Earth Detectives

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How global monitoring of soil could help save agriculture

As global medical crises garner more and more headlines, governments are anxiously reviewing their public health surveillance programmes. Constantly monitoring where and when problems occur allows health professionals to predict potential trouble spots, target their interventions, and measure their success. This helps not only to safeguard the public, but makes financial sense as well. Identifying disease outbreaks early on drastically reduces the cost of dealing with them.

Photo: Abby Waldorf/WLE What can land health initiatives learn from the public health sector? Photo: Abby Waldorf/WLE

It is perhaps surprising then, that other challenges to our wellbeing do not always receive such close attention. Take soils for example. Few people are even aware that there is a global soil crisis. Yet the declining health of the world’s soils is deeply troubling many scientists.

Healthy soil underpins productive agriculture. Once the earth beneath our feet is compromised, it may take decades, even centuries, to recover its fecundity. In some cases damage may be irreversible. But intensive farming and loss of ground foliage continues to take its toll. As much as one quarter of the world’s land is affected by degradation. Wholesale loss of arable land may severely affect global food security. Despite this, systematic surveillance of soil health is scant.

Land degradation remains poorly quantified. As a result there is a lack of specific evidence to focus action. Introducing land health surveillance and response would overcome this. That is the bold proposal put forward by three East African based scientists in a paper in the latest edition of the journal Agricultural Systems.

Keith Shepherd, Gemma Shepherd and Markus Walsh closely model their approach on surveillance in the public health sector. They argue for repeated measurement of land health and associated risk factors, matched with standardized protocols for data collection. Crunching these numbers in computer based models will enable statistical analysis of patterns, trends, and associations. This will help flag up degradation problems before they lead to catastrophic soil collapse.

Read the full publication here: Land health surveillance and response: A framework for evidence-informed land management

Once a threat is identified, timely remedial action can be taken. Many farmers are already becoming familiar with new approaches like conservation agriculture, agroforestry and organic compositing, which  help save our soil.

The scientific rigour of land health surveillance proposed has potential to provide a basis for directing action to combat land degradation. Specialized national surveillance units should be established, say the authors, to harness and realign existing resources to provide integrated national land health systems.

But the scientists go further. As in epidemiology, they would like to see a worldwide monitoring system.  An international unit is needed, they say, to provide science and technology support to governments and develop standards. An international agency could coordinate land health surveillance globally. That would enable soil saviours to move away from having to rehabilitate severely degraded land, towards a preventive approach.

Agricultural and natural resource scientists have not often, perhaps, looked to public health for inspiration, but surveillance techniques could just be the start. Adoption rates for new agricultural practices are often low – as they can be for healthier behaviours. Public health experts have invested millions in try to better understand why people are more or less receptive to new behaviours. It was just such an approach that contributed to the successful adoption of safer sexual conduct that in turn helped turn HIV/AIDS from an impending global disaster to a manageable, if chronic, problem.

That success made one thing abundantly clear: surveillance alone is not enough; empowering and inspiring people to change their behaviour is equally important. It can only be welcome, therefore, that natural resource scientists are now taking note of public health’s successes. More cross fertilisation between the two disciplines could lead to spectacular results. But investment in new methodology will be critical. Health has always attracted big funding, agriculture continues to struggle. That balance needs to change.


Read more: Land health surveillance and response: A framework for evidence-informed land management Keith D. Shepherd, Gemma Shepherd, Markus G. Walsh 


land/soil is the basic capital of a country.It is the most important natural resource requires regular take care so that value/ productive capacity does not fall. Rather the soil is regularly improved by natural manipulation through biotechnology application.

A very timely piece and one that we should all take stock of. The rate at which land resources are being degraded is no longer acceptable and there is a critical need to reverse this downward spiral. Prevention is better than rehabilitation and there are probable a lot that we can learn from the Health Sector. At the end of the day it is all about behavior change, the example that James presents with respect to HIV/AIDS is fitting.

A very thought provoking article - thanks...I'll certainly read the full paper on the back of this. Certainly, there is much that NRM (in its broad sense) can learn from the highly systematic approaches taken by the medical world - the Centre for Evidence Based Conservation and the rise of the systematic review/meta-analysis is one example. However, as critically important as soil is to our own persistence, I wonder if the very personal and direct nature of medical issues means that it is at the forefront of most people's concerns, most of the time,, and hence is well-funded and acted upon with relative vigor.

Soil on the other hand may be more distant to the broad concerns of society (a mistaken separation, I hasten to add, but societal dislocation from food production is a major concern in many regions), and hence may be more difficult to galvanize public support and hence policy support and intervention. Hope I'm wrong. Thanks again.

Thank you for your comments. I think one of the reasons for lack of investment in land health is that we have not been able to present consistent compelling evidence to policy makers on the degree, extent and trends of the problems and their associated risk factors, or on how well interventions are working. Perhaps we cannot expect to get the same level of attention as human health receives, but I think we can do a much better job in terms of surveillance rigour and providing consistent evidence.

Hi Mr. Clarke, I have my doubts about of a product that is applied in our soils. I want to discuss it with you before that the information will be public. I'll be waiting for your answer to my Email. Thanks

It is very timely and is very important for our future agriculture and human well being.I have had contributed to such research where degraded/marginal lands could be utilized for cultivation of aromatic plants; nitrate pollution of ground waters, health impacts on human health and measures to mitigate them.I hope with the increasing evidence on the connection between soil health and human health, more funding will be available for this kind of research. As scientists, we have to design our studies from the beginning to orient towards a healthy soil as a prerequisite to healthy man!

To redress the ill health of the soil, instead of resorting to chemical fertilizer. etc, organic manuring should be tried. Green manuring, nitrogen fixing legume plant planting, intercropping, , crop rotation and the like may be tried to improve the soil quality.Farmers to be educated.