Turn to Soil Data for Future Agricultural Potential

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Far East Russia

Last month, Russia offered 1 million hectares in its Far East Federal District to foreign investors eager to lay claim to promising cropland. China is expected to grab the lion’s share of the acreage to supplement its growing soybean demand and reduce reliance on its tenuous trade ties with the United States. Another part of the Far East district, Amur Oblast, just over the border from China, already produces a third of Russia’s soybeans.

Warming temperatures and new varieties of key cereal crops suited to local climate and soil conditions along with growing soybean production position Russia’s Far East region to assume a new agricultural mantle. However, much of the fertile land near the southern border is already under cultivation, some analysts note, and there are growing Russian fears that incoming Chinese farmers will use excessive fertilizers and pesticides to maximize productivity on the remaining lower-quality soils if regulations are not enforced. The area has historically suffered heavy periodic flooding, as well, and growers will need to find a way to manage extreme flooding events, which are predicted to increase in frequency under future climate scenarios. Irrigation and flood management would prevent soil erosion and reduce the need for costly periodic fertilizer amendments. The data indicates that much of the Far East Federal District has soil suitable for agricultural conversion, but may require liming in more northern areas with excessive acidity due to the presence of podzol soils which are commonly found in boreal areas dominated by coniferous forest and often experience complications with aluminum toxicity.

The map on the left shows the current portion of cropland cover in the southern part of Russia’s Far East Federal District, which is primarily concentrated in Amur Oblast. The chart on the right shows how Russian soybean production has boomed in the past decade to meet growing global demand. 

China and Russia seem to share a vision of significant future potential for the region. They have pledged $10 billion for cross-border infrastructure projects, including the Amur Bridge linking northeast China with Russia. Another commitment: a recent joint $100 million investment by two Chinese companies to build a soybean crusher and grain port in the Russian region.

The graphic on the left illustrates the cation-exchange capacity of this region at 15 centimeters of soil depth. Cation-exchange capacity measures the ability of a soil to absorb and exchange cations with plants. Cations are positively charged ions, which typically include important nutrients (K+, Ca2+, NH4+) in agricultural soils. A high CEC usually correlates to a greater ability for a soil to store nutrients. The map on the right shows the pH value when tested using potassium chloride (KCl). KCl is used to test for aluminum, which can be toxic to plants. This graphic indicates that low pH may need to be ameliorated in some of the northern and coastal sections to make these areas suitable for production.


From an agricultural standpoint, Africa is a continent with great potential. Sub-Saharan Africa is host to approximately 200 million hectares of uncultivated land that can be used or converted for production. However, persistent issues with land management and soil fertility, poor infrastructure and overreliance on rain-fed irrigation, among a slew of other problems, impede progress.

Historically, crop yields in Africa have been low. Only about 16 percent of African land is rated as high quality for agriculture, while approximately 65 percent is considered degraded.

The map on the left indicates ‘soil-water capacity until the wilting point’ (AWS) at 30 cm soil depth. AWS is the amount of water available in the soil between the wilting point (the point at which water content is low enough to cause plant stress) and the field capacity (the point of full soil saturation). The map on the right illustrates soil organic carbon (SOC) at 5 cm soil depth. SOC is a measure of living biomass in the soil and is used as a proxy for soil health. It is influenced by land use, soil texture, and vegetation. Places like the Sahara and Namib deserts are expected to have low AWS and SOC due to their dry, sandy soil and lack of vegetation. 

Soil erosion removes an estimated 8 billion tonnes of nutrients from African soils each year, which contributes to a calculated $68 billion in losses annually for the African continent stemming from soil issues. Replacing these vital nutrients with fertilizers is too costly for most farmers, so acreage is expanded when yields begin to decline until that land too is depleted. Because of high transportation costs and inadequate local production, farmers in Africa typically pay more than double what farmers in developed countries shell out for fertilizer. To address this issue, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization recently announced the Afrisoils program, whose goal is to help African countries increase soil productivity by 30 percent and reduce degradation by 25 percent over the next 10 years.

Lands that meet the criteria for conversion to production are often situated on acidic oxisol soils which cover much of the central continent. To apply lime to these regions and raise pH levels would be very costly, which is a reason why more African countries are seeking out foreign investment, often in the face of resistance from domestic farmers.

ProSavana is a campaign headed by Japanese investors seeking to bring over 14 million hectares of land into production in northern Mozambique. The plan uses Brazil’s Cerrado Development Programme as a business template, but smallholder farmers in Mozambique are skeptical that the plan will benefit local communities. African agriculture will likely continue to experience growing pains as significant foreign and domestic investment will be necessary to realize sustainable production goals.


Similar to sub-Saharan Africa, much of Brazil is covered with vast savannas and acidic oxisol soils. Brazil’s Cerrado region is an expansive savanna ecosystem that has experienced significant agricultural development over the past 30 years, and this transformation has arguably catapulted Brazil to its present status as a dominant agricultural producer.

In the late 1990s, Brazil was faced with restrictions on land conversion due to rampant deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. To address this development issue, scientists looked to the Cerrado, which contains a deep reservoir of carbon. By raising the pH of the acidic soils with millions of tonnes of lime, and by adding millions of tonnes of phosphorus that had been weathered away from the shallow soils over time, the Cerrado was converted from scrubby grassland to agricultural powerhouse.

The map on the left shows the sand content in Brazilian soils at 30 cm deep. The Cerrado can be seen as the dark purple region throughout central Brazil. The map on the right highlights the pH of Brazilian soils. The northern part of the map shows the acidity common to tropical rainforest soils and the central part of the map shows elevated pH due to the addition of lime to the Cerrado in the 1990s. 

At the same time, removal of vegetation from the sandy Cerrado soils and unsustainable irrigation practices have contributed to soil erosion and uncertain water availability. In 2016, eradication of native vegetation caused the release of an estimated 248 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. By managing the land unsustainably, subsistence farmers are inadvertently draining the soil of the carbon that makes the land so productive and valuable.

To combat this trend, the Brazilian government has now placed restrictions on development in the Cerrado. In response, foreign and domestic agribusiness and nonprofit organizations have been offering loans to soybean farmers to alleviate the cost of production and curb further acreage expansion into new lands. Recently, methods such as double cropping have been encouraged to maximize vegetation cover, suppress excessive evapotranspiration, and prevent desertification. However, rigorous sustainable management practices will be required going forward if Brazil is to maintain this vital soil resource.

Concluding Remarks

Soil forms the foundation of global agriculture, but it is a vulnerable living system prone to decline if mismanaged. Human cultivation of the land has historically focused on maximizing yield while neglecting the long-term impacts of soil degradation. Keeping track of important soil parameters like texture, pH, cation-exchange capacity, and organic carbon can help actors across the agricultural sector understand the factors that influence metrics such as yield and production. Soil data can also be used to make better informed decisions about soil conservation, land use conversion, and cropland profitability.

In a world with a growing population that is increasingly vulnerable to unpredictable climate patterns and extreme weather events, monitoring soil conditions becomes critical. At the moment, significantly more soil is lost every year than is produced, which threatens not only farmers’ livelihoods, but future food security. Using Gro Intelligence, subscribers can seamlessly peruse our array of soil maps to better understand the soil variables that influence global agriculture, now and in the future.

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