The Importance of Soil Health
Soil health has become a key climate focus, with as much as 70 percent of soil degraded in the European Union, causing an estimated annual loss of 1.25 billion Euros in agricultural production.
It was top of the agenda in a meeting earlier in the month attended by agricultural ministers from the EU, with low carbon agriculture being a method the EU wants to pursue in chasing its target of being carbon neutral by 2050. As governments start to implement their climate road-maps, they should indeed make soil health a priority.
If nothing is done, soils and agriculture will continue to emit greenhouse gases. The UK’s Environment Agency estimates that UK soil contains in the region of 10 billion tonnes of carbon.
This is around the equivalent of 80 years of annual UK greenhouse gas emissions.
While in the US, around 100 million acres of farm land across the mid-west known as the Corn Belt, which produces three quarters of the nation’s corn, has completely lost its carbon-rich topsoil through erosion.
In total, this is estimated to cost $67 billion a year. Secondly, healthy soil can reduce emissions and store carbon; and thirdly, it can help mitigate the effects of climate change. Healthy soil behaves very much like a sponge in how it can help farmers, along with the whole food system, to be more resilient to extreme climate events such as drought or floods.
Farmers are at the forefront of this issue, grappling with trying to improve the health of soil and earn a living. The commodities and ingredients they produce are used in our food, cosmetics, medicine and clothes.
Manufacturers, retailers and brands can play a significant role in supporting the farmers that supply them to change to different practices that restore soil health.
It is these regenerative agriculture practices that can restore soil health, mitigate the effects of climate change, grow crops and have the potential to store carbon.
To do this cohesively, regenerative agriculture, and in particular soil health, needs to be a part of responsible sourcing policies. Some of the biggest cosmetic, clothing and food companies in the world have acted on this, with Nestlé adding regenerative agriculture into their plans and strategy.
The next step is to remunerate and incentivise farmers for their efforts along with the risk they take in transitioning to a new system.
For example, some businesses are now in the process of looking at paying premiums to farmer suppliers that use regenerative agriculture. This incentive rewards farmers for the crop and how the soil it is grown in improves soil health, retains water and stores carbon. All this requires a presence in the field.
Working on soils means moving the focus from plants and crops to the agronomic system. It’s moving from fixing the problem to working on solutions to the root cause in a systemic fashion.
Farmers tend to grows various crops, like wheat, barley, corn and canola, making it difficult to juggle with different standards for each to look after soils.
Work with the entire crop rotation is needed, which suggests a pre-competitive, collective action around the farm, in order to restore the health of its soils.
Beyond the supply chain, healthy soils are also of interest to water quality, pesticide consumption and flood prevention, which is also very much of interest to public institutions in a given region.
All of this suggests that we should move away from the old certification like approaches, which work crop by crop, to a more regional landscape approach - one that is able to see all actors working together.
For example, the world’s largest baking company, Grupo Bimbo, identified Kansas in US, as a strategic wheat sourcing region in which it is looking to set up a landscape approach.
In France, the Living Soils Collective supports companies like Bonduelle, Lidl, McCain, McDonald’s, Nestlé and Purina, along with others, when it comes to soil health and regenerative agriculture.
The willing from farmers to change to a new system is there. Businesses can support them to transition to a new food system where everybody, along with the environment, can benefit.