Some years ago, a changing climate would be discussed but people would question, ‘if the climate is changing, why aren’t we seeing any signs?’. Well, I’m sure we can all agree today that sadly, the signs could not be more prevalent, bigger or brighter. The IPCC, (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), sixth assessment report states that the world has experienced the hottest decade on record in the last 125,000 years. This coupled with carbon dioxide currently totaling at 420 parts per million exceeding pre-industrial levels is very worrying.
Europe has recently experienced record-breaking temperatures, the hottest record in 12,000 years. This year alone, the United States has experienced nine different climate disasters causing over a billion dollars of damage. The extreme heating event that swept across the Northern hemisphere last summer was twenty times more likely due to human-induced climate change. Temperatures in areas of the Arctic were six degrees higher this February with researchers analysing the thinning sea ice and preparing for nearing ice-free summers. Matt Granskog from the Norwegian Polar Institute says "Nowadays, some years we have a hard time to actually find a piece of ice, an ice floe to work on. So it's changed pretty dramatically over the past decades."
FAO has concluded that both climate and weather extremes caused by human-induced climate change is becoming one of the main drivers of acute food insecurity in a growing number of countries. Pakistan for example, is experiencing huge flooding events affecting the lives of over 33 million people that destroy crops and livelihoods that scientists are concluding as a result of climate change. These events are only predicted to get worse and occur much earlier and more often with the intensification of the heating climate.
Meanwhile, the Horn of Africa has just faced its worst drought in 40 years leaving over 20 million people suffering food insecurity. The droughts have devastated communities across Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia taking the lives of thousands of individuals, drying up valuable crops and starving approximately 8 million livestock animals. The World Weather Attribution initiative concluded that planet-heating pollution due to excessive fossil fuel usage has made agricultural droughts 100 times more likely across Africa, supposedly a conservative estimate.
Post industrialisation, food supply per capita has increased by 30% coupled with excessive water usage and application of nitrogen fertilisers, by 800%. It would be easy to assume then that the world population would be well-fed and children wouldn’t be starving in different areas of the world, sadly not. The harsh reality remains that approximately 821 million people are undernourished with 250 million individuals facing acute food insecurity according to a UN report in 2022. The causes of this lasting issue cannot be solely narrowed down.
Governmental corruption, the Covid-19 pandemic, the Russian war in Ukraine, and the increasing impacts of climate change are all playing a role in the food insecurity crisis around the world. However, there is no doubt that both of these climate and non-climate stressors are having a severe impact on the availability, and stability of food from various countries around the world. Lower latitude regions have been particularly affected very harshly by the dramatic changes in climatic conditions.
Climate change is having devastating effects on people's lives due to shifting climate norms and more frequent and intense natural disasters. However, it also must be understood that agriculture and the way in which we obtain our food is one of the leading causes of climate change. The global food system in total is responsible for up to 37% of global greenhouse emissions, approximately one-quarter of anthropogenic emissions. These emissions are predominantly methane from fermentation processes, nitrous oxide from poor soil management, and carbon dioxide from vast changes in land use and ecosystem degradation.
When it comes to calculating the emissions released from agricultural practices around the world, we should not always look to the skies but simply beneath our feet. When agriculture first began to be industrialised, soil was seen as inexhaustible. Today, scientists are trying to conclude on how many harvests we have left and the numbers are worrying. The figure circling around global media and discussed by scientists is that we may only have 60 harvests left to feed the world. However, a precise figure cannot be exactly finalised. What is important to conclude is that deteriorating soil health is certainly one of the biggest challenges we face within the climate and biodiversity crisis.
What is threatening soil health?
While understanding the issues we currently face, it’s often important to take a look back and understand how farming began. Roughly 2.5 million years ago during the Paleolithic period, homo sapiens lived in caves or huts and quite literally hunted and gathered their food from the wild lands they roamed. Around 10,000 years ago, this all changed as we became settlers. The catalyst of natures demise.
