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World Soil Day (WSD) is held annually on 5 December to promote the importance of healthy soil and to champion the sustainable management of soil resources.  

With a third of the world’s soil moderately to highly degraded, a change in farming practices has never been more urgent. In the last few decades, soil degradation has been accelerated by intensive farming methods. This degradation is threatening global food supplies and pushing up carbon emissions, both ominously pointing to mass migration.  

Soil is the key to sustaining life on Earth with 95% of the food we consume coming from it, but nutrient imbalance is impacting soil fertility, creating negative environmental, social and economic effects.  

We’re losing essential vitamins and nutrients which keep us healthy; as it stands, two billion people globally – nearly 30% of the world’s population – are said to be nutrient deficient. An overuse of fertilisers to replace these lost nutrients is increasing greenhouse gas emissions and degrading soil and water resources, which is in turn creating a harmful impact on animals and humans. 

To add to this, we’re running out of the brown stuff. In the past century and a half, it’s estimated that we’ve lost roughly half of our planet’s topsoil. Not only do we need more means of growing food to feed a growing global population, but we’re also losing land each day in the name of commercial and economic development. It’s becoming a losing battle to maintain healthy ecosystems and human well-being. 

One of the main contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in crop production involves the use of nitrogen fertilisers. These fertilisers produce nitrous oxide, or N2O, 300 times worse than CO2. In the US alone, this is the equivalent of 41 million passenger vehicles. Arguably, nitrogen fertilisers are one of the primary environmental impacts of traditional farming methods in crop production.  

With traditional farming methods struggling to redress the environmental balance, indoor farming sits in stark contrast. It’s really a no-brainer that CEA farming – whether vertical farming, greenhouses or polytunnels – has the ability to solve complex environmental problems.  

Take a hydroponic greenhouse, where plants are grown in water with no soil present. They also don’t require any chemical fertilisers to treat the soil. Instead, nutrients such as nitrogen are added directly to the water, increasing the efficiency of absorption by plants and reducing nitrous oxide emissions to pretty much zero. 

Hydroponics is a more certain science as CEA farming methods enable growers to have more control over environment conditions, so adjustments can be made in seconds. This results in a high yield over a shorter period with minimum waste. 

Aquaponics goes one step further, as it recycles existing water. As a human-built system supporting a natural cycle, fish eat and excrete ammonia which is converted into nutrients by bacteria, and the plants absorb the nutrients, which cleans the water. The benefits are healthier fish and proteins as well as no negative impacts.   

So while World Soil Day 2022’s campaign is “Soils: Where food begins” which aims to increase soil awareness and encourage societies to improve soil health, it could now be too late in the long-term to achieve the latter objective. Perhaps instead we ought to look further than this by deploying sustainable alternatives, now that we have found a solution to growing fresh, safe and nutritious produce without soil.