THE GOOD FOOD COMES FROM THE HEALTH OF THE SOIL

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The protection of soils not only prevents tragedies caused by illegal construction but also safeguards the quality of food from poisons spread in the ground. The FAO’s alarm on the eve of World Soil Day: in Europe, 80% is degraded by pesticides. Industrial agriculture is under scrutiny. The natural alternative is conversion to organic methods.

Too often, we ignore the relationship between what we eat and agricultural soil. Over the last few decades, a deep divide has emerged between the food on our tables and the environments in which it’s produced. To emphasize that nutrition begins with the soil and that its management plays a fundamental role in food security, the dominant theme of this year’s World Soil Day, held on the upcoming Monday, December 5th, is: “Soils, where food begins.” The importance of soil lies in the functions it serves: hosting a quarter of the world’s biodiversity, providing necessary nourishment to plants, and storing carbon. However, we’re facing diseased soil in vast areas of the planet that can no longer produce healthy and nutritious food. Particularly since the 2000s, there has been a growing degradation of soils due to changes in land use, loss of organic carbon, erosion, pollution, habitat deterioration, among other factors. This extraordinary biochemical laboratory that is soil has also undergone significant transformations.

FAO data shows that physical, chemical, and biological soil degradation affects more than a third of the world’s agricultural land. In Europe, 80% of agricultural soils contain residues of pesticides, especially glyphosate, hydrocarbons, heavy metals, and microplastics. The European Union, in its strategic plan for soil by 2030, highlights that poor soil health in Europe is attributable to impermeabilization activities, excessive exploitation, erosion, compaction, reduction of organic matter, pollution, loss of biodiversity, and salinization.

Degraded soil loses fertility, cannot produce healthy food, and fails to perform fundamental ecosystem services (carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas control, nutrient cycling, hydrological control). It takes from a hundred to a thousand years to form a centimeter of fertile soil, but only a few years of incorrect agricultural practices to degrade it. Soil, as a common and non-renewable resource, is a concept that is challenging to grasp. This ecosystem has not received the necessary attention so far. Even in the recent Cop 27, agriculture and soil use remained on the fringes of the debate.

Ninety-five percent of global food is produced in the soil, but soil fertility loss poses a threat to global population nutrition. Nutrient-poor soil produces nutrient-poor food. The latest FAO report on the state of food security estimates that over the last two years, more than 900 million people have suffered from hunger, while another 2.3 billion people have had inadequate nutrition due to soils lacking micro and macronutrients necessary for health. Sustainable soil management becomes an indispensable goal to have healthy land and healthy food. The “green revolution” focused on “useful soil” for maximum productivity, involving heavy use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. However, a “useful soil” doesn’t equate to a healthy soil, and the established agricultural practices have, over the long term, led to soil depletion, fertility loss, severe pollution, disruption of microbial balance, and the release of greenhouse gases. But what is meant by healthy soil? According to the FAO, it is “the ability of soil to sustain productivity, biodiversity, and environmental services of terrestrial ecosystems.” The loss of organic matter is the main factor affecting soil and food quality. Agricultural systems are at a “breaking point” because soil safeguarding has been lacking, failing to ensure sufficient food for the human population. The allocation of 70% of agricultural land to animal feed production has contributed to a serious imbalance in the global food system.

Experiences gained in recent years, in response to the intensive agriculture-based production model, aim to ensure an adequate level of productivity, respecting soil life (biodiversity), and maintaining the fundamental functions it provides. The quality and quantity of food reaching our tables depend on how we treat the soil. FAO has estimated that sustainable agricultural practices could lead to a 50% increase in global agricultural production while mitigating the effects of climate change on agriculture. Support for resilient and sustainable food systems becomes a necessity to provide sufficient food and counteract planetary warming. It involves pursuing a paradigm shift. Utilizing biodiversity for better agronomy is the theme of the conference to be held on December 5th in Brussels, International Soil Day, indicating the need to move away from the current chemistry-based model, seen as a solution to soil problems, towards agronomy supported by biodiversity.

The drastic reduction of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is a vigorously pursued goal to safeguard human health and soil health. Reconnecting food and soil is also important to address all fantasies and suggestions about synthetic food, a food without soil, propagated as a “solution to world hunger.” Humanity does not need food created in industrial laboratories because there is no biochemical laboratory more efficient than soil. However, to perform its function, it’s necessary to maintain soil health, developing a transition strategy towards a global agricultural model that focuses on soil and food quality. […]

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