To Secure the World’s Food Supply, Feed the Land First

Report published in Ecohydrology & Hydrobiology wins Elsevier’s Atlas Award

New York, December 8, 2016

Challenges in securing adequate healthy food for the world’s growing human population can be met in part by adopting agricultural practices that feed the soil, according to a report published in Ecohydrology & Hydrobiology, which has won the monthly Elsevier Atlas Award.

The study pushes for the adoption of basic principles in ecohydrology, an interdisciplinary field focused on the interaction between water and ecosystems. As a first step, the author calls on policymakers, farmers, and the general public to recognize that the health of people depends on the health of the land and soil.

“My philosophy is that grains are for people and crop residue is for the land,” said the study’s author, Professor Rattan Lal of The Ohio State University’s Carbon Management and Sequestration Center.

Crop residues are often taken from the land and fed to animals. Moreover, in many countries, manure is used as a fuel source instead of being spread back on the land. When soil lacks organic carbon and other essential nutrients, so do the plants grown in that soil and the people who consume them.

Organic matter in the soil acts like a sponge, holding nutrients and “green water”, which is taken up by plant roots. When soil is able to retain moisture, agricultural lands become more resistant to periods of drought. If the organic content of soil falls below 2 percent, as it does in parts of South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, the land acts like a sieve. Water and nutrients percolate right through and become unavailable to plants, including agricultural crops.

There are also new and emerging threats to soil health, including rapid urbanization, risks of land degradation because of climate change and extreme events, and growing interest and demand for non-agricultural uses of crop residues (such as cellulosic ethanol).

“The health of soil, plants, animals, people, and ecosystems is one and indivisible,” Dr. Lal added. “Healthier soil creates healthier people. Therefore landscape management for conserving and sustaining soil resources is essential.”

The success of efforts to improve soil health will depend on policies that recognize the value of land and water resources and create incentives for farmers to change their practices. Other measures can also help to secure adequate food, including reducing food waste and promoting a plant-based diet.

More than 10 million children under five living in developing countries around the world die each year due to hunger-related causes. Millions more suffer from chronic hunger or malnutrition. Looking to the future, the demand for food will only grow as the world’s population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by the year 2050.1

Read the full story and interview with the authors on the Atlas blog.

1 Source: Foresight, 2011. Future of Food and Farming, London; Godfray et al., 2010. H.C.J. Godfray, J.R. Beddington, I.R. Crute, L. Haddad, D. Lawrence, J.F. Muir, J. Pretty, S. Robinson, S.M. Thomas, C. Toulmin. Food security: the challenge of feeding 9 billion people. Science, 327 (2010), pp. 812–818.


Notes for editors
The article is "Food security in a changing climate," by Rattan Lal (doi:10.1016/j.ecohyd.2013.03.006). It appears in Ecohydrology & Hydrobiology, volume 13, issue 1 (2013), published by Elsevier.

Copies of this paper are available to credentialed journalists upon request; please contact Elsevier’s Newsroom at or +31 20 485 2492.

About Ecohydrology & Hydrobiology
Ecohydrology & Hydrobiology is an international journal that aims to advance ecohydrology as the study of the interplay between ecological and hydrological processes from molecular to river basin scales, and to promote its implementation as an integrative management tool to harmonize societal needs with biosphere potential.

About Atlas, Research for a better world
The Elsevier Atlas Award, established in 2014, showcases research that could significantly impact people’s lives around the world, or already has done so. With so many worthy articles published by Elsevier, the tough job of selecting a single article to be awarded each month for Atlas comes down to an external Advisory Board comprised of experts at various nonprofit organizations. The winning research is translated in layman’s language and presented alongside interviews, expert opinions, multimedia and more on the Atlas website,

About Elsevier
Elsevier is a global information analytics business that helps scientists and clinicians to find new answers, reshape human knowledge, and tackle the most urgent human crises. For 140 years, we have partnered with the research world to curate and verify scientific knowledge. Today, we’re committed to bringing that rigor to a new generation of platforms. Elsevier provides digital solutions and tools in the areas of strategic research management, R&D performance, clinical decision support, and professional education; including ScienceDirect, Scopus, SciVal, ClinicalKey and Sherpath. Elsevier publishes over 2,500 digitized journals, including The Lancet and Cell, 39,000 e-book titles and many iconic reference works, including Gray's Anatomy. Elsevier is part of RELX, a global provider of information-based analytics and decision tools for professional and business customers.

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