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What new agricultural practices are capable of preserving soils and water?

How can the world’s growing population be fed without exhausting the planet’s resources? The report  published at the end of 2021 by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) paints an alarming picture of the world’s soils and water, which are over-exploited and degraded, and growing disparities between farmers. It calls for new sustainable agricultural production practices, made necessary by climate change, which further threatens resources. In France, the state of soils is generally good but agricultural activity must cope with new challenges of managing water and adapting to climate change. The Varenne round table on water and agriculture permitted wide-ranging consultation. Anne-Claire Vial, President of ACTA – agricultural technical institutes and member of IFGR, and who directs one of the workgroups, shared her conclusions with us.

The alarming degradation of ecosystems faced with the need to feed a growing population

 

Source: FAO, 2021

Systems pushed to breaking point”: this is the subtitle under which the report describes the alarming degradation of the planet’s soil, water and land resources. Although the previous report, published in 2011, had already drawn attention to the large number of threatened terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, this report states that the current pressure has reached a critical level whereas the demand for food and energy is increasing. Soils laboured conventionally are sources of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. In 2019, global anthropic emissions reached 54 billion equivalent tonnes of CO2, of which 31% came from agri-food systems. As for forest cover, a valuable indicator of climatic health, 4.7 billion hectares have been lost over the last ten years.

The FAO estimates that by 2050, it will be necessary for agriculture to increase food, forage and biofuel production levels by nearly 50% to satisfy global demand. Indeed, 9.7 billion people must be fed from now to then. This increase in food production leads to the assumption of larger withdrawals of water intended for agriculture, rising by up to 35%. This increase could lead to ecological disasters, aggravate tensions in sharing resources between users and foster the occurrence of new social conflicts for the use of soils and water. The 2021 report esteems that time is running out, and that it is urgent to protect the long-term future of land, soils and water in order to ensure the survival of agricultural and food systems.

Agricultural production in question

 

Extending cultivated farmland is difficult, in particular due to growing urbanisation, climate change and the rarefaction of water. The irrigation of farmland already consumes 70% of the world’s freshwater. Hydric stress[1] exceeds 100% in North Africa and 70% in Central and South Asia: it affects 733 million people. The degradation of soils and the pollution of surface and groundwater stems in part from agriculture, through the increased use of chemical inputs, the use of farm machinery, the impacts of monoculture, and larger areas for grazing.

The impacts of these degradations affect rural communities and, to a certain extent, poor urban populations the most. Their access to nutritive food and environmental services is limited. Maintaining production levels while limiting the degradation of land and worsening pollution is therefore a crucial challenge for agriculture.

 

Categories of soil degradation, according to the gravity of anthropic pressures and deterioration –  2015 – FAO

Integration and inclusiveness for sustainable agri-food systems

 

Despite the current level of pressure, the 2021 report states that the degradation of land is reversible and that we can achieve food security and sustainable agricultural production, while reaching the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). A full series of solutions is available. However, they require strong political determination, well designed policies and inclusive governance as well as participatory processes, especially regarding land resources. Large scale integrated and multipartite initiatives can be taken at the level of catchment and hydrographic basins.

Furthermore, the advances made in agronomic research have widened the technical means for managing land and water. Lastly, planning tools are available. Data collection can and must be improved, using digital tools and information technologies that allow monitoring the effects of climate change on agroecological capacities.

Only more sustainable use of land, soil and water resources will make agri-food systems more efficient, inclusive and resilient. Likewise, for food security and the health of both people and the planet.

To learn more on the French situation, read the article by Anne-Clair VIAL, President of ACTA- Agricultural Technical Institutes and member of IFGR: “The Varenne round table on agriculture and climate change: an approach with high stakes combining food sovereignty and sustainable resource management”.

Point de vue d’Anne-Claire Vial

[1] Hydric stress occurs when the demand for water exceeds the quantities available during a given period. It can be expressed by the quantity of water available per year per inhabitant, i.e., less than 1,700 m3 according to the WHO, or by the ratio between the need for water and available water resources.

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