How Sustainable Agriculture Can Combat Drought and Creates Resilient Food Systems

By: IAAS Secretariat

Droughts have increased globally by nearly 30 percent since the year 2000, posing one of the most significant threats to agricultural systems and costing billions in global economic losses, according to a report by the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). But the use of sustainable land management practices, such as cover cropping as well as reduced tillage and improved irrigation techniques can help farmers regain control over their land, revitalize the soil, and mitigate the effects of drought.

The underlying cause of drought is rarely acknowledged, Roland Bunch, Founder and CEO of Better Soils, Better Lives, tells Food Tank. “People don’t understand that it’s not because of a decrease in total rainfall.”

While the climate crisis is making rain patterns more erratic and unpredictable, Bunch encourages people to look not up to the sky, but down at the ground. “The organic matter content of the soil has dropped from the normal 4 percent before the 1980s, to less than 1 percent today,” he writes.

Organic matter is a critical component of water storage, he says. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) estimates that for every 1 percent increase in organic matter, the amount of water available to plants increases by 25,000 gallons per acre. And just one pound of soil organic matter (SOM) can hold 20 pounds of water, according to the agency.

Dead vegetation and living roots, in combination with active worms and microbes, add carbon to the soil. These carbon compounds eventually bind together and form stable soil aggregates, which contain pore spaces that act like a sponge. Water can then trickle down and settle in this network of pores.

To build SOM in soils, cover cropping is key. Bunch defines green manure/cover crops (gm/ccs) as “plants, including trees, bushes, crawlers, and creepers,” that, when planted with cash crops, dramatically increase the soil moisture. “According to scientific research carried out here in Malawi, just using gm/ccs well on degraded soils will allow the rainwater infiltration rate to increase from about 15 percent to 60 percent,” he tells Food Tank.

Across the world over 15 million farmers are using cover crops, “and many more are looking into them,” Bunch says.

Ibrahim Thiaw, Executive Secretary of the UNCCD, affirms the upward trend for such practices. There is a “growing interest in applying sustainable land management techniques to increase ground cover, recognizing its important role in improving the health of the land,” he tells Food Tank. “Particularly its ability to absorb and hold water is vital.”

Modern industrial farming systems “are not only expensive and inefficient, but they also harm the land,” says Thiaw. “They are responsible for 80 percent of deforestation and 70 percent of all freshwater use, and they are the leading cause of the loss of diversity of species on the land.”

Another consequence of intensive agriculture, drought, and the soil degradation that follows, is a worsening hunger crisis. “Before the year 2010, famines in Africa rarely affected more than 10 million people,” Bunch writes. “By 2020, that number had risen to 40 million…this last year, it rose to 60 million people.”

Food systems bolstered by sustainable practices like cover cropping will “produce more food with less land” and increase global gross domestic product (GDP) by 50 percent, Thiaw points out.

“The potential impact land restoration could have on future food systems is huge,” he tells Food Tank. “The good news is that there is a political will to change.” Thiaw highlights several examples of this change taking root, including Africa’s Green Great Wall, an integrated landscape effort aimed at regenerating degraded land across 11 African countries; Vietnam’s agroforestry methods in its northwestern mountains; or pledges to restore more than 450 million hectares of land under the UNCCD.

Ultimately, government policies and investments “must encourage land stewardship that is sustainable and has multiple benefits,” Thiaw says. “Especially providing food for everyone, minimizing waste and carbon emissions, creating jobs, bringing back declining species, and making people resilient to drought.”

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