..

The Conversation

  • Written by Alex McBratney, Professor of Digital Agriculture & Soil Science; Director, Sydney Institute of Agriculture, University of Sydney

It takes a lot to make a room of soil scientists gasp.

Last month, I presented at the National Soils Conference in Canberra, and asked 400 colleagues a simple question: do you think soil will play as significant a role in food production in 100 years as it does today?

A sea of hands went up: the consensus was clearly “yes”. I demurred, saying I’m not so sure.

Gasps rippled across the room. Why say that? You’re a soil scientist! Are you crazy?

Read more: Eyes down: how setting our sights on soil could help save the climate

A century is a long time. Most of our scientific horizons seem no more than a decade or two away. But how we manage food and our environments needs very long-term, inspired thinking.

Within my concern about whether the future of food production is on terra firma, there is also a hope.

That hope rests in the desire that there will be adequate, quality food for all of the 10 billion, 15 billion or 20 billion people in the future. To achieve that, perhaps we don’t need to rely on the our planet’s thin skin of soil after all.

Future farming

We already see the advance of vertical and hydroponic farming, and the potential for growing meat-like protein in the lab. Synthetic biology is one way forward.

In 100 years' time, maybe our food won't be grown in soil We have seen the advances of hydroponic farming. www.shutterstock.com, CC BY

So will we have the technological know-how, and will we be able to afford the infrastructural investment to produce all our food away from natural soil within a century?

Technologically we would like to think this is possible. But will we have the need? Do we have the will?

There are two predominant modern movements in relation to food. The first is the ethical and environmental movement, which holds that food should be produced without harm to the environment or perhaps even to animals. Soil is an important – and non-renewable – part of the environment. This raises the crucial question of whether it can continue to sustain the world’s growing population.

Alongside this is the slow food movement, with its concern for the production of high-quality food of known provenance. It’s sometimes called “paddock to plate” or “field to fork”.

Already, modern food production techniques to manage energy and water use can potentially give 10 times the yield per unit area that normal field conditions provide. This could be transferred to vertical growing spaces, 100 units high.

Read more: Feeding cities in the 21st century: why urban-fringe farming is vital for food resilience

That alone means we would need just 0.1% of the land area we use now for food production. This could free up huge tracts of land to allow soil to recover from degradation, restoring ecosystems across the planet. It would represent a high-tech answer to the question of environmental ethics.

Returning areas of soil currently used for food production back to native vegetation could help us conserve wildlife, defend against floods, and provide natural buffer areas that can filter water and cycle nutrients. Locations may include soils in rainforests with copious biodiversity and voluminous water-cycling capability, or wetlands upstream of cities prone to flooding.

In 100 years' time, maybe our food won't be grown in soil In Australia, the decline of carbon in cropping lands, soil erosion and nutrient imbalances continue largely unchecked and unabated. www.shutterstock.com, CC BY

This approach is not necessarily incompatible with the slow food movement. Indeed, it could actually help the movement achieve its goals, because it would take the pressure off the world’s soils, thus ensuring there is enough high-quality soil left to pursue high-quality ethical production.

More food for more people

The United Nations Food & Agricultural Organisation predicts a need to double agricultural production by 2050 to meet the demand of an estimated population of 9.5 billion. This must be done while simultaneously maintaining functioning ecosystems; therefore securing soils and their life-supporting functions have never been more crucial.

In Australia, while soil care has improved, it is not yet sustainable. Widespread soil acidification and the decline of carbon in cropping lands, soil erosion and nutrient imbalances continue largely unchecked and unabated. With the new approach the appropriate soil and terroir could be dedicated to high-quality sustainable bespoke food and wine production.

The great loessial soils of North America, Russia and Ukraine are often regarded as the best in the world – they could be managed sustainably for the production of cereals for centuries to come. Even some of these most food-productive soils could be returned to their former pre-agricultural state. In Australia our famous red-brown earths might be more useful for forestry than being pressed into service for cereal production.

Read more: Climate change is making soils saltier, forcing many farmers to find new livelihoods

That said, the infrastructural costs of producing food entirely without soil will be enormous. It’s more likely we will land on a blended solution that combines highly engineered growing spaces and “under the sky” soil-based agriculture.

Over the coming century, our challenge will be to move away from our almost total reliance on soil – that mutable and vital thin skin of the earth – to allow large tracts of our most vulnerable soils to repair. Healing our wounded soils will be an important step on the road to global sustainability.

Authors: Alex McBratney, Professor of Digital Agriculture & Soil Science; Director, Sydney Institute of Agriculture, University of Sydney

Read more http://theconversation.com/in-100-years-time-maybe-our-food-wont-be-grown-in-soil-108049

Politics

Prime Minister interview with Alan Jones

Good morning Alan.   ALAN JONES: Thank you for your time. Could I just begin by saying that politicians rarely get praise. I have been speaking to farmers during the course of the weekend. You wen...

Alan Jones - avatar Alan Jones

Scott Morrison on Shorten's Border Protection backdown

Border Protection   PRIME MINISTER: Less than 24 hours ago, I warned Australia that Bill Shorten would make Australia weaker and the Labor Party would weaken our border protection. That they could...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Funding to support women and children escaping domestic violence

Hundreds more women and children escaping domestic and family violence will have a safe place to sleep with a $78 million investment by the Morrison Government.   This investment includes a $60 mi...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Business News

Sharing the Load - A Guide to Outsourcing as an SME

As a small and medium-size enterprize you need to be able to keep pace with changing technologies and stay ahead of the game. Generally, this means there is a definite need to outsource your SME’s I...

News Company - avatar News Company

Why Branding is vital to your family owned business

Once available only to large corporations, branding is now more accessible and vitally important to every size (and type) of family business, including yours. But what is branding and how does it ...

Stella Gianotto - avatar Stella Gianotto

Statewide Super announce Tony D’Alessandro as CEO

Tony D’Alessandro Tony D’Alessandro will be the new Chief Executive Officer of Statewide Super, effective 1 March 2019. Mr D’Alessandro will replace Richard Nunn, who in January announced his ...

Media Release Service - avatar Media Release Service

Travel

Older generation Australians are embracing solo travel

Allianz predicts a rise in solo travel in 2019, revealing those most likely to ‘go -it-alone’ among the 50+ age group   The popular ‘solo travel’ trend is predicted to continue in 2019 with mor...

Media Release - avatar Media Release

Fun Things You Must Do In Perth

Perth: Sun, sand and 19 beaches might seem to sum up the city, but not quite. The sunniest capital city in Australia offers so much more for you to do. Regardless of what your idea of fun is, you wi...

News Company - avatar News Company

ex-HMAS Tobruk dive site Fraser Coast

Fraser Coast Has a New Sunken Treasure for Divers to Explore A rush of scuba divers from around Australia is expected to begin exploring the underwater wonderland created by the ex-HMAS Tobruk after...

Tracey Joynson - avatar Tracey Joynson

You might also like