Droughts have become increasingly prevalent, rising by nearly 30 percent globally since 2000, posing a significant threat to agricultural systems and resulting in billions of dollars in economic losses, according to a report by the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). However, the adoption of sustainable land management practices offers a ray of hope for farmers to regain control over their land, rejuvenate the soil, and mitigate the effects of drought.
Roland Bunch, Founder and CEO of Better Soils, Better Lives, emphasizes that the root cause of drought is often misunderstood. Contrary to popular belief, it is not solely due to a decrease in total rainfall. Bunch urges people to redirect their focus downward to the soil. He highlights that the organic matter content of the soil has declined from the normal 4 percent before the 1980s to less than 1 percent today.
Organic matter plays a crucial role in water storage. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) estimates that for every 1 percent increase in organic matter, the amount of water available to plants increases by 25,000 gallons per acre. Additionally, a single pound of soil organic matter (SOM) can retain up to 20 pounds of water, as per the agency's findings.
The presence of dead vegetation, living roots, worms, and microbes in the soil contributes to the accumulation of carbon. These carbon compounds eventually bind together, forming stable soil aggregates that create pore spaces, acting as a sponge to hold water. This network of pores allows water to infiltrate and settle in the soil.
Cover cropping plays a vital role in building soil organic matter. Bunch defines green manure/cover crops (gm/ccs) as plants, including trees, bushes, crawlers, and creepers, that, when planted alongside cash crops, significantly increase soil moisture. According to scientific research conducted in Malawi, using gm/ccs effectively on degraded soils can raise the rainwater infiltration rate from about 15 percent to 60 percent.
Over 15 million farmers worldwide are already embracing cover cropping, with many more considering its adoption. Ibrahim Thiaw, Executive Secretary of the UNCCD, acknowledges the growing interest in sustainable land management practices that enhance ground cover, recognizing its crucial role in improving land health and water retention.
Modern industrial farming systems, in contrast, not only prove costly and inefficient but also contribute to land degradation. They are responsible for 80 percent of deforestation, 70 percent of freshwater usage, and the loss of species diversity on the land.
Furthermore, intensive agriculture, drought, and subsequent soil degradation exacerbate the hunger crisis. The number of people affected by famines in Africa skyrocketed from 10 million before 2010 to 40 million in 2020, reaching a staggering 60 million people last year, as highlighted by Bunch.
Food systems that embrace sustainable practices like cover cropping have the potential to produce more food with less land, simultaneously increasing global gross domestic product (GDP) by 50 percent, according to Thiaw. Recognizing the transformative impact of land restoration on future food systems, Thiaw highlights various initiatives, including Africa's Green Great Wall, Vietnam's agroforestry methods, and pledges to restore over 450 million hectares of land under the UNCCD.
Ultimately, government policies and investments should promote sustainable land stewardship, recognizing its multiple benefits. This approach includes providing food for all, reducing waste and carbon emissions, creating employment opportunities, restoring declining species, and enhancing resilience to drought. With a collective commitment to sustainable land management, we can combat drought, safeguard food security, and build a more resilient future.