Where we once lived hand to mouth, life soon changed to be reliant on land producing particular crops and creating a relationship with the earth and the soil. By becoming settlers, we emotionally invested in the soil, learnt how to work with it and grazing animals upon it which inevitably gave way to the nitrogen cycle. Sunlight enables plants to grow, we and our animals eat them and return nutrients back to the soil via manure, easy enough. But, as humans evolved and our brains developed a more selfish streak, we lost touch with harmony and began to dominate the land for profit.
Fast forward to today, where human-environmental conflicts such as deforestation, agricultural intensification, overgrazing, over tilling, excessive fertiliser and pesticide use and heavy machinery are reducing soil quality dramatically. Consequently, it is predicted that since 1975, nearly a third of the world's arable land has been lost to soil erosion. This is coupled with over 12 million hectares of arable land rendered useless and 10 million hectares of cropland lost annually due to excessive rates of soil erosion and degradation. Calculations also conclude that soils are degrading a hundred times faster than it is being replenished and reformed. A third of the world's soils already stand to be classified as degraded due to excessive fertiliser use and intensive farming productions.
The fact is, Leonardo da Vinci was right, and still is, when he said, ‘We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot’. The hidden world beneath our feet holds the key to our survival and we just don’t realise it. The degeneration of our soils is occurring at a very alarming rate and is simply an example of our lost connection from the natural world and loss of respect of what it provides for us. From purifying the air we breathe, to producing life-saving medication and enabling the food we eat to grow and sustain us, soil is the earth's living skin and something we hugely underappreciate.
Soil can either heighten or reduce climate change. Most people think that deforestation is a leading contributor to increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. But very few regard soil degradation as one. In fact, soil stores twice the amount of carbon contained to that in both plants and trees.
When plants photosynthesise, carbon is captured and stored in the soil as decomposed organic matter, humus. This organic compound is rich in carbon that is subsequently locked underground maintaining the web of life beneath our feet. However, by continually disturbing the soil by over-tilling, ploughing and harvesting monocultures without allowing the land to recover and giving back these organic compounds through livestock manure the soil releases huge quantities of carbon and becomes degraded over time. By switching to intensive productions we have dramatically shifted the emission profile of farmland, globally.
Most people when thinking about biodiversity would picture vast tropical rainforests, desert lands or arctic tundras and the animals that live within them. However, soil is one of the main global reservoirs of biodiversity with 25 percent of animal species living underground and 40 percent of terrestrial species reliant on soil throughout their lives.
Keeping global soils healthy or thousands of different species of bacteria, fungi and invertebrate species. These beings in turn support and drive the carbon, nitrogen and water cycles throughout the soil which enable us to grow and harvest crops when we became settlers all those years ago. Today, 95% of the global human population's food supply is dependent on soil survival and health. But it isn't just food security that soil gives us, it's a health lifeline. Pharmaceutical drugs such as penicilin and bleomycin used to treat cancer were both discovered in biologically diverse and carbon-rich soils.
Healthy soils also enable plants to produce plenty of antioxidants which protect them from pest species and boost our immune system when we eat them. There is a direct correlation between healthy soils and healthy humans.
Regenerating the soil
Countries must start adopting and supporting regenerative or conservation agricultural practices. By doing so, farmers can adopt mixed-used farming methods, regularly rotate crops to give soils a break, reduce their reliance on fertilisers and pesticides and sustainably graze livestock that can naturally fertilise the soil. The growing of cover crops can also be very beneficial to soil health replenishing up to 14 tons of organic matter back to the soil per acre. Adding carbonaceous material such as hay, mulch, compost and leaves directly to your soils can also increase their fertility and revitalise them. Regenerative farming is instead trying to get farmers to understand how their practices are having a detrimental effect on the soil and its productivity and realise the small changes they need to make to their practices that make a huge difference.
Until very recently, soil health wasn't even discussed or considered an issue within the wider climate emergency. Raising awareness about the importance of soil health, carbon stores and regenerative agriculture and bringing the importance of changing the intensive approach to farming must be brought into the wider environmental debate. Although the 60 years of harvests left have not been exactly concluded upon, evidence crucially suggests that we need to take action now if we want to secure global food production and the health of our planet.