drone image of a farm with exposed soil

Soil matters—graphs that should scare the pants off you

Despite plenty of food there is a global surge in hunger, malnutrition, and population trends that all come down to the soil.

The statistic I am about to share should scare the pants off you…

 At least a fifth of global soil is degraded. 

Degraded soil is depleted of organic matter, nutrients, and structure to levels that reduce biomass production under average climate and management conditions—a fancy way of saying that depleted soils grow less food.

Degraded soils not only produce fewer crops and livestock than their potential but, at the extremes, deterioration means the loss of topsoil altogether. 

Various scientifically robust estimates have soil erosion rates an order of magnitude higher than that of natural erosion or soil formation processes.

The evidence suggests agricultural land abandonment is widespread globally, driven by multiple factors, and has strong implications for biodiversity, ecosystem services and human well-being

Prishchepov, A. V., Schierhorn, F., & Löw, F. (2021). Unravelling the Diversity of Trajectories and Drivers of Global Agricultural Land Abandonment. Land 2021, 10, 97.

The scary statistic means that one in every 5 acres of land used for agriculture across the globe is not performing as well as it could because the soil is depleted from overuse or poor management.

Depleted soil is also prone to loss from erosion by wind and water. Many fields are abandoned each year because the soil is exhausted of nutrients.

Western consumers are blissfully unaware of soil because of this headline. 

There is plenty of food.

In the mature economies, the supermarkets are full of a glittering array of foods irrespective of the season and access is more a matter of social disadvantage than supply.

Indeed the west has an obesity problem.

Graph showing the percentage of the total population with a BMI >30. The highest is 30.6% in the United States

Graph created by TastyCakes – PNG Version on English Wikipedia, original by Phils., CC BY 3.0

Even in the less advantaged regions of the world, there is food. 

Although famine killed nearly 75 million people in the 20th century, it virtually disappeared in recent decades. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network created by USAID in 1985, is a leading provider of early warning and analysis on food insecurity has parts of Ethiopia, South Sudan, Yemen and Nigeria on emergency level of acute food insecurity, but no areas in famine.

Fewer food disasters on the news reinforce the perception of plenty of food. 

But then there is this headline.

Hunger is rising.

Famine might be down, but hunger levels are alarming, with 1 in 10 people on Earth, an estimated 768 million global citizens, undernourished in 2020. Then the pandemic hit.

United Nations data suggest hunger increased by an additional 118 million people from 2019, when 8.4% of the world’s population was undernourished. Impacts of the COVID pandemic on hunger include food supply shortages, malnourishment due to supply chain disruption, labour shortages due to illness and a global rise in food prices. These effects will persist for years and have the most significant impact on the poor.

Graph showing the number of undernourished people in the world from 2000 to 2020 with an alarming spike since 2019

Adding twice the UK population to the hungry in a year means many people are on the edge of hunger. 

The speed of this rise should be alarming, and it takes us back to the soil because hunger is the immediate expression of food shortage. There is not enough food where it is needed.

Watch the trends

Since the 1980s, the absolute number of people added to the global population each year has been around 80 million souls. Each year we add one Germany or three Australia’s to the worldwide population.

Absolute increase in the number of people on earth each year. It is currently over 80 million.

800 million new people in a decade is a huge extra demand on food supply—the amount of food needed each year goes up in proportion to the number of mouths to feed. 

And if all the social progress comes to pass, then greater nutrition is needed too. The food amount and food mix change to reduce hunger and malnutrition rates.

Food supply is enough now, but can it cope with feeding another Germany every year?

Agricultural yields have improved since the 1960s. However, the trend is modest and, in many countries, has plateaued. 

Here is wheat yield in tonnes per hectare for selected countries as an example.

Graph of wheat yields by country from 1960 to 2018

Expansion in global cropland (1 million km²) and pasture/rangeland (0.9 million km²) adds agricultural land to the production system, typically at the expense of forest, but there is also agricultural land abandonment in Europe and the United States, climate-induced vegetation shifts in Siberia, and woody encroachment of rangelands in the United States and Australia.

Soil degradation is back to photobomb the selfie.

These global land-use changes suggest that agricultural production needs more land to meet demand even as some of the once productive land is abandoned or is degraded.

If a fifth of global agricultural soil is also underperforming, the collective trends are an ever more significant risk to global food production even as demand grows. 

We also know that over 2 billion people are short of essential micronutrients, and without energy input from fertilizer, soil nitrogen would be rapidly depleted. 

Oh yes, and every day the global human population needs 23 trillion kilocalories of energy from food.

It’s the seat of the pants stuff.

What sustainably FED suggests

It’s a thrill ride. So what, the supermarkets are full.

Adrenaline seekers love these high stakes games of risk and reward. There is opportunity everywhere in a world on the brink of regional and even global famines. Heck, when food prices rise some people will make a dollar.

But this neoliberal mindset only applies to the billion or so people on earth who can afford to take a holiday overseas. 

As the late and truly great Hans Rosling so entertainingly explained in 2010 there are two billion global poor, people who aspire to a pair of shoes and maybe one day a bicycle. And we are locked into that number growing to 4 billion by 2050 even if the miracle of economic growth continues.

Hans Rosling gives his epic TED talk that explains the what and why of global population growth from 1960 to 2050

It is the poor who suffer from this global brinkmanship. They cannot afford for the prices of food to rise or for supplies of cheap food to run low.

The supermarkets are full for a few lucky folks.

Luck makes us blind to the source of that food, the medium that delivers sustenance to us all, rich or poor. Humanity will need every acre of fertile soil to stay fertile or those billions will starve. And before they do, in their desperation, they will raid the supermarkets. 

Think about it.

Hero image modified from photo by Sandor Fehervari on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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