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
Pin It

By Laura Reynolds

This summer, record temperatures and limited rainfall parched vast areas of U.S. cropland, and with Earth’s surface air temperature projected to rise 0.69 degrees Celsius by 2030, global food production will be even more unpredictable. Although agriculture is a major driver of human-caused climate change, contributing an estimated 25 to 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, when done sustainably it can be an important key to mitigating climate change.

Agroforestry is one practice that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions while adapting to the effects of climate change. (Photo credit: Christensen Fund)

Because of its reliance on healthy soil, adequate water, and a delicate balance of gases such as carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, farming is the human endeavor most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. But agriculture’s strong interrelationships with both climatic and environmental variables also make it a significant player in reducing climate-altering emissions as well as helping the world adapt to the realities of a warming planet.

The good news is that agriculture can hold an important key to mitigating climate change. Practices such as using animal manure rather than artificial fertilizer, planting trees on farms to reduce soil erosion and sequester carbon, and growing food in cities all hold huge potential for reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the global agricultural sector could potentially reduce and remove 80 to 88 percent of the carbon dioxide that it currently emits. By adopting more-sustainable approaches, small-scale agriculture in developing countries has the potential to contribute 70 percent of agriculture’s global mitigation of climate change. And many of these innovations have the potential to be replicated, adapted, and scaled up for application on larger farms, helping to improve water availability, increase diversity, and improve soil quality, as well as mitigate climate change. (more…)

Nov21

A Tale of Two Farms: Industrial vs. Sustainable Meat Production in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic

Share
Pin It

By Carol Dreibelbis

Most food in the United States comes from industrialized, intensive farms. Meat and dairy are no exception: nationwide, 40 percent of all U.S. food animals are raised in the largest 2 percent of livestock facilities. And these large-scale facilities, commonly referred to as factory farms, continue to grow. Between 1997 and 2007, the U.S. factory farming industry added 4,600 hogs, 650 dairy cows, 139,200 broiler chickens, and 1,100 beef cattle each day. On a global scale, industrial animal production now accounts for 72 percent of all poultry production, 43 percent of egg production, and 55 percent of pork production.

Pastured broiler chickens feed on grass and grain at Virginia-based Polyface Farm. (Photo credit: Polyface, Inc.)

Although factory farms provide large quantities of relatively inexpensive meat, the associated environmental, social, and human health costs are high. Factory farms rely on massive inputs of water, fossil fuel energy, grain-based feed, and other limited resources. Feed production alone accounts for an estimated 75 percent of the energy use associated with factory farming; growing animal feed also requires the input of water, fertilizers, and pesticides, and it occupies arable land that could be used directly to grow food. An estimated 23 percent of all water used in agriculture goes to livestock production.

Industrialized meat production also creates huge amounts of waste, contaminating nearby air and water and threatening the health of humans and wildlife. Some large factory farms produce more waste than large U.S. cities. The livestock industry is also responsible for approximately 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions—more than the entire global transportation sector. By contributing to climate change, factory farms affect people both locally and around the world.

(more…)

Nov14

Five Rainforest Ecosystem Services that Nourish People and the Planet

Share
Pin It

By Ioulia Fenton

From wetlands to coral reefs, the Earth’s diverse ecosystems support and regulate many of the planet’s most critical natural processes. They also contribute important cultural, social, and economic benefits to human communities. These contributions, known more broadly as “ecosystem services,” are estimated to be worth trillions of dollars per year.

Rainforests provide vital ecosystem services that sustain all life on Earth. (Photo credit: National Geographic)

The world’s rainforest ecosystem services—such as increased rainfall, soil stability, and a regulated climate—are integral to the successful production of food in many parts of the world. Rainforests in the Amazon and the Congo, for example, support rainfall in key, surrounding agricultural areas.

Today, Nourishing the Planet highlights five ecosystem services that rainforests provide to people and the planet:

1. Nutrient cycling and soil formation. According to the Rainforest Conservation Fund, many of the world’s tropical rainforests live “on the edge,” meaning that they receive very few nutrient inputs from the outside and must produce most nutrients themselves. When left intact, a rainforest acts as a closed-loop system, recycling the nutrients it has created; without tree cover, however, these nutrients would be lost and the forest would not survive.

(more…)

Nov11

An Interview with Seth Itzkan: Using Holistic Management to Address Desertification and Climate Change

Share
Pin It

By Carol Dreibelbis

In this series, we interview inspiring people that our readers have nominated. These individuals are working on the front lines to improve the global food and agricultural systems. Want to nominate someone? E-mail your suggestions to Laura Reynolds!

Name: Seth Itzkan

Affiliation: President of Planet-TECH Associates, a consultancy focusing on trends and innovations.

Bio: Seth has 25 years of experience consulting with private and public agencies on strategies for success in changing times. He is interested in the mitigation of climate change and is investigating new approaches to the problem, particularly focusing on the role of soils and grassland restoration through “holistic management.”

In 2011, Seth spent six weeks at the Africa Center for Holistic Management in northwest Zimbabwe, the sister organization of the Savory Institute in Colorado. While in Zimbabwe, he saw firsthand the restoration of degraded lands through improved land and livestock management. Since his return to the United States, he has advocated for holistic management to be considered as a methodology to address both desertification and global warming.

(more…)

Oct22

Feeling the Heat: Report Finds One Million Maize and Bean Farmers Threatened by Climate Change

Share
Pin It

By Andrew Alesbury

Over the coming decades, climate change is expected to pose major difficulties for one million maize and bean farmers in Central America.

A recent study has found that climate change threatens one million maize and bean farmers in Central America (Photo credit: CIAT/Neil Palmer)

According to a recent report released by scientists from Catholic Relief Services, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, maize and bean farmers in Central America should be worried about how climate change will impact their crops.

The study, Tortillas on the Roaster, explains that higher temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns, prompted by climate change, could affect one million maize and bean farmers in Central America. Predicting an average temperature rise of one degree Celsius by the 2020s and a two degree rise by the 2050s, the models used in the report also anticipate that consistency in rainfall will change considerably, limiting access to water for the 80 percent of Central America’s maize and bean farms which are on rainfed land.

(more…)