Black soils and new golden -agricultural- dreams

I read an article yesterday about how the UN is expecting a worldwide food crisis next year. Stocks of foodstuff are dangerously low due to drought this year. Failing harvests in the US, Ukraine and other countries this season have eroded food reserves to their lowest levels since 1974. Serbia also experienced drought and loss of agricultural output in 2012, especially maize. Also part of the problem is that worldwide consumption of food is bigger than the production of it, lowering stocks even more and increasing prices of food.
Environmentalists warn that the climate has become so erratic and unpredictable that it could lead to a collapse of food production (I mentioned in two previous posting on this blog what the consequences of climate change are for Serbia and what the possible mitigation and adaptation measures could be). Food security will become an important issue.

Given all this, begs the question: How secure is food production in Serbia? Many policy makers, farmers, agri-businesses, NGOs have thought about this question of course and the answer is not easy to find. Much is expected from the fertile black soils of Vojvodina. The soils are called Chernozem and are part of a belt that stretches from Northern Serbia via Bulgaria and the Ukraine to Siberia in Russia. Chernozem soil has high humus content (7 to 15%) and high content of Phosphoric acids and Phosphor.

However, some studies have shown that the black soils in Vojvodina are losing 60kg of top soil per hectare every year. Furthermore, a study performed by Šekulić et al. (2010) reveals that of 77,000 soil samples taken from plough land in Vojvodina, 39% has a humus content of only 1 to 3% and that in 60% of samples the humus content is 3 to 5%. Hardly the 7 to 15% that characterizes Chernozem soil! The authors attribute this loss of quality to bad agricultural practices, to insufficient application of organic fertilizers and to excessive removal and burning of harvest residues.

Galić et al. (2009) state an added reason for loss of fertility in Vojvodina is due to wind erosion caused by the lack of wind breakage in the form of forests and vegetation around agricultural land. They therefore call for afforestation and reforestation programmes. If you have ever flown over Vojvodina, you can see that there is hardly any vegetation or forest near or around agricultural land. On the ground you can see that there is some vegetation but it is linear, sporadic and interrupted. Long time ago, Vojvodina was covered for 70% with forests and marshlands. Habitation and cultivation in Vojvodina resulted in conversion of much of the forests, marshlands, floodplains, etc. into settlements and agricultural fields. The reason for conversion was legitimate: to protect people and livelihoods from floods and to increase farming. Conversion, however, had devastating consequences for biodiversity but also has consequences nowadays for agriculture itself. Without vegetation and forests, agricultural fields are exposed to the elements leading to soil erosion. In addition, intensive farming and bad agricultural practices lead to soil depletion, and the mis-application of fertilizers and pesticides lead to acidification and eutrophication of soil. This in turn pollutes surface and groundwater which could increase the costs of water purification. Finally, conversion also upsets distribution of species of vegetation and thereby influencing the composition and distribution of animal species.

These effects have been clearly demonstrated in my country –the Netherlands- where much land after WWII was consolidated* and where agriculture became industrialized. The Netherlands in absolute terms became the 3rd largest exporter of agricultural produce after the US and France. A big economic accomplishment! But it came at a price. Much land and water became polluted and acidic, the traditional landscape disappeared –along with many species that habitat there-, nature became fragmented, land continues to ‘sink’ due to soil compaction and soils are becoming depleted of nutrients. Many efforts have been undertaken to combat these effects: much agricultural land has been re-converted into ‘natural’ land and farmers are obligated to conduct integrated pest, fertilizer and manure management. In some areas, natural vegetation in and around agricultural land is being restored, not only increasing the attractiveness of the landscape and improving habitat for biodiversity, but also increasing the prevention of soil erosion and improving natural pest management and pollination. Still, much more needs to be done.

When the matter arises if Serbia could increase its agricultural output, the question should be asked if Serbian soils have the capacity to support this (apart from the question if agriculture should be handed over to foreigners, a serious matter concerning food security). Above I have given a few indicators which could pose a threat to agriculture. I have also given some remedies that would benefit both nature and agriculture. The mistake should not be made to jeopardize the fertility of the soils to chase dreams of a golden agricultural future. The risk is that Serbian soils will become less fertile, therefore less productive and that environmental damage will lead to increased costs of cleanup and purification.

*Land consolidation in NL was done for different reasons than in Yugoslavia. Land consolidation in NL entailed joining fragmented farmland owned by various farmers and redistributing these so that individual farmers in the end would have continuous farmland instead of a patchwork of fields. This land consolidation was an often painful process of the State ex-appropriating farmers. It put farmers sometimes against the State but also against each other. The State, however, did not become the owner of all the land, unlike in Yugoslavia.

Galić Z., Orlović S., Galović V., Poljaković-Pajnik L., Pap P., Vasić V. (2009): Challenges of land use change and land protection in Vojvodina. African Journal of Agricultural Research 4 (13), Special Review. Nairobi, Kenya.

Šekulić, P., Ninkov, J., Hristov, N., Vasin, J., Šeremešić, S., & Zeremski-Škorić, T. (2010). Organic matter content in Vojvodina soils and the possibility of using harvest residues as renewable source of energy. Ratarstvo i povrtarstvo, 47(2). Belgrade, Serbia.

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