Category Archives: Soil Fertility, Soil Health & Plant Nutrition

Food security: Asia’s critical balancing act


35 year old Indian farmer Niren Das manually irrigates his paddy field on the outskirts of Gauhati, India. About 60 per cent of India’s population works in the agriculture sector. (Photo: AAP).

Authors: R. Quentin Grafton ; John Williams, ANU, and Qiang Jiang, Sichuan University. Date: February 2, 2016

Asia’s food systems are under an unprecedented confluence of pressures. Balancing future food demand and supply in ways that protect the most vulnerable, while also being sustainable, must be a first order policy priority.

Demand for food is driven by population and income growth, and also urbanisation. Global population size is projected to increase from over 7.3 billion today to more than 9.5 billion by 2050 under a medium growth scenario. Per capita income growth at 3 per cent a year will more than double average world income by 2050. More people and higher average incomes will result in greater food consumption and changes in diets.

For instance, rapid growth in per-capita income over the past two decades in China has been accompanied by sharp growth in the consumption of livestock products. Intensive livestock production is much less efficient than direct crop consumption in providing food calories. As meat contributes to a greater share of the calories consumed, proportionally more crops will need to be grown.

Recent studies estimate food production will need to increase by at least 60 per cent between 2005 and 2050. Not only are there about 800 million people in the world chronically undernourished today, global studies show that it is necessary to increase global crop yield by a minimum of 1.1 per cent per annum to feed the world by 2050. The current growth of average global crop yields varies between 0.9 and 1.6 per cent per year. The future challenge is whether crop yield increases on the lower end of this range will be sufficient to meet increased food demands.

Prospects for the future are all the more uncertain because past production has sometimes degraded or destroyed ecosystems on which agriculture is ultimately dependent. The availability of suitable lands for agriculture is likely to be plentiful in only a few regions by 2050. To make matters worse, there is increasing competition for land, water and energy for uses other than for food production.

Substantial water deficits from agricultural water use alone are also likely to occur in key food-producing countries, such as China and India. Increasingly high rates of crop water usage will put very large demands on water resources. The projected water deficit from current practices can be eliminated only by reducing water demand in other sectors, or by reducing water levels in surface flows or groundwater.

Climate change poses further risks to future food supplies. This is not just because of higher temperatures that are moderately negative for some plants and positive for some others. The major difficulty in terms of food supply lies in climate variability. A possible increase in the number of extreme weather events poses many challenges, not least of which is the increased variability of food prices.

Given bio-physical constraints such as the availability of land and water, technological improvements and efficiency gains are required. This is especially critical in tropical locations with low soil nutrient availability and water retention. There is a need for investment in research and development to ensure current rates of yield growth do not fall any further. This must also be achieved without compromising the soils and water on which future food production depends.

Food trade will be important for ensuring an adequate distribution of food across countries. Growing food shortages are predicted for South Asian countries such as India and Pakistan. These countries represent ‘choke points’ that are likely to remain even if global crop yields are sufficient in total.

While there is genuine concern about how Asia will meet anticipated increases in food demand, globally agriculture has successfully responded to increased food demand over the past decades. Food supply has more than tripled since 1960 and continues to rise at a global level.

Fertilisers will play an increasingly important role in overcoming yield gaps but complementary approaches are needed to promote sustainable growth. Provided sufficient nutrients are present, crop improvements through genetic modification and improved agricultural management can help overcome possible future food availability deficits. Even substantial improvements in potential crop yields and water productivity cannot offset critically-limiting nutrients.

But fertiliser can impose negative environmental costs on landscapes, as well as planetary nitrogen and phosphorus cycles. Reductions in its excessive use must be accompanied by methods of crop production that offset the expected decline in yields. For countries highly dependent on crop fertilisation, such as China and the United States, finding sustainable ways to deliver nutrients essential to food production is a major challenge.

