The health of natural ecosystems, including agricultural ecosystems, depends mainly on the way the land is used and the health of the soil. Soil health, also referred to as soil quality, is defined as the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans. Soil contributes to the environment in more ways than we think. When investigating soil management practices closely, it becomes evident that proper soil management can contribute to a cleaner and greener environment. Sustainable soil management practices play a crucial role in combating major environmental issues such as soil degradation and carbon emissions.
Combating soil degradation
South Africa is ranked as the 25th largest country in terms of landmass in the world — it is twice the size of France and five times the size of the United Kingdom. There seems to be no shortage of land in South Africa, yet there is a shortage of fertile land, and the supply is declining. While roughly 12% of our country is considered to have fertile soil or soil that can sustain agricultural plant growth, most of this land is marginal for crop production. Less than 3% is thought to have a high potential for growing crops. South African soils are also highly vulnerable to degradation, and the potential for recovery is low.
Therefore, good soil practices in the agri-sector are essential to restore degraded soils and ensure that South Africa’s crop production can keep up with demand. The use and establishment of cover crops is an example of a contributing factor to sustainable soil management. Cover crops slow the velocity of runoff from rainfall and contribute to reducing soil loss due to erosion. Over time, the use of cover crops will increase soil organic matter, leading to improvements in soil structure, stability, and increased moisture and nutrient holding capacity for plant growth.
Healthy soils also play a significant part in carbon sequestration — a process in which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and stored in the soil, commonly known as soil organic carbon. As soil organic carbon is considered the basis of soil fertility, the following practices can be implemented to enhance the build-up of carbon within your soil:
- Eliminate unnecessary cultivation (introduce zero or minimum tillage)
- Implement crop rotation where applicable
- Maintain and conserve ground cover (cover crops)
- Maintain fertility with a holistic fertiliser programme
- Increase the application of organic matter
By recognising the vital role that soil health plays in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the SIZA Environmental Standard contributes to soil health by assessing the implementation of soil health improving practices, thereby mitigating or minimising the impacts agriculture has on soil. The SIZA Digital Recordkeeping Programme supports producers in achieving the abovementioned goals by keeping track of management practices such as nutrient and fertiliser application, chemical use, and quantities. This allows producers to evaluate and improve their management plans to reduce waste, farm more sustainably, and reduce costs.
The SIZA Environmental Standard, along with the SIZA Digital Recordkeeping Programme, provides a framework for producers to do their part to combat climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions through sustainable soil practices while ensuring the production of quality crops for the future.