Can we ‘break tyranny of hunger’

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The saying goes, ‘we always hurt the ones we love.’

Farmers love the land, but around the globe farmers are hurting the soil to support their families, scraping topsoil and ground cover to put food on their tables.

“When people are suffering, they take it out on the land,” said Ohio State’s Rattan Lal.

The soil scientist has witnessed a lot of that misery and has devoted a lifetime to easing the related assaults on the world’s natural resources.

He flips through a draft of an article he was invited to write for the journal Science last month. Pointing to a photograph of a no-till plot, he tells me to look at the life of the soil, at the health of the plants.

“That residue is what makes soil a living entity,” said the soft-spoken man.

He took the picture 33 years ago in Nigeria, where more than half of the workforce farms, subsistence farming.

Today, crop production has fallen and Nigeria must now import food. Cereal yields in Africa now stand at a meager 1 ton/hectare, Lal says.

Nigerian farmers, like their counterparts around the world, don’t have the luxury to leave crop residue in place to anchor the soil and trap precious water. The leftovers are fodder for livestock, and manure is not left to build soil nutrients, but is dried and burned to heat farmers’ homes.

“Simply put, poor farmers have passed on their suffering to the land …” Lal writes in his Science article. “They cultivate marginal soils with marginal inputs, produce marginal yields and perpetuate marginal living and poverty.”

It is a vicious cycle.

“There are 300 million people living below the poverty level in India alone,” adds Lal, who is recognized as an international expert in the field of soil health.

And, he adds quietly, food insecurity equals trouble.

These days, Lal makes the forceful case for greater attention to soil carbon sequestration, not just as a tool in the fight again global warming, but because improving soil fertility can counter the decline in crop yields and subsequent food insecurity.

This strategy, he writes, can “break the tyranny of hunger.”

It would take a shift in policies and programs to encourage cover crops, agroforestry, diverse cropping systems, and conservation tillage like many U.S. farmers embrace.

Lal cites an 18-year experiment in Kenya that pitted farm fields managed by common subsistence farming methods against fields planted with cover crops and treated with manure.

Farming the traditional way yielded about 1 ton of corn and beans per hectare; farming with manure and cover crops yielded six times that amount.

Lal also encourages countries to take a more realistic look at trading soil carbon credits – the price of sequestering carbon should reflect both onsite and offsite benefits that society gains.

Continuing the low current price ($1/ton of CO2) can lead to a “tragedy of the commons,” Lal said. Few landowners benefit.

The potential gains are achievable in our lifetimes, he adds, realized over 20 to 50 years.

“It has to be done.”

Lal said the link between soil carbon sequestration and world food security can’t be overemphasized.

And it can’t be ignored.

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