The sustainability of Asia’s food production systems is being questioned in a world with intensive agriculture. Current agricultural production and distribution already leaves hundreds of millions of people hungry in the world, while growth in agricultural production under a business-as-usual model will likely contribute to the planet approaching or even surpassing its safe operating space in terms of biodiversity, climate change and the nitrogen cycle. Land, biodiversity and water degradation have, and will continue, to restrict growth in food availability in the coming decades. Effectively responding to the nexus of food security and environmental risks will be a key policy challenge for Asian countries in the coming decades.

Information About the Authors:

Quentin Grafton is a professor of economics at the Australian National University and Editor-in-Chief of Policy

John Williams is an adjunct professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and adjunct professor at CSU Institute of Land Water and Society.

Qiang Jiang is an associate research fellow at Sichuan University, China.

An extended version of this article was published in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Asia’s Inter-generational Challenges‘.

Article Disclaimer: This article was originally published at East Asia Forum and was retrieved and posted here at INDESEEM on 02/02/2016 for information and educational purposes only. Please cite the original and this source accordingly.


Australia ranks number one with the most organically farmed land in the world

Written by: Lara Webster, Updated 27 Oct 2015, 11:41pm

As the world population continues to grow, Australia could capitalise on organic export markets, says Bond University sustainability professor Tor Hundloe.

AUDIO: Sustainability professor Tor Hundloe explains why Australia has the most organically farmed land. (ABC Rural)

He has been investigating Australia’s role in feeding the world, with the global population predicted to hit 9.7 billion in 2050.

Through his most recent research he discovered Australia had the most organically farmed land in the world: more than five times that of Argentina who came in second on the list.

“We are a very large continent and much of Australia is semi-arid or arid.

“On that land chemicals have never been used, fertilisers have never been used, pesticides, so it’s basically virgin country, organic country, as it is,” he said.

“We’ve [also] got land that is fairly easily converted from conventional farming back to organic, and I’m thinking about dairying country where that land can revert to being organic.”

He said the potential to produce greater amounts of organic food was of huge benefit to Australian farmers.

Anywhere where there were dairy farms… they are ideal farms for the small scale, intensive, organic farming.

Professor Tor Hundloe

Professor Hundloe said he had been watching trends overseas and there was a steady increase in the number of people who wanted to buy “cleaner, greener” food.

“We’ve got a good chance of feeding those wealthier people in China and South East Asia.

“They’re demanding the sort of product we have [such as] good, clean beef, milk and cereal,” said Professor Hundloe.

“When our fruit and vegetables are coming on in summer it is winter in northern Asia and we can supply fruit and vegetables into those markets.

“We predict China is going to produce an enormous amount of beef as the middle class of China becomes richer.

“We are in a beaut position to capitalise on export markets.”

Organic marketing a hurdle

While there have been supply shortages domestically for organic food, Professor Hundloe said there was actually more organic food available than people knew.

He said the problem was marketing.

“We’re just not labelling enough of it [food] as organic,” Professor Hundloe said.

To further understand the role of organic farming in future food production, Professor Hundloe will travel throughout Australia with three students.

The team has already travelled throughout Central Queensland and interviewed a number of large-scale organic beef and sheep producers.

Now they are headed south, to south-east Queensland, to speak with small-scale, organic farmers in the Gympie and Mary Valley region.

“Gympie is on the list because the old dairy industry around Gympie has changed dramatically, and that land has been taken over by small scale beef farmers, pig farmers [and] fruit and vegetable farmers,” Professor Hundloe said.

“Gympie is very close to the Sunshine Coast which is a prime market for organic food.

“It is close to Brisbane so it is the perfect place for the small scale, organic farming industry in Australia.

He said there were many other farming communities throughout the nation which would be able to make the same transition Gympie has seen.

“Anywhere down into New South Wales and Victoria, Tasmania and over in the west too.

“Anywhere where there were dairy farms… they are ideal farms for the small scale, intensive, organic farming.”

Article Disclaimer: This article was published at ABC and was retrieved on 11/10/2015 for information and education purposes only. The views and thoughts expressed in this article remains those of the author. Please cite the original source and INDESEEM accordingly.


