27 November 2023

To meet growing food demand while capturing proper volumes of greenhouse gases, soil health must be a priority, says the World Economic Forum. Precision agriculture is essential

by Matteo Cavallito

 

“Investing in soil health can increase food production and reduce GHG emissions in parallel,” the World Economic Forum (WEF) just said, analyzing the impact of intervention strategies given the essential goal of food security.

“Agriculture,” the WEF explained, “contributes around 25% of worldwide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and has historically been seen as a zero-sum game: either reduce emissions and fall short of producing the food the world needs or expand to feed a growing global population and accelerate climate change.” Today, however, we can overcome this problem.

Betting on soil

“Soils have historically been the most overlooked asset in improving agriculture and mitigating climate change,” WEF writes. Yet FAO estimates suggest that soils can sequester more than 10 percent of human-caused emissions. Recent studies indicate an even higher potential. Some hypotheses suggest a sequestration capacity equal to half of annual global CO2 emissions, Other studies even suggest that our soils could potentially sequester more CO2 than we emit each year.

Among the most important strategies for curbing greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture is reducing deforestation.

The destruction of forested areas, in fact, results in land use change, the basis, the Forum says, for one-third of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. These strategies are key to reconciling climate mitigation efforts with increased production. Indeed, again according to the FAO, agricultural production will have to increase by 60 percent by mid-century to meet global food demand.

Using the most suitable fertilizers

Another key strategy is maximizing soil potential through adequate and calibrated nutrient inputs. Soils around the world, WEF notes, are deficient in key substances that limit their potential to increase yields and maximize carbon sequestration. In particular, 46 percent of soils do not contain enough phosphorus, an essential element for agriculture. So what to do?

“Rebalancing soil nutrients requires ongoing investment, but not the kind of investment farmers might expect,” the Forum writes.

“This investment does not require that they spend significant capital on new infrastructure and technologies. Instead, soil health is improved simply by providing the soil with the nutrients it needs.” One viable system is the replacement of conventional fertilizers with customized blends that can act on soil nutrient imbalances.

The role of precision agriculture

The calibrated application of fertilizers is often associated with what is known as precision agriculture. That is, that set of techniques that enable farmers to optimize resource efficiency while minimizing waste. “Importantly, precision agriculture does not translate into higher costs for farmers,” WEF says.

“Instead, it provides farmers with an economic incentive to manage the nutrition of their soils more efficiently while maximizing the potential for soil-based carbon sequestration.”

Agriculture, the Forum writes, highlights a special feature when compared with other sectors: it can experience both increased production and reduced impact. Therefore, “Investing in soil health should be widely embraced as a readily scalable and proven method of reducing global emissions, closing the global yield gap and improving the resilience of agriculture against climate change.”