'Peak soil' threatens future global food security
Crawford also noted that moderately degraded soil could only store about half the amount of water of good soil, adding to pressure on limited water resources.
"We need to find ways of pricing the true cost into food, including the environmental cost of soil degradation," Crawford added.
Food security became a hot topic after record high grain prices in 2008 marked the start of a period of volatility.
Agricultural markets are still unstable, after near-record prices in 2012 prompted increased production, which led to surpluses.
Prices have since fallen back on the rebound in production and global stocks, with decent harvests expected in several major grain producers including the United States this year, but there's a risk of complacency on the long-term outlook.
"We are trying to make sure when we talk about food security we talk about healthy soil. The link has been missing to some extent," said Moujahed Achouri, Director of the FAO's Land and Water Division.
"We do believe there that now there is momentum (to tackle the soil problem)."
Price pressure and ultimately margin pressure can lead to farmers taking shortcuts to achieve something in the short term at the expense of the long term, said Nicholas Lodge, managing partner at Clarity, a Gulf-based agricultural investment firm.
"You can really have a harmful impact on soil in as little as one season," said Lodge.
"If you happen to have damaged the soil and you're losing the top soil, it's not then an easy matter to repair that situation or replace that soil."
One of the main drivers of soil degradation has been the trend towards less diversity in agriculture.
"In a lot of agriculture it has become a monoculture, so you just don't get the diversity of plants that are necessary for healthy soil, and often the agricultural practices are all about mining the soil rather than managing it," said Tim Hornibrook, head of Macquarie Agricultural Funds Management Limited.
Vietnam is one example of a country where there has been an increased focus on one crop with a huge surplus of robusta coffee grown to export to the global market.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture also estimates that corn will be harvested on around 177 million hectares this year, a rise of around 65 percent over the last 50 years.
"Farming with monocultures leads to decreased productivity," Hornibrook said.
Excessive use of fertilizers can also cause damage to soil, at times altering its acidity or salinity in ways that reduce microbial activity and therefore ultimately plant growth.
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