Giving soils a voice

Written by: By Juliet Braslow, CIAT Soils Research Area Coordinator, October 27, 2015.

We don’t directly drink or breathe soil, so it’s often forgotten as we trample over it.

Raising awareness and inspiring action for promoting and protecting our soils has been a central focus throughout this International Year of Soils (IYS). We need healthy soils for a healthy life because the bottom line is that no soil = no food.

We are nearing the end of this year of soils and are taking stock of progress made. How can we continue the momentum into 2016 to keep the soils profile high?  Yet this has just been the start – and a turning point for soils on global, national and local agendas.

Around the globe, diverse groups of people are gathering around the table, not over a meal per se, but to discuss where all meals start: the soil. However, we often end up preaching to the converted, to those who already believe in the importance of understanding, protecting, investing in one of our most precious resources. Awareness-raising and outreach beyond the inner circle of ‘soil converts’ is what IYS has done,  to get the public excited and engaged in the soil beneath their feet.

The evidence is clear in the level of engagement and outreach there has been around the topic. Partners of the European network for soil awareness (ENSA) have been using some very creative approaches: leveraging art to speak for soil (Decrustate 2015), soil playing cards, political initiatives (People4Soil), calendars, citizen soil science (Tea bag index), school activities, hands-on exhibits and much more. They’ve taken soils to the people.

And once you are there, what do you tell them? How do you go beyond raising awareness to give them a reason to care and take action?  It hasn’t been easy. But we developed tools and guidelines to follow to figure out how to best craft, target and deliver the pitch.

There are many resources out there, but sometimes it’s just easier to jump in and try, get feedback and adapt your pitch. That is just the process I led the ENSA network through last week to practice “giving soils a voice.”

We started by distilling our key messages. If you just had 30 seconds to tell someone why they should care about soils, what would you say? Mark Twain once said: “I would have written that shorter, but I didn’t have the time.” Find the time so your message can get through the information chaos of our world and stick in the mind of your listener.

Here’s a fun exercise to try and perfect your key message:
Imagine you had a quick minute to tell someone why she should care about soil
1. Write down what you want to say
2. Cross out words until you have the shortest sentence you possibly can
3. Deliver your simplified message to someone (person A)
4. Have that person (A) tell a person (B) who wasn’t in the room what you just said
5. If a person (A) who hears your simple message can repeat it accurately to the next person (B), you’ve got it!
6. If they don’t say exactly the words you want repeated go back to simplify it some more and try steps 3-4 again.

Now you have your key message, but how do you package that message in an engaging way? With a pitch. If you think about it, we’re all pitching and receiving pitches every day in one way or another. From making the case for what we want to eat for dinner to my pitch to get you to read this far in this blog.

Here are 5 simple pitching principles:
1. Know your audience – Who are you trying to convince? What interests them?
2. Be clear and crisp with your facts – use figures wisely and no jargon
3. Give it a human angle – Put a story behind your facts to create an emotional connection
4. Know your ask – What do you want someone to DO? Can your audience take this action?
5. Focus on soft skills – It’s not always what you say, but how you say it. Be confident and humble. Engage your audience.

Most people these days are so overwhelmed with information that your message has to be simple and delivered in a catchy way to make it through the information clutter. It should go beyond informing to empowering someone to take action for the biggest impact. This can be the most challenging part of a pitch to craft, but the most powerful. If you communicate exactly what you are asking your listener to do, and it’s something they really can do, they are much more likely to take the first step. Wouldn’t you?

What is my pitch to you? Make the most of your meetings, coffee breaks, field visits and chance encounters by having your key messages and pitches practiced and ready to pull out of your pocket to inspire and empower.

Article Disclaimer: This article was published at the CIAT Blog and was retrieved on 10/29/2015 and posted here at INDESEEM for information and educational purposes only. The views, thoughts and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors. Please cite the original and this source (INDESEEM) accordingly.


Opinion: No such thing as a free lunch, we should invest in the land

Dürre in Kalifornien

Drought in California

We all know that if you are spending more than you earn, there is a tipping point from which you can never recover. It is the point of bankruptcy.

