Brasilia, 12 February 2021 (IICA) – In order for Latin America to maintain and reinforce its position as one of the major global food producers and exporters, it will need to improve the quality of its soil – a key factor in its ability to increase food and nutrition security. Nutrient-rich soils also help to mitigate the damaging effects of climate change.
These were the key messages expressed by Rattan Lal, the 2020 World Food Prize Laureate and Distinguished Professor of Ohio State University, in an interview on the TV program Agro América, the product of a partnership between the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) and the Brazilian channel, AgroMais.
Lal, the world’s leading authority on soil sciences and IICA Goodwill Ambassador, outlined the practices that must be adopted if agriculture is to become a source of solutions for the world’s problems.
The scientist explained that, “There is definitely a need for a paradigm shift. The idea is to encourage farmers to always keep the ground covered with vegetation and not to plough the soil during the off-season. All residue from the previous crop should be left on the soil surface, so that it is protected from rain, wind and from high temperatures and cold temperatures. Organisms in the soil also require a habitat and food sources, so that crop residue can be both a food source as well as a habitat for soil organisms”.
IICA, Lal and the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center (CMASC)—which the acclaimed scientist heads at Ohio State University—are working on the “Living Soils of the Americas” initiative, with a view to pooling public and private efforts in the fight against soil degradation. This phenomenon is threatening to undermine the capacity of countries to sustainably satisfy their food demand.
In this context, and using the best management approaches, international technical cooperation will work with governments, international organizations, universities, the private sector and civil society organizations to contribute to curbing soil and agricultural degradation that are depleting soil organic matter.
Referring to this initiative, Lal recalled that 31 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean were already food insecure prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“In addition to undernourishment, there is also a problem of malnourishment”, he said. “The quality of food is not very good, in terms of the protein content, micronutrients and vitamins. Thus, we need to improve soil health—where the food is produced—so that the nutritional quality of the food is also increased”. It is not just a matter of enough food, carbohydrates and sugars. The issue is micronutrients, proteins, vitamins and other essential elements that are also critical”.
The scientist warned that we may possibly see a greater incidence of pandemics in the future if the encroachment of humanity on wildlife increases.
“More interaction between humanity and wildlife may increase the problem of transfer of diseases from wild animals to humans. It is in our interest to introduce a buffer zone between human civilization and wildlife; and also returning some land back to nature is very critical. Humans should think about how to save land”, he said.
During the program, Lal also indicated that Latin America had achieved “tremendous progress” in agriculture over the last three decades but stressed that where better practices are not adopted—whether on small rural properties or in large-scale agriculture—degradation occurs as a result of soil compaction, due to the use of machinery and the erosion of soils that have low organic matter content.
“Most of the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations can be realized by 2030. We have ten years, but we will only succeed if soil and agriculture are managed properly. If not, it will be very difficult to realize these goals”, he warned, emphasizing the consequences that soil degradation could have on the region’s imports.
“Countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Chile and parts of Peru and Mexico are food exporters, but at the same time they are also importers. Brazil, for example, imports wheat. There is not enough wheat production and many countries, due to the effects of climate change, could increase imports”, predicted Lal.
As such, the Professor recommended that farmers be compensated for ecosystem services to foster carbon capture, with a view to mitigating the effects of climate change and increasing water quality and renewability, as well as biodiversity.
The Agro América program was the product of a partnership between IICA and AgroMais, a Brazilian TV station in the Grupo Bandeirantes communication group. It airs every Thursday, with a rebroadcast on Saturday and on Sunday.
Outside of Brazil, where it airs on cable channels Claro (189 and 689), Vivo (587), Sky (569) and OI (176), it can be seen on the IICA and AgroMais YouTube channels.
You may view Rattan Lal’s interview here.