Spotlight on soil health

By Jessica Vaughn

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Professor Rattan Lal gives his presentation on methods for improving soil health during the prelude to a Montpellier report Wednesday.

DES MOINES, Iowa — Soil health took center stage as food and soil scientists discussed an upcoming Montpellier Panel Report on Enhancing Africa’s Soils Thursday morning.

“Soil is a fundamental ingredient of agriculture and agricultural security,” said Gordon Conway, professor of international development at Imperial College in London. “It’s a neglected subject, which is bizarre given how important it is.”

The Montpellier Report will be presented in Rome later this year, and will focus on methods to improve soil quality in African countries. Former member of Kenyan Parliament and current food and nutrition scientist Ruth Oniang’o noted the necessity of acknowledging soil health problems in the report.

“The importance of this is that we’re giving it prominence, that we are recognizing the tired African soils,” she said.

Oniang’o has spent the past three decades working with Kenyan farmers to improve soil health and crop production. Getting farmers to understand soil importance isn’t always easy, and doesn’t always happen quickly, she says.

“It takes time to get to know a community,” she said, and gain their trust so they are receptive to new ideas. “But then all of a sudden they say, ‘my soil, my soil!’ (and) they take pride in the soil.”

Three fourths of farmers that Oniang’o has worked with are women, but men are becoming more involved in land cultivation.

“For the men it’s, ‘my land, my name.’” she said. “For the women, it’s ‘my soil, this is how I feed my family.’”

The Montpellier report and panelists emphasize that the richest soils are made up of both organic and inorganic elements. Jerry Glover, senior sustainable agricultural systems advisor for USAID, stressed the importance of adding nutrients to protect and enhance the soil. Farmers in Africa must introduce the necessary elements into the soil themselves because they aren’t always there naturally.

“Too many of us think that farmers are somehow alchemists,” he said.

Rattan Lal, soil science professor of Ohio State University calls soil, “the real global icon.”

His plan to improve soil health involves “chatting with plants” through molecular-based signals. This approach allows researchers as well as farmers to see when plants are dehydrated or lacking nutrients from the soil, among other things.

Rattan and the other panelists emphasized the importance of furthering technology and research in soil science.

“It is something on which every ecosystem depends,” Lal said. “But we keep on ignoring it.”

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