study by the University of California, Davis finds that “the boom has predictably made households vigilant guardians of fruit on the tree, but it has not incited investments in longer term tree and forest health.” While the development of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Morocco is a step in the right direction, it will be both economically and environmentally critical for the same non-governmental groups, development agencies, and government offices that supported argan oil production in the first place to keep sustainability in mind.

Carol Dreibelbis is a research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet Project.

 

Jan28

“The Man Who Stopped the Desert”: What Yacouba Did Next

Share
Pin It

By Devon Ericksen

In the documentary film, “The Man Who Stopped the Desert,” a farmer named Yacouba Sawadogo struggles to maintain his livelihood in the increasingly harsh land of northern Burkina Faso. Part of Africa’s semi-arid Sahel region, Burkina Faso has suffered from desertification as over-farming, overgrazing, and overpopulation resulted in heavy soil erosion and drying. Desertification has affected many countries in the Sahel, including Senegal, Mali, Niger, and Chad.

Yacouba Sawadogo has worked for more than 30 years to reverse desertification in the Sahel. (Photo credit: 1080 Film)

In 1980, Yacouba decided to fight the desert’s spread by reviving an ancient farming technique called zai, which led to forest growth and increased soil quality. Zai is a very simple and low-cost method, involving using a shovel or axe to break up the ground and dig small holes, which are then filled with compost and planted with seeds of trees, millet, or sorghum. The holes or pits catch water during the rainy season and, when filled with compost, retain moisture and nutrients through the dry season.

Yacouba’s story attracted international attention when Mark Dodd of 1080 Films created the documentary in 2010, and the African farmer has since told his story around the world, including at an October 2012 United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) meeting in South Korea. 1080 Films recently released a short follow-up film about Yacouba’s life since the original film, called “What Yacouba Did Next…,” describing what Yacouba has done since the film’s release and giving an idea of the respect he has received from the international community.

(more…)

Jan15

U.S. Ag Education Groups Make Soil Health a Priority

Share
Pin It

By Carol Dreibelbis

In the United States, some agricultural organizations are beginning to recognize the value of training new leaders in sustainable farming practices. In the state of Nebraska, Nebraska Agricultural Education and the Nebraska Future Farmers of America Association (FFA) are in their second year of providing teachers and students with the skills they need to conserve and restore the local landscape, thanks to a three-year, $200,000 grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust.

Nebraska educators gain skills to take back to their classrooms as part of the Soils Project’s “Excellence in Ag Science Day” 20workshop. (Photo credit: National Cooperative Soil Survey)

With the awareness that the world may need to feed an additional 3 billion mouths by 2050, Nebraska Agricultural Education aims to “prepare students for successful careers and a lifetime of informed choices in the global agriculture, food, and natural resource systems.” The organization provides in-class and experiential instruction to more than 13,000 students in 148 schools each year.

With 93 percent of its land devoted to agriculture, Nebraska is one of the United States’ most productive agricultural areas. In 2012, it ranked first nationally in terms of commercial red meat production, the area of irrigated land harvested, and Great Northern beans production. In 2011, it ranked second in ethanol production capacity, with 24 operating plants having production capacity of 2.2 billion gallons (83,279,059,600 liters). In 2010, total cash receipts from farm marketings were over $17 billion, representing 5.5 percent of the U.S. total. In 2008, it was ranked eighth nationally in certified organic cropland acres (52,551 ha) and eighth in certified organic pasture acres (21,518 ha).

The Nebraska FFA Association supports Nebraska Agricultural Education’s leadership and career development roles, with the understanding that “today’s agriculture education students will be…responsible for ensuring a safe and stable food and fiber supply for the growing world.” The FFA reaches more than 6,500 high school students in Nebraska.

During the 2011–12 grant year, 100 schools in Nebraska received free soil testing kits and professional development training for teachers through the Nebraska Agricultural Education Soils Project. More than 100 FFA educators attended a two-day workshop in June 2011 on soil science, where they received soil guides and participated in field- and lab-based exercises to learn how to use the kits.

The soil quality kits, which include buckets, vests, gram scales, measuring wheels, soil probes, spades, measuring tapes, and other equipment, enable the educators to teach their own students how to assess important soil properties, including moisture, electrical conductivity, temperature, phosphate, nitrate and nitrite, pH, aggregate stability, organic matter, respiration, bulk density, and infiltration. Proper soil management can prevent land degradation (i.e. erosion), which can impact agronomic productivity, the environment, food security, and even quality of life. According to the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, “Global efforts to halt and reverse land degradation are integral to creating the future we want…Sustainable land use is a prerequisite for lifting billions from poverty, enabling food and nutrition security, and safeguarding water supplies. It is a cornerstone of sustainable development.”

The soil science workshop received overwhelmingly positive feedback from participants. “There is so much great information and materials to help me teach soil science. Thank you so much for allowing me to be part of it,” said Amber Endres, an agricultural educator in Hartington, in northeast Nebraska. Beyond the trainings, follow-up sessions provide resources and education to additional teachers.

Ed George, the Soils Project coordinator, views the initiative as a way to boost students’ confidence and engagement both in and out of school. He notes that the Soils Project enables students to recognize the impact that humans have on the environment, to engage with local environmental concerns, and to grow into “future leaders, with the skills to sustain Nebraska’s land productivity and soil health.

What is your region doing to develop future leaders in agriculture and conservation? Please let us know in the comments section below.

Carol Dreibelbis is a research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project.

Dec04

Supporting Climate-Friendly Food Production

Share