Living Soils – A Revolution From Within
France is one of Europe’s largest agricultural producers. After the Second World War, the country invested massively in the industrialisation of its agriculture. Productivity per hectare exploded, making France one of the world’s largest food exporters. Agribusinesses transformed this abundance into increasingly numerous and convenient consumer products. Shelves forever full. It was the green revolution, with the food industry as its axis.
The reality for French farmers was different. After witnessing a productivity miracle on their land, larger volumes came with lower prices, rising input costs and more debt. In time, it was clear that this revolution came at the expense of the farmers’ essential capital – soil; with intensive practices degrading organic matter, i.e. life, in the ground.
Earthworm Foundation created the Living Soils (Sols Vivants) initiative in 2018 so that the interests of farmers, business and society can be aligned. We know productive agriculture can be practiced in ways that regenerate the health of soil, increase biodiversity, reduce pollution and capture vast amounts of carbon. It is called regenerative agriculture.
Yet we also know that farmers cannot do this alone; the whole food supply chain has to change to serve the land, and not solely consumers. It is an evolution, with the soil at its heart.
This is the story of a life-scale experiment to realise this vision. It describes Northern France’s changing rural landscape, where the Living Soils initiative started, along with the supply chain connected to it. It shows what tools are being developed to support the transition towards regenerative agriculture in this region and beyond.
Yet more than just tools, much depends on the human qualities of the farmers who began pioneering this work. This story is about their vision and their work.
1. The System
“Living Soil is a real-life, real-time experiment in the whole value chain. This is how we will co-create.”
Dr. Pascal Boivin, Professor HES-SO Geneva
The food system comprises two sub-systems, seemingly in tension with one another: the landscape – composed of the farmer and his land which (should) obey the laws of a living system, and the supply chain – which follows the rules of industry. The Living Soils project acknowledges and uses this tension as a ground for change.
The Landscape: Farmers
"I had done all I could with conventional methods, I wanted to convert to organic agriculture."
Vincent Caramelle, Farmer in Northern France
Northern France produces vast quantities of crops, including cereals, potatoes and beetroot.
Many farmers have seen productivity fall, as fertiliser, pesticide and other costs have risen.
They have started to use diverse cover crops to make sure land is covered most of the year, while also diversifying and extending crop rotation.
Good things have already happened. Using less machines and chemicals, has resulted in operational costs reducing, while fields show signs of greater resilience. Climate change is impacting with more frequent and intense droughts. But with healthier soil and cover crops, fields are better able to retain humidity, and seeds germinate more easily.
Together, farmers in the project are learning what variety of crops and rotation work best. They monitor progress by measuring organic matter’s evolution in their soil. No farmer involved in the initiative so far regrets making the transition.
The toughest part is making the leap – from a system farmers know, albeit one loaded with failings, to one that asks them to rely on their knowledge of the land and capacity to adapt and experiment.
The Supply Chain: Cooperatives
Cooperatives, brands and retailers all shape what happens in the farming landscape.
The French system of agricultural cooperatives, created after the Second World War, was promoted as a way for farmers to pool their resources to purchase equipment and seeds, while sharing the means of productions and sales. It’s estimated around three-quarters of French farmers are part of one of the country’s cooperatives.
Cooperatives understand the need to evolve with farmers and integrate soil health in their work. Working with Living Soils, cooperatives are trying to navigate the difficult transition between responding to the needs of the old farming model while supporting the emergence of the new.
The Supply Chain: Brands
Most major brands today vow to protect the environment and support the communities they impact. But as their supply chains have grown in length and complexity, these brands have never been further away from the land where their raw materials are produced.
Nestlé realised that most of its environmental impact comes from agriculture. So, in 2010, when it initiated its approach to “Create Shared Value” for nature and communities, one of its priorities in France was finding ways to support farmers in its supply chain.
Potato farming was an early focus. The main factory for Mousline, Nestlé’s purée brand, is in the heart of Santerre in Northern France. Every day, 500 tons of potatoes arrive there from 160 local farms. Potatoes are commonly transformed into different products. Buyers requirements, often set far from the ground, follow industry’s needs.
Production flows might impose harvesting no matter the conditions, even when fields are too humid and tractors risk damaging the soil. The choice of potato species itself is often problematic. Buyers’ often impose species that work well for the industrial processes but are less effective for the health of soil. Nestlé works with farmers to overcome such tensions.
