“Soils are vital for feeding the world,” said Qu Dongyu, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), opening the Global Symposium on Soils for Nutrition. “Healthy soils can significantly contribute to ending hunger and creating a healthy planet, but only if we address soil global threats, including nutrient imbalance,” Qu stressed.
The chief aim of the Symposium was to review the knowledge status regarding the role of soil fertility in providing sufficient, high-quality, safe and nutrient-rich food with regard to better nourished people, animals and plants.
The Symposium also identified critical knowledge gaps and prepared the basis for discussion between political decision-makers, the fertiliser industry, practitioners and other interest groups. Here, the focus was above all on developing solutions enabling more nutrient-rich agricultural food systems for better health and greater wellbeing of people while simultaneously protecting the environment. Just how this can be accomplished is shown in the new publication “Soils for nutrition: state of the art”, which was presented during the Symposium.
Qu said the recent FAO report on the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World confirmed a significant rise in global food insecurity and malnutrition as a consequence of multiple drivers, including the COVID-19 pandemic, climate crisis and ongoing conflicts. He also mentioned the rising cost of fuel, feed and fertiliser. In addition, there are other problems such as land degradation, growing inequalities, pollution, and loss of biodiversity.
These complex and overlapping challenges must be addressed, while also producing safe, affordable and nutritious foods, the Director-General stressed. In order to achieve this, agrifood systems must be transformed to be more efficient, more inclusive, more resilient and more sustainable, he added. “We cannot achieve the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals without this transformation, and we only have seven years to do so. Healthy soils are our ally to make this transformation a reality,” Qu said.
Ninety-five per cent of global food is produced in soils, which have the capacity to store, transform and recycle nutrients that people need to survive. Of the 18 nutrients essential to plants, 15 are supplied by soils – if they are healthy.
The FAO report Status of the World’s Soil Resources identifies soil nutrient imbalance as one of the main global soil threats, caused by the underuse, misuse and overuse of nutrients. The excessive use or the misuse of fertilisers also have negative effects on ecosystems and contribute to climate change, including through biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions.
Translating these impacts into economic losses totalled approximately $200 billion annually, Qu said. Moreover, the costs for human health and the impact on aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems amounted to $400 billion–$4 000 billion annually, he added.
The FAO Director-General summarised some initiatives to manage soil sustainably. The Voluntary Guidelines for Sustainable Soil Management were a key tool, he told the Symposium, adding that the International Code of Conduct for the Sustainable Use and Management of Fertilizers constituted a transversal approach to a complex problem. Some other important outcomes of the Symposium were the agenda for action, which was presented in the document “Soils, where food begins and the establishment of an International Network on Soil Fertility and Fertilizers” (INSOFF).
"We must use these tools and seek cross-cutting solutions that embrace nature-positive solutions, such as bio-fertilisers, increased soil organic matter and crop diversification. They should also optimize technological tools for more precise use of fertilisers, and promote the circular economy," Qu said. "We also need to support enhanced soil information and monitoring systems, harmonised soil analysis protocols and fertiliser quality assessment, and to empower farmers to adopt good practices."
The Director-General said FAO is committed to a holistic, coordinated cross-sectoral collaboration to promote and boost soil fertility and combat nutrient imbalance. He pointed out that health people and a healthy planet both begin with healthy soils. Following a country-driven process, FAO’s Global Soil Partnership had been working on soil data, mapping and assessment, including the Global Soil Nutrient and Nutrient Budget Maps, in order to understand the fertility of our global soils and guide decisions, Qu explained.