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Tired soils put future food availability at risk

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The increasing degradation of earth’s peak soil through over-cultivation and nutrient mining is putting pressure on food production with researchers warning that by 2050 agricultural production will dip by up to 30 percent even as the population is expected to hit 9.6 billion, up from 7.2 billion last year.

This is already becoming evident in Sub-Saharan Africa where soil degradation has hit unprecedented highs.
In East Africa, One of the most comprehensive studies on soils ever undertaken has confirmed that farming practices have leeched the soil of nutrients without replenishing them, to such a degree as to be halving many key crop yields, threatening the income and food security of over 85 per cent of East Africans.

Measuring the organic and mineral content of the soils, the researchers found that the levels of important soil minerals that sustain plant growth were low, and that the little fertility left was mainly from topsoil organic matter.
The researchers said the problem was made more severe in that East Africa has one of the lowest rates of fertilizer use in the world and a rapidly increasing population to feed.

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The barren soils are the result of years of farming with insufficient replacement of nutrients by small-holders, mostly practicing low-input agriculture. But the results now threaten future farming and the food and income of millions of people in the region.

“We know far more about the amount of oil there is globally and how long those stocks will last than we know about how much soil there is,” said John Crawford, Director of the Sustainable Systems Programme in Rothamsted Research in England in an earlier interview.

Demand for food and natural resources has led to aggressive soil mining and aggressive cultivation with overgrazing, and deforestation stripping the topsoil of vital nutrients and beneficial organisms while reducing the soil’s ability to hold water.

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According to Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 25 percent of agricultural land is highly degraded, while a further 8 percent is moderately degraded.

“If we keep treating our soil the way we do, we will have to convert about 70 percent of the earth’s surface into agriculture to meet the demand for food by 2050 (from about 40 percent now),” Crawford said.
Emerging nations are also embracing Western diets that include more consumption of meat, which will add further to the strain on agricultural resources.

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