Holding on to Our Earthly Treasures

Manila Bulletin, November 7, 2015 | Go to article overview

Holding on to Our Earthly Treasures


'There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why... I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?' - Robert Kennedy

The long-term future of agriculture (and mankind itself) revolves around the sustainable management and conservation of water and soils.

Closer to home, the recurring and worsening droughts brought about by El NiAaAaAeA~o events in the Central Pacific are compelling us to lo more strategically on how we shall ensure our country's long-term water security, alongside food and energy.

Less appreciated, but no less compelling problem is the slow, largely ignored degradation of our soil resources.

With the declaration by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly of 2015 as International Year of Soils, with the theme "Healthy Soils for Healthy Lives," it is opportune that we fully recognize the contributions of soils in many aspects of our national life. And why we should not lose any more time husbanding these vital natural resources for our immediate purposes and the needs of the generations after us.

VALUES OF SOILS

They are self-evident to serious students of agriculture but the following are key to understanding why we should take care of them:

It takes a thousand years to produce a centimeter of soil out of parent rock materials. Thus, soils are for all intents and purposes finite and non-renewable like oil and gas. But unlike oil and gas which have one-time uses, soils are continuing sources of vital ecological functions and services.

Soils serve as anchor and provide all the mineral nutrients plants need, except for carbon, oxygen and nitrogen which come from the atmosphere. The production of food, fiber, energy and shelter materials depend heavily on how rich and healthy are the soils which support crops and forests.

Soils absorb rainwater, slow down the flow of water from the uplands to the plains, and release moisture as plants need them. Thus soils mitigate the impacts of floods and droughts.

Soils filter and purify water as the water percolates through the soil layers and recharge the water aquifers below ground. Soils therefore are important components in the provisioning of clean water for good sanitation and health.

The organic matter and microorganisms in soils account for the greater part of terrestrial carbon, more than double the carbon stored in vegetation. Restoring the health of soils can offset release of carbon dioxide (a major greenhouse gas) from man's many activities which cause global warming and climate change.

Soils are teeming with life. Soils are the habitat of one-fourth of planet Earth's biodiversity.

Some microorganisms in soils feed on organic materials including persistent organic pollutants (POPs) as their energy and carbon sources, thereby degrading and rendering them innocuous. Some cause disease in plants (pathogenic) but many more release growth promoting substances of great value to plants.

HOW THEN DO WE SUSTAINABLY MANAGE AND CONSERVE OUR SOIL RESOURCES?

In science terms, the challenge is how to maintain the health of soils, referring to their physical, mineral and biological conditions and their potential to sustain biological functions, to absorb water and to promote plant mineral nutrition and health.

In practical terms, soils are in danger because of : 1) continuing conversion of farmlands and forests into human settlements and industrial parks, 2) unbridled deforestation and erosion, and 3) unsustainable agricultural practices leading to erosion, acidification, salination, pollution, and soil mining (exhaustion of soil minerals without replenishment).

WANTED: A NATIONAL LAND USE PLAN

In fairness to the present and past Congresses and Administrations, appropriate legislations and programs are largely in place to sustainably manage and conserve our soil resources. What remains to be done is to look to their proper planning and execution, except for land use which is still waiting for a national land use planning law. …

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