By Sarah Singla: Canet de Salars, South of France
Farmers don’t inherit the soil from their parents as much as they borrow it from their children. As the International Year of Soils comes to a close, we have to recognize that taking care of the soil is not merely a privilege but also an obligation.
As a farmer, I stand with farmers around the world to declare we must continue to do our part to fight climate change, especially in the aftermath of the United Nations Climate Change Conference. It just wrapped up in Paris, due north of my farm in Canet de Salars, where I grow wheat, triticale, peas, canola, alfalfa, and buckwheat on 250 acres.
History books teach us what happens to civilizations that don’t manage their soil. The vanished empires of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt offer a stark example. Where they once thrived, all we see today are deserts and violence.
We cannot let this become our fate as well.
So we must bear in mind several of the key messages of the International Year of Soils. Healthy soils are the basis of healthy crop production, giving us food, fiber, fuel, and medicine. They promote biodiversity. They store and filter water, alleviating both floods and droughts. And they play an essential role in the carbon cycle.
As we grow crops, we have to regenerate the natural resources that make agriculture possible.
One of the most important steps we can take is to have soil on farms mimic soil in nature, supporting plants on the ground all year long. This means that in addition to raising our staple crops, we should also plant cover crops over the winter. We can do many things with this cover crop—harvest it, graze it, or let it be—but we must allow it to do its main job of protecting the soil from erosion.
This is what I tell my fellow farmers as often as possible: You can do what you want with your cover crop, but please just do it. Build as much biomass as possible.
That’s because soil is an irreplaceable natural resource. Leaving it bare is almost criminal. Once it’s gone, we can’t have it back.
Our cover crops are best understood not as insurance policies but as opportunities. A good cover crop doesn’t merely perform a defensive function. It also improves soil fertility, allowing farmers to heighten the quality and yield of what we grow in our actual agricultural production.
When it comes to climate change, we need to think about farming the same way—not as a liability to be condemned, but as a chance to make things better. Our crops, after all, can help capture the greenhouses gases that are behind so many of our challenges with warming temperatures.
The soil is an essential part of this. Healthy soils provide the world’s largest store of carbon sequestration. The long-term conversion of forests and grasslands to farms and ranches for the purpose of feeding people has complicated this project, but smart agricultural practices can begin to mitigate the harmful side effects.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations—the arm of the UN that is behind the International Year of Soils—promotes an approach called Climate Smart Agriculture. Its goal is to help nations achieve food security under climate change through good public policy and wise investments in a way that boosts productivity, improves adaptability to change, and removes greenhouse gases when possible.
Technology can help. Although we should avoid thinking about it as a magical solution to all of our problems, it can become a fundamental part of any agricultural strategy. If genetic modification allows us to grow more food on less land, for example, it can help us meet the challenges of global population growth, food security, and climate change. Farmers with access to knowledge and technology can be partners in the quest for sustainability, rather than adversaries.
We may borrow the soil from our children, but we can also give them the gift of excellent practices, so they can make the most of what we leave behind. After all, when we are talking about agriculture and food security, we are also talking about peace on earth!
Sarah Singla grows wheat, triticale for seed, rape, alfalfa, winter peas and many cover crops on a family farm in the South of France. Sarah is a Nuffield Scholar and member of the Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org).