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The Dirt on Soil: Healthy Soil is Super Hero in Fight Against Hunger and Climate Change

By Dina Esposito, Feed the Future Deputy Coordinator for Development and USAID Global Food Crisis Coordinator

In the southern region of Ethiopia, the Kite Primary Cooperative produces fast-growing, high-yielding, disease-resistant coffee seedlings to distribute to growers. Feed the Future is supporting growers in high-potential coffee-producing districts of Ethiopia by developing coffee nursery growing groups like this one, which in turn has created job opportunities for more than 300 young women and men.

Photo Credit: John Healey, Fintrac Inc.

Coming out of the devastating Dust Bowl, President Roosevelt wrote a letter imploring all state governors to take action to help “conserve the soil as our basic asset.” In it, he warned that “The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself.”

His words still ring true today. Nearly all of the food we eat comes directly or indirectly from our soils, and without healthy soils, we will destroy our ability to feed ourselves. While much of the earth’s soil has started to rebound, about one-third of soils worldwide are degraded mainly because we have not done our part to care for them. The biggest issue, especially in Africa where soil health is still declining, is that farmers have relied on the soil for decades to produce crops with limited return of nutrients back into the soil. Insufficient erosion control, improper fertilizer use, over tilling, growing the same crop year after year, and other unsustainable production practices have created unhealthy soils. This means that many foods are not as rich in vitamins and minerals because they get nearly all of their nutrients from the soil.

All of this has huge implications for both food security and climate change – two of the most urgent and intertwined crises of our time. More than 700 million people around the world go to bed hungry each night, and fighting hunger will only get harder: global demand for food is projected to increase by 50 percent between now and 2050. At the same time, farmers will struggle to keep up as they face a changing climate that is driving or exacerbating prolonged droughts, catastrophic storms, and the proliferation of plant pests and disease. Unless we change the way we work, crop yields are projected to fall by as much as 30 percent.

Soil sits at the crossroads of these challenges. With soil holding 80 percent of the world’s carbon found on land, it’s one key tool for how we can both adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. Further, if we sustainably manage our soils, we could also increase food production by up to 58 percent.

On December 5 – World Soil Day – we’re spotlighting the importance of healthy soils and how USAID is using the surge in funding provided by the U.S. Congress to address the global food crisis by bolstering our efforts on soil health in new and innovative ways:

Returning Nutrients to the Soil by Getting Fertilizer to Farmers and Helping Them Make the Most of it  

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine affected global food security and made fertilizer front page news. The impact of the ongoing war, piled on top of COVID-19 supply chain disruptions, caused fertilizer prices to skyrocket to almost two and a half times pre-pandemic prices. For many people who never really think about fertilizer, the crisis put into harsh focus the role that fertilizer plays in creating the fertile soil farmers need to feed the world.

The Dirt on Soil: 50% of the Food We Eat Would Not Grow Without Fertilizer. We need healthy soil to end hunger.

In response to the fertilizer shocks, USAID partnered with fertilizer companies, increased access to finance, and used our partner networks to get fertilizer into the hands of smallholder farmers around the world.

The crisis also made clear that fertilizer access was only a piece of the puzzle. Efficient use of fertilizer is even more important because even when farmers have fertilizer, they don’t always see the returns. Sometimes the soils are too unhealthy to respond or farmers did not have the right fertilizer or the right information to make the most out of their limited supply. In some cases, farmers used excess fertilizer in hopes of higher yields and limiting this type of wastage is a key issue to reducing the environmental harm of fertilizer use and helping farmers use their resources in the most impactful ways.

USAID’s “Space to Place” approach is addressing this information gap by integrating high resolution digital soil maps gained through geospatial technology, and local knowledge from farmers, to get the right kind of fertilizer, in the right place, at the right time, and in the right amounts to grow more nutritious foods. This approach enables the precise delivery of soil fertility information at scale and in resource constrained scenarios.

Providing Seeds, Training, and Tools to Improve Soil Management and Health

Paired with fertilizer access and appropriate usage, USAID programs provide guidance on practices to help farmers improve soil health including no till or low till approaches that reduce erosion; crop diversification and crop rotations to increase soil nutrients; and improving the ability of soil to absorb and hold onto rain water to increase water use efficiency.

Through the Accelerated Innovation Delivery Initiative Rapid Delivery Hubs (AID-I), we’re ramping up efforts like these to help 6 million farmers in Africa at a time when they need it most. Working with nearly 50 private and public sector partners, AID-I uses market-based approaches to ensure that farmers can sustainably increase the amount of food they grow – from more easily accessing fertilizer and high yielding, climate-smart seeds to using improved storage that prevents crops from spoiling.

What’s Next?

As USAID works to improve soil health around the world, one region is squarely in our focus: Africa. The continent faces some of the greatest needs. It also holds immense opportunities –  home to 60 percent of the world’s arable land and innovative African researchers who are developing local solutions to local problems. At the AU Fertilizer and Soil Health Summit next year, USAID will continue to support the efforts by national governments and the African Union–including the development and implementation of the African Union Fertilizer and Soil Health Action Plan.

If we invest in what President Roosevelt called our basic asset (soil), we can help meet everyone’s basic need of having nutritious food to eat. Together we can restore and improve our food systems to sustainably grow more food, even in the face of continuous and unknown challenges to come.

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