The same is true of productive natural resources like land. Imagine that we have a land account, instead of a credit account. It is limited, and if we take too much without paying, it may not recover. The status of our land account today is unhealthy.

We are degrading fertile land faster than it can recover. In some cases, we are simply abandoning degraded land. We are not investing enough to ensure there will be productive land for the future. Land degradation, like credit, happens quickly, but recovery from it is not as fast. We are moving closer and faster towards that tipping point. We must change course.

Land being degraded too quickly

Globally, we have about 15 billion hectares of land, but only about half is usable for agriculture. This is our total agricultural land account. So far, we have degraded close to a quarter of the land available.

UNCCD Monique Barbut ExekutivsekretärinMonique Barbut is the head of the UNCCD, the UN convention fighting against desertification

We degrade 12 million hectares of land every year, on average. Most of it can be reclaimed, but we have degraded and then abandoned 500 million hectares of farmland. Moreover, more than half of all our agricultural land is moderately to severely degraded. This is unsustainable.

To live sustainably, each of us needs 0.07ha (700 square meters) of arable land as an absolute minimum. In 1961, we each had access to 0.45 ha (4,500 square meters). In 2011, 50 years later, that figure dropped to 0.2 ha (2,000 square meters). We simply don’t have another 2500 square meters to lose.

Demand for land is increasing

We are three times above the absolute minimum threshold. However, the gap is closing fast as demand rises for fertile land to produce biofuels and to reconvert arable land into forests to sequester carbon dioxide. Land grabs are increasing as freshwater sources in all regions of the world decline.

Urbanization too is on the rise and will seal yet more land. Prolonged droughts and floods will degrade some of the remaining fertile land due to climate change. At the same time, the global population will be growing. These needs will take more of the fertile land we need to produce food.

Bodenverschmutzung in ChinaWe have to establish equivalent ecosystems as compensation for degraded land, says UNCCD executive secretary Monique Barbut

Unless we follow a different path, we will need to clear at least 4 million hectares of new land every year on average, only to meet the demand for food up to 2050. The growing demand for land can, but need not, result in crises if we make investments that add value to our land account.

The first is to avoid degrading any new natural land and ecosystems. The second is to reclaim a hectare of previously-degraded land in the same ecosystem and within the same timeframe, whenever we degrade land. This will start to balance our land account.

Investing in sustainability

This vision may become the new global norm in September when governments agree on the Sustainable Development Goals.

But we can do more. We can turn our land account into a surplus by investing money to reclaim all the land we can from the two billion hectares that is degraded.

There is no time to waste. Land degradation is threatening the most vulnerable communities, from Darfur to Syria. Mass migrations are gathering pace as people lose their means of livelihoods. By 2045, more than 135 million people could migrate due to desertification alone.

The American economist Milton Freidman popularized the saying, “there is no such thing as a free lunch,” in praise of the free market. But the saying is just as relevant today in terms of land use. Fertile land is limited. Our survival depends on it. If we continue cashing in on it, without investing back into it, there will be consequences. There no such thing as a free lunch, not even for the land that produces it.

Monique Barbut is the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.


Article Disclaimer: This article was published at Deutsche Welle and was retrieved on 10/28/2015 and published here at INDESEEM for educational and information purposes only. The thoughts, views, opinions, and information expressed in this article remains those of the author. Please cite the original and this source accordingly.


Loss of fertile soils a food security risk

Compost worms

Going underground

The number of organisms living in a handful of soil outnumber all humans on the planet. They ensure that the humus layer stores nutrients and water. After oceans, soils represent the planet’s largest carbon bank. Soils store more carbon than all the world’s forests combined.


Worldwide deterioration of soil quality is a disaster in the making, warn experts like Jes Weigelt of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany.

“The situation in many regions of the world is very serious,” said Weigilt, who coordinated Global Soil Week in Berlin. “The world population is growing steadily. But usable land is shrinking,” Weigilt stated.

