Arbor Month News: Looking at the state of our soils

Many South Africans will be getting their hands dirty this month while planting a tree for Arbor Month which is taking during September. Whether you are greening an urban environment or helping to restore a natural landscape, one common factor will determine the health of our trees and indigenous vegetation; that is the health of our soil.

Soil health is a key environmental, social, and economic priority. Good soil supports a healthy ecosystem, good agricultural yields and food production, and economic input for many sectors. With such importance, why are we not asking the questions; what is the state of our country’s soils and what can we do conserve the health of this important natural resource?

BiobiN South Africa takes a closer look at the health of our country’s soils.

Only 12% of South Africa’s landscape has fertile soil for crop production, only 3% of this is considered to be highly fertile land. Adding to the pressures that the agricultural sector already faces, only a third of the country gets enough rain to sufficiently support agricultural production.

Our country’s history of water scarcity makes farming a challenging business, with many farm owners resorting to an excessive use of synthetic fertilizers to compensate for reduced soil fertility.

“Too much fertilizer will significantly reduce the soils organic matter and ability to naturally retain water,” says Julien Rambert, director of BiobiN South Africa. “Other land-use changes like mining and commercial development also significantly contributes to the loss of fertile soil. We need to adopt every available measure to conserve soil fertility, including reducing the reliance on synthetic fertilizers to boost soil fertility.”

The average soil loss rate per year is approximately 12 tonnes per hectare per year and is even higher for land that is used to farm grains (13 tonnes/ha/year). This rate exceeds our soils natural rate to reform its top fertile layer (5 tonnes/ha/year). This indicates that South Africa is losing soil at a rate that is higher that its ability to reform.

To address soil fertility and soil health, South Africa has a massive resource that has not yet been fully tapped into, organic waste. While retail, manufacturers and product producers are all looking at ways to create secondary opportunities for their products through recycling programmes and extended-producer responsibility initiatives, the majority of organic waste still goes to landfill. Through the use of commercial composting systems, large amounts of organic waste at a commercial level can be converted into high-grade compost and soil amendment products. The careful application of these products can accelerate the reformation of fertile soil.

“Arbor month is a great opportunity for us to place some much need attention on soil health,” says Rambert. “To go a step further than just planting a tree, make a commitment to composting your food waste and choose to support the business that compost their organic waste.”

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