World Food Forum: Exploring options for future soil and plant nutrition

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Rome – Efforts to consolidate and promote alternative fertilizer sources and to pursue new technologies for cheaper, cleaner, and more effective soil and plant nutrition were on the agenda on Thursday during an event of the World Food Forum’s Science and Innovation Forum.

The high-level Ministerial session on Innovations in Soil and Plant Nutrient Management at the Rome headquarters of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) addressed what to do to make sure the world’s soil will be able to feed the growing population without damaging the planet.

Soil matters

Soil is an essential ingredient to grow food and a key building block of the agrifood system. Current and future food security depends on the ability to increase yields and food quality by improving soil fertility and plant nutrition.

Soil fertility status declines due to several factors including soil erosion, nutrient imbalances and salinity, among other soil degradation drivers, and unsustainable nutrient management practices.

Topsoil, the most fertile layer of soil, is being lost as a result of a variety of factors including unsustainable agriculture. An estimated 24 billion tonnes a year of fertile soil are lost due to erosion.

This is happening against a background of a global population that is projected to increase to 9.7 billion by 2050, competition for land and water resources and the impact of climate change.

In addition, vulnerable countries especially in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, are grappling with fertilizer prices that have soared and where the smallholder farmers lack access to inorganic and organic fertilizers.

Long-term care

Addressing the Ministerial session, FAO’s Director-General QU Dongyu made wide-ranging comments on the importance of soil health and innovations to maintain it.

“Soil, it is not only a short-term issue – all of us we know it is long-term. Maybe it could take our whole life, and still we could not see the real, direct results of our efforts, but we need to do it for the generations to come – that is a long-term commitment. Based on my experience, if you take care of the black soil, for instance, it will take 40 years to see a 1-cm increase of topsoil,” Qu said.

The Director-General added that we need to base our efforts on science and technology, like, for example, how to increase soil organic matter.

“Let’s do more in a pragmatic and a systematic way, to design how to, for example, reverse soil erosion, soil degeneration and soil salinity,” Qu said.

Qu also stressed the need for investment, especially long-term investment, for soil mapping, which he said reduces the need for fertilizer, for scientific taskforces to carry out monitoring and inspections over the long term, and for harmonizing agronomic practices with other measures such as tillage.

Better soil and plant nutrition

Five ministers and former ministers made statements on the main issues relating to soils in their countries and their thoughts on efforts to maintain and improve soil health.

The participants were Oumar Ibn Daoud, Chad’s Minister of Agricultural Development, Omer Hussein Oba, Ethiopia’s Minister of Agriculture, Redouane Arrach, Morocco’s Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Maritime Fisheries, Rural Development, Water and Forests, Anxious Jongwe Masuka, Zimbabwe’s Minister of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Development, and William Dar, the Philippines’ Former Secretary of the Department of Agriculture. The panel discussion was moderated by the journalist Thin Lei Win.

The topic of soil mapping came up frequently along with biofertilizers during the statements and panel discussion. Soil data, agricultural policy, soil analysis, water resource conservation, soil health programmes, modernising soil management systems, investment, and preparing for climate change were all mentioned.

FAO Chief Scientist Ismahane Elouafi contributed to the session with a summary of the discussion’s main points highlighting that information is the foundation of sustainable nutrient management. She also pointed to the consensus that sustainable soil management is one of the most cost-effective solutions to increase macro- and micronutrient content in soil.

FAO is involved in numerous initiatives concerning soils, among them the Global Soil Partnership, the Global Soil Doctors Programme and the publication of reports including the Global assessment of soil pollution.