“Every year, 24 billion tonnes [metric tons] of fertile soil is lost: through erosion, development, flooding, mining – or through intensive agriculture.”

Not all ground is fertile

Land is not the same as soil, explained Luca Montanarella of the European Commission. He heads the European Soil Bureau Network on Lake Maggiore in Italy.

Infographic: Agricultural land use per capita

Arable land is being lost at a rate of 1,000 square kilometers (386 square miles) per day, Montanarella says. He clarified that the biggest losses are from the construction of roads, cities and industrial facilities.

Removing, sealing and compacting soil kills off the billions of microorganisms, bacteria and fungi that make a handful of earth a living microcosm. Once that life has been eliminated, all that remains is dead matter.

“Soils are renewable,” said Montanarella. “But we [creation of fertile soil takes] thousands upon thousands of years – not time spans that we can count in human generations.”

Soil preservation as development goal

Soil experts in the European Commission hope that the worldwide protection of soils will find a prominent place in the new sustainability development goals (SDGs) to be adopted by the UN general assembly in fall. These SDGs provide the political foundation for sustainable development in developing and industrialized nations.

For Montanarella, soil conservation counts among the most important requirements for sustainable development. And agriculture in particular must become sustainable, he thinks.

“If we want to maintain food production in Europe, we must protect our most fertile soils from destruction,” said Montanarella.

And he highlights another problem: “Regions like the European Union do not have enough soil for their own consumption, and are therefore dependent on imports from other countries.”

Globalizing soil

EU countries import 35 million tons of soy beans and soy meal from north and south America every year – to use as feed for pigs, chickens and cows.

Cultivation of primarily genetically modified soy for export uses land in developing countries that could go toward sustainable agriculture.

But even in industrialized countries like Germany, globalized industrial livestock farming presents a pollution problem.

“[Animal waste] is the root of considerable environmental problems in Germany, particularly in regions with intensive livestock farming,” explained agrarian economist Knut Ehlers of the German Environment Agency.

Infographic: Land use in Germany

Public burden

Although manure is also a fertilizer, too much is toxic for soil and water. The environmental impacts of factory farming “ultimately fall on the taxpayer,” said Ehlers.

Such agriculture is unsustainable, Ehlers stressed. He hopes that aiming more public attention to the issue of soil depletion on the national and EU levels will lead to more sustainable policy-making, and development of organic agriculture.

“We need agriculture that doesn’t just pursue maximum profit,” Ehlers said. “There must be more focus on the interplay between agricultural yields and other ecosystem services.”

Healthy soils, healthy foods

Building more sustainable agricultural practices benefits not only the environment, but also human health, said Swiss agriculture and development expert Han Herren. Recognized with the Alternative Nobel Prize Right Livelihood Award in 2013, Herren proposed that a variety of foods be cultivated.

“That would mean more and better crop rotation, resulting in fewer soil diseases, more microorganisms in the soil – and therefore healthier soil.”

Article Disclaimer: This article was published at Deutsche Welle and was retrieved on 10/28/2015 and posted here at INDESEEM for educational and information purposes only. The thoughts, views and information expressed in this article are those of the author only. Please cite the original source and our source accordingly.



Researchers receive grant to study biochar

The Traditional Earth Pyrolysis Method

 Sep 3, 2015

Researchers at Iowa State have been awarded nearly $2 million for research on the integrated pyrolysis of biochar systems.

Biochar is a product used on soils to return nutrients to the soil, which are removed when biomass is harvested for bioenrgy and aid in sequestering carbon that otherwise would be released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide as plants decompose.

The grant, provided by the Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford University, will provide funding for three years.

“Biochar is one of three co-products produced when biomass feedstocks such as corn stocks and cobs are heated without oxygen, a process known as pyrolysis,” said David Laird, professor of agronomy and chief researcher for the project.

The other two products produced are bio oil and syngas, both of which can be used as fuel or to produce other products, Laird said.

Biochar has been a theoretical probability for Laird since the 1990s, but in 2005 the probability became a reality.

“In 2005 we realized there was a possible synergism between biochar and bioenergy,” Laird said.

