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College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences


Solution to Global Food Crisis is Managing Natural Resources

April 23, 2008

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The world may be on the verge of a second Green Revolution, says an Ohio State University soil scientist. But while the original pulled people from the brink of starvation using genetics, he believes the success of the current movement will be rooted in careful management of Earth's natural resources.

Rattan Lal, a researcher with the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center and world-renown for his work in sustainable management of soil and natural resources, said seed germplasm to improve crop production won't be useful if soil, water and climate aren't carefully managed and conserved.

"This second Green Revolution has to be different than what was done in the 1960s. It must be resource-based, not seed-based. It means restoring degraded soils and conserving water resources, while providing seed genetics that support changes in climate," said Lal, a professor with the School of Environment and Natural Resources. "This approach will require a different kind of thinking and must involve a host of experts: soil scientists, climatologists, social scientists, and plant breeders."

It's a philosophy that Lal sees as a solution to the current global food crisis -- a phenomenon of skyrocketing food prices, driven by a multitude of factors, that is putting over 1 billion people worldwide out of reach of the very basics of survival. And it's a situation that won't be alleviated anytime soon, and most likely will get worse as the world's population increases, said Lal.

"People whose income is less than a dollar a day are finding that food is not accessible. It's a problem that will persist for quite a while and more than likely become more severe," said Lal. "We are at 6.5 billion in world population now. By 2050, we will be at 9.5 billion. Ninety-nine percent of that population increase will be in developing countries, places like Africa and Southeast Asia, where resources are already in short supply. What we are experiencing now is just the tip of the iceberg."

It is in those developing countries, where farmland is abused and equity shifts with political and economic unrest, that natural resource management is of the greatest importance in stabilizing the global food crisis.

A way of managing the environment is to start with the soil, said Lal.

"Improve the soil by improving its quality, and to do that you must restore carbon to the soil," said Lal, adding that carbon sequestration increases soil health and improves soil structure. "Places like Africa have benefited from improved plant genetics, but research has shown that improved seed germplasm does not perform well under poor soil conditions, generally yielding one-third to one-sixth of its potential. Crops grown in Africa are only yielding 1,000 pounds per acre per year, but have the potential to yield two to four times more. The plant genetics are not being fully utilized."

Lal said production practices, such as no-till, agroforestry, cover crops and manure application, are all ways to restore, conserve and build carbon in the soil.

Wisely managing water resources through efficient harvesting, containment and conservation is another important aspect of natural resource management. Throw in worldwide climate shifts that are having a greater impact on crop production, and managing soil and water become even more significant, even in areas where land remains fertile.

"There are 5 billion acres of agricultural land worldwide that were once productive but are now degraded. It's important to save that land, as well as preserve the land that is still fertile," said Lal. "Because of climate change, our food-production zones are shifting northward. For every 1 degree centigrade change in temperature, those zones are shifting 150 miles north. So places like Siberia and Canada are becoming prime land for crop production."

Modern technology, combined with resource management, can help bring farmers into the next phase of crop production and management, said Lal.

"Modern technology can play an important role in that resource-based strategy," said Lal. "Such land-saving technology includes nanotechnology that can improve fertilizer use, sub-drip irrigation systems that bring water and nutrients directly to plant roots, and crops that emit molecular-based signals when they need nutrients and water before yields suffer."

But the implementation of resource management techniques and technological developments is a slow process, and whatever immediate solution proposed for the global food crisis is just a band-aid, said Lal.

"Improving soil quality, conserving water resources -- that takes time. Any improvements implemented today take years for results," said Lal. "But they have the potential to solve our food deficit problem. Global leaders just need to recognize that new paradigm shift."

According to Ohio State University soil science research focusing on soil quality in such countries as the United States, Africa, India, South America and Latin America, if soil carbon content was increased by one ton per hectare (roughly 2,000 pounds per 2.5 acres) using conservation practices, grain yield would increase 220-440 pounds per 2.5 acres, wheat yield from 44 pounds to 110 pounds per 2.5 acres, and soybean yield from 44 pounds to 88 pounds per 2.5 acres.

"What that means for countries like Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, whose food deficit will be 22 million tons by 2010, is that if farmers can adopt carbon-storing practices, food production could increase by 32 million tons every year, basically eliminating that food deficit," said Lal. "In addition, there will be an increase in the production of root crops (cassava, yam and sweet potato, which are food staples in sub-Saharan Africa) by as much as 7 to 11 million tons per year."

The key to such success, said Lal, is to add value to Earth's natural resources through agriculture.

"We are undervaluing those natural resources, like soil and water. And when we do that, those resources can be abused, and that is what is happening," said Lal. "Agriculture, once blamed for environmental degradation, can now be part of the solution to the crisis that the world is facing."

Candace Pollock
Rattan Lal