Its experience working with farmers and local authorities convinced it to create shared value; listening and co-creating with everyone in that landscape. While Nestlé aims to become carbon neutral by 2050, it knows that to achieve this target it must remain close to the land and its farmers.
The Supply Chain: Retailers
One reason brands overlook what is happening in the field is that retailers do not value products’ origins and environmental qualities and are primarily driven by cost.
Lidl, one of France’s leading retailers, is following a different path.
In October 2021, it began offering consumers potatoes grown from regenerative agriculture across 1,570 of its supermarkets. Lidl has been working with the Living Soils project since 2019. The success of this project is based on a collaborative approach with farmers, suppliers, scientists and agronomists in the value chain.
2. The Tools
The Living Soils project aims to openly discuss and work through the tension between the needs of living systems and industry; between the pressure on price and sustainability; between the push for scale and local needs.
For a complex system to change, those involved need a shared, science-based understanding of the challenges. A lot of the scientific knowledge on soils is not accessible to farmers and others in the supply chain. The Living Soils project is working to change this.
One of the scientists involved is Pascal Boivin, an agronomist and professor of Soil Science at the HEPIA School in Geneva, Switzerland. Pascal is one of Europe’s foremost soil biology experts and is working with Earthworm to support farmers from north France and supply chain actors to make sound, science-based choices for their land. He believes they are many ways farmers can restore life in soils.
Pascal also believes that scientific research can be disconnected from farmers’ reality and the land. Whereas with Living Soils, the approach connects those in the supply chain with the farmers to co-create solutions.
Agronomists can help develop the means for farmers to make better decisions for their land. In the Living Soils project, this includes developing practical tools to help them measure and predict the evolution of organic matter and carbon in their soil.
Measuring soil’s composition simply and robustly is not straightforward. In region across northern France, the landscape’s characteristics and soil vary considerably. Earthworm works with agronomists to develop practical and robust sampling methods at the farm level. Using a complex model to extrapolate results, the objective is to allow farmers to quantify and predict the effects of changes in practices; by entering different parameters in a database – including crop types and basic data in PH soil composition.
These tools will help farmers make better decisions in the ongoing regenerative agriculture experiment.
“Farming is one of the last human activities in contact with reality; you have no choice but to work with the soil and climate that is given to you.”
Matthieu Archambeaud, Co-Founder & Agronomist, Icosysteme
Matthieu Archambeaud learned and practiced regenerative agriculture in the tropics before returning to France. He sees the lack of technical support as a significant barrier to better farming practices.
He co-founded Icosystème to combine advice on the ground with an e-learning platform, where farmers and trainers can access content tailored to their needs.
The transition to regenerative agriculture can be technically, as well as economically, complex, he says. As farmers are often asked to act without guarantee that they will succeed, Matthieu believes support should be both holistic and long-term.
Earthworm Foundation coordinates the Living Soils project, mobilising all involved while staying true to the project’s ultimate goal – regenerating the health of soils. However, it is aware that no action will be sustainable if it threatens peoples’ financial security.
Gaëtan Jestin, Senior Manager at Earthworm, spends much of his time travelling across northern France – meeting landscape and supply chain actors, and establishing new approaches together.
The Earthworm team’s first task is earning the farmers’ trust. Technical validation is a key in this. Yet, aside from technical support, farmers’ biggest concern is the financial implications of change.
They must be remunerated by any good practices they use. By storing carbon in soil, preserving biodiversity and improving water management and quality, the farmer creates value for society and should be compensated. The Living Soils project is looking at how the green bonds set up by banks to finance the transition to regenerative agriculture can be best used to help farmers make that crucial leap.
Many questions about funding mechanisms remain, as is what is within farmers’ control? How do we take into consideration that some soils have more capacity to store carbon than others? All these questions and more require practical experimentation and open collaboration.
The Living Soils project is a story about changing a system and the tools needed to so. But perhaps most importantly, this project is a story of the individuals enabling this change.
Other than their passion for nature and farming, those featured here share one quality – humility. No one claims to have the answer, to know better. The word “humility” comes from the word “humus”, i.e. organic matter. Perhaps this is the other fertile ground we need.