When the corn stocks and cobs are heated along with different feedstocks, such as corn stover, food waste or wood, different types of biochar will be produced. Combine the different feedstocks with different heating temperatures and you can get billions of different types of biochar, Laird said.

“As a general rule, the higher the temp [of the pyrolysis process used to produce the biochar] the more stable the biochar is in soils,” Laird said.

The more stable the biochar is the longer it can stay in the soil. Generally, the biochar will stay in the soil for hundreds to thousands of years, Laird said.

A major product of the research will be a biochar model which will be incorporated into the Agricultural Production System sIMulator by Sotirios Archontoulis, assistant professor of agronomy, and Fernando Miguez, assistant professor of agronomy. The model will allow the researchers to simulate the impact on crop yields and the environment when they place a certain type of biochar into different soil types. The model also allows the researchers to test the biochar in different climates, Laird said.

Economists can use the results from the simulator model to find the best location to start a biochar industry.

“The place where it would make the most sense to put the industry would be here in the corn belt,” said Dermot Hayes, professor of economics.

The biochar has proven to have bigger impacts on poor soil, such as soil destroyed by a tornado, than higher quality soils.

“On every farm, there are parts where you lose money,” Hayes said. “The char can improve the quality [of the soil] for a long period of time.”

Hayes predicts farmers could see the value of their farm improve by 10 to 15 percent when soil quality increased using biochar.

When all of the research is complete, Laird and his team will look into the possible benefits and setbacks that could come from the industry. They will look at how big the climate change impact could be, and where it makes the most economic and environmental sense to put the first plant.

“This is just one piece of a larger research agenda,” Laird said.

This article was published online at Iowa State Daily and retrieved on 09/15/2015 and posted here for information and educational purposes only.



Biochar emerges as soil amendment for agriculture

Biochar emerges as a new soil amendment in agriculture.
Laura Pires, Contributing Writer

Biochar has potential as a valuable tool for the agricultural industry with its unique ability to help build soil, conserve water, produce renewable energy and sequester carbon.

Biochar, a soil amendment, is a specialized form of charcoal suitable for use in the soil. The product can be created from a wide variety of feedstocks, including wood and plant matter and even manure.

To create biochar, feedstock is heated to high temperatures under controlled conditions. The biochar-making process is called pyrolysis when no oxygen is present and gasification when low amounts of oxygen are used.

The gas or oil produced from heating feedstock can be used as clean energy. The carbon left behind is biochar. The production process eessentially concentrates carbon that would have been released back into the atmosphere as the plant or manure decays, therefore reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Biochar is extremely porous which allows it to retain nutrients and water — which plant roots can access when the biochar is added to soil.

Research is underway to quantify nutrient availability to the plant. Since biochar can be made from several feedstocks and in numerous ways, its characteristics and impact on plant health can vary.

International Biochar Initiative

In 2006, the International Biochar Initiative (IBI) was formed during the World Soil Science Congress. The founders acknowledged a common interest in promoting the research, development, demonstration, deployment and commercialization of biochar technology and production.

“The biochar market is still in its early stages,” says IBI’s Thayer Tomlinson. “Different biochars can behave differently in soils depending on the feedstock and conditions of pyrolysis.”

The 2013 IBI report is available online at The report provides a broad overview of the state of the biochar industry as identified by surveys and other data and provides a snapshot of commercial and non-commercial biochar operations and activities.

One of the highlights of the report is the increase in scientific research. The number of peer-reviewed, biochar-related publications increased nearly five-fold over the last five years. More than 380 papers were published in 2013.

In the spring of 2012, the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) established long-term biochar experimental plots through the university’s Agricultural Sustainability Institute at the Russell Ranch Sustainable Agriculture Facility located near the main UC Davis campus.

The Russell Ranch facility is a 300-acre facility dedicated to investigating irrigated and dry-land agriculture in a Mediterranean climate.

This article was originally published at Western Farm Press and was retrieved on 09/05/2015 and shared here for educational and information purposes only.


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