Restoring our soils by learning from history

Written by Roland Bunch

Most of our ideas about soils ignore the millions of years before mankind started farming. But what happened during the 99.9% of a soil’s history contains very important lessons. So let us celebrate the International Year of Soils by looking at what that history can tell us – and build on those lessons for the future.

Farming Matters | 31.1 | March 2015

Living soils, the result of green manure cover crops

Soil fertility has become the primary limiting factor for the world’s smallholder farmers.

In the tropical world, fallowing kept farmers’ soils fertile for thousands of years by providing 70 to 95% of their soil organic matter. But today, since most smallholder farmers possess less than 2 hectares of land, in a large part because of population growth, fallowing is in its death throes. As a result, the developing world is experiencing a severe soil organic matter crisis.

The soil organic matter crisis is critical because soils are being so rapidly damaged and depleted, because soil fertility has become the primary limiting factor for the world’s smallholder farmers, and because restoring the soil is a ‘foundational technology’. If a farmer adopts a new cassava variety, it may improve his or her cassava production, but it will do almost nothing for the farmer’s maize, bean, vegetable or animal production. But if the farmer successfully improves her or his soil, it will have a major impact on everything else, too. Foundational technologies, such as soil restoration, can therefore provide the basis for the sustainable, long-term development of an entire farm.

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