Saving our soils and reducing hunger

by Henrylito D. Tacio


In 1974, Henry Kissinger, then the United States’ Secretary of State, famously declared that by 1984 no child, woman or man would ever go to bed hungry.  That promise, unfortunately, remains grossly unfulfilled. 


“One fifth of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty, while 800 million people are chronically hungry,” decried Eveline Herfkens, the United Nations Secretary-General’s executive coordinator for the Millennium Development Goals Campaign.


At the 1996 World Food Summit, political leaders from 186 countries pledged to halve the number of hungry people in the world by the year 2015 – or a reduction of 20 million each year.  Yet, “farm from decreasing, the number of hungry people in the world is currently increasing,” said Jacques Diouf, director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.


In Asia, the challenge of reducing poverty and hunger is equally daunting as the region is home to two thirds of the world’s poor.  “The fight against global poverty must be won here in this region,” said the Manila-based Asian Development Bank.  “If the world is to halve poverty by 2015, Asia and the Pacific must be the spearhead in this effort.”


With the force and empathy of poetry, Edwin Markham wrote in his poem, The Man With the Hoe, the picture of someone who is poor: “The thing the Lord God made and gave to have dominion over sea and land” but than whom there is no shape more terrible. “A thing that grieves not and that never hopes,” he typifies a “humanity betrayed, plundered, profaned, and disinherited.”


Macli-ing Dulag, in a poem translated into English, echoed the same sentiment. “If the land could speak for us, it would speak for us,” he wrote.  “It would say, like us, that the years have forged the bond of life that ties us together.  It was our labor that made the land she is; and it was her yielding that gave us life.  We and the land are one!


He continued: “But who would listen?  Will they listen, those invisible, who, from an unfeeling distance, claim the land is theirs?   Because pieces of paper say so?  Because the pieces of paper are backed by men who speak threatening words, men who have power to shoot and to kill, men who have power to take our men and our sons away?  If the land could speak, it would speak for us! For the land is us.”


Land is one of the main reasons why the world is currently facing hunger.  Gary Gardner, of the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, said that in the past, civilizations could simply leave one piece of land for another when the soil nutrient’s had been depleted.   Today, we no longer have this luxury; the world has, for al intents and purposes, run out of available cropland.


The thin layer of earth we call topsoil is essential to land’s fertility.  Typically, only some 15 centimeters deep, topsoil is a rich medium containing organic matter, minerals, nutrients, insects, microbes, worms and other elements needed to provide a nurturing environment for plants.


Oftentimes, topsoil are being washed or blown away.  “Soil is made by God and put here for man to use, not for one generation but forever,” said Rev. Harold R. Watson, former director of the Davao-based Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center.  “It takes thousands of years to build one inch of topsoil but only good strong rain to remove one inch from unprotected soil on the slopes of mountains.”


Erosion is the most pervasive form of soil degradation.  “In the developing world, erosion and poverty interact in a destructive cycle: erosion is often rooted in poverty and crowding, while poverty and crowding are often the harvest of erosion,” wrote Gardner in a Worldwatch paper.


Humans cause erosion at a rate 10 to 15 times faster than any natural process, according to Bruce Wilkinson, a sedimentary geologist working with the Syracuse University in New York City.  Global erosion, he pointed out, is occurring at a rate of about 75 gigatons a year – a gigaton is equal to a billion tons.


“To put that into context,” Wilkinson explained, “current annual amounts of rock and soil moved over the Earth’s surface in response to human activities are an amount of material that would fill the Grand Canyon of Arizona in about 50 years.”


“Soil erosion is an enemy to any nation – far worse than any outside enemy coming into a country and conquering it because it is an enemy you cannot see vividly,” said Watson, who received the 1985 Ramon Magsaysay Award for peace and international understanding. “It’s a slow creeping enemy that soon possesses the land. We must consider ourselves in a state of emergency; our topsoil is all going…”


Why so much ado about topsoil?  Lester R. Brown and Edward C. Wolf, authors of a Worldwatch paper entitled Soil Erosion: Quiet Crisis in the World Economy, say the erosion affects crop production in two ways.  They explain: “The loss of topsoil reduces the inherent productivity of land, both through the loss of nutrients and degradation of the physical structure.  It also increases the costs of production.


“When farmers lose topsoil,” the authors continue, “they may increase land productivity by substituting energy in the form of fertilizer.  Hence, farmers losing topsoil may experience either a loss in land productivity or a rise in costs of agricultural inputs.  And if productivity drops too low or agricultural costs rise too high, farmers are forced to abandon their land.”


Brown, who is now with the Earth Policy Institute, points out that the immediate effects of soil erosion are economic but in the long run its ultimate effects are social.  “When soils are depleted and crops are poorly nourished, people are often undernourished as well.   Failure to respond to the erosion threat will lead not only to the degradation of land, but to the degradation of life itself.”


“There is sufficiency for man’s need, but not for man’s greed,” reminded Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi.


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