COLUMBUS, Ohio -- From food security to climate change to energy demands, the world faces a myriad of critical sustainability issues, all whose potential solution may lie right beneath our feet.
Rattan Lal, an Ohio State University soil scientist with the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, suggests that soil and its resources are the answer, and sustainability can be achieved through the realization of 10 basic management principles.
"We are dealing with 10 global issues at the moment: food security, availability of water, climate change, energy demand, waste disposal, extinction of biodiversity, soil degradation and desertification, poverty, political and ethnic instability, and rapid population increase. The solution to all of these lies in soil management," said Lal, with the School of Environment and Natural Resources. "It doesn't mean that agriculture is the only solution, but it plays a major role in addressing these issues."
Lal synthesized years of scientific literature on soil degradation and the positive impacts of restoration and developed 10 basic principles of sustainable soil management. The principles, published in the January/February 2009 issue of Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, as well as the journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development, are meant to encourage policymakers to support soil amendment practices.
"I'd like to see policymakers implement policies which will encourage the adoption of such practices as conservation agriculture, integrated nutrient management, crop rotation, agroforestry -- techniques that the scientific community knows would sustain soils and agricultural practices," said Lal.
Lal's principles of sustainable soil management are:
• Soil degradation is a biophysical process, but driven by social, economic and political forces. Minimizing degradation and enhancing restoration depends on addressing the human dimensions that drive land misuse.
• When people are suffering from poverty, they pass that suffering on to the land. The stewardship concept is important only when the basic needs are adequately met.
• You cannot take more out of the soil than what you put in it without degrading its quality. Outputs must balance inputs, said Lal.
• Marginal soils cultivated with marginal inputs produce marginal yields and support marginal living.
• Plants cannot differentiate between organic and inorganic inputs therefore it is a matter of logistics in making nutrients available in sufficient quantity, in the appropriate form, and at the right time for optimum growth and yields.
• Mining carbon has the same effect on global warming, whether it is through extractive farming (tillage) or through the burning of fossil fuels.
• Soils can be a source of carbon extraction or a sink for carbon storage, depending on how the soil is managed. If used as a sink, the soil has the capacity to store three gigatons of carbon a year, translating into a reduction of 50 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the next five decades.
• Even the most elite crop varieties developed through biotechnology and genetic engineering cannot extract water and nutrients from the soil where they do not exist. "This principle is very important. There are those who argue that genetically engineered varieties will solve production problems. Not necessarily true," said Lal. "Improvements can only be realized if crops are grown on well-managed soils."
• Improved soil management is the engine of economic development in rural communities, especially in developing countries.
• Traditional knowledge and modern innovations go hand-in-hand. One cannot solve current global issues without the other. "We can develop upon traditional knowledge, but those who ignore modern innovations must be prepared to endure more sufferings," said Lal.
Lal said he developed the soil management principles to draw attention to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals -- a commitment to solve and/or improve upon eight global issues by 2015. The issues include poverty and hunger, universal education, gender equality, child health, maternal health, HIV/AIDS, environmental sustainability and global partnerships.
"The UN defined these goals in 2000 and now we know that none of these goals will be met by 2015. Why? Because soil and agricultural management are not being addressed," said Lal. "If we do not address these issues now by paying more attention to how we can sustain the soil, then 20 years from now we will be talking about the very same things."