Healthy soil for a healthy future.
In the time it takes you to read this article, approximately 40 football pitches’ worth of soil will have eroded. According to the UN, every five seconds the most fertile layer of soil is lost from an area the size of a football pitch through water, wind and tillage. Less healthy soil produces less food, of lower quality, reduces biodiversity and makes landscapes less resilient to climate change.
Today, on World Soil Day, as representatives of countries around the world are gathered in Madrid at the 25th annual Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to ready the world for the crucial next decade of action on the climate crisis, it is imperative that we consider ways to improve soil health to ensure a healthy future.
Recent science has shown improving our land management is essential if we are to achieve a 1.5o C future. We use most of our land to produce food, but not always effectively — food production takes up 34 per cent of all land on our planet, around half of all the habitable land, but around 30 per cent of all farmland is currently degraded or disused. Farming soils today contain approximately one per cent of total carbon. These are the same soils that once contained three to seven per cent. Since carbon doesn’t simply disappear, it is not difficult to understand where it is now: in the atmosphere helping to cause climate change. As the global population grows, demand for land will only increase unless we tackle how it is currently used and managed.
Based on current diets, consumption trends and wastefulness, a growing population will also require twice as much food to be produced by 2050. However, soil erosion can lead to a 50 per cent reduction in crop yields. This will be exacerbated by climate change — globally, one study has calculated that average yields of maize and soybeans in the 30-year period from 1981- 2010 were 4.1 and 4.5% lower, respectively, than they would be in a world that wasn’t warming.
To mitigate climate change and the impacts it would have on food production, we must protect the valuable swathes of nature which act as carbon stores, as well as homes to the wildlife which is part of a thriving ecosystem. There are places like the Amazon and tropical rainforests of Borneo already high on the public agenda, but others like the Gran Chaco must also be made visible. The Gran Chaco is one of the most threatened forested regions on the planet, suffering from environmental degradation, displacement and impoverishment of indigenous communities, and loss of cultural heritage. In Argentina alone, between 2007 and 2017, about three million hectares were converted, or — to revisit the football theme — 34 pitches per hour. Agriculture is a large driver of the conversion, but productivity suffers from the extreme weather events, like droughts and floods, which are largely attributable to climate change and the decreased ability of degraded soils to retain water. An estimated loss of US $ 2,200 million was recorded due to flooding in the province of Chaco in January.
Given the importance of stopping conversion and achieving sustainable, inclusive development, the initial reaction to the Gran Chaco Commitment 2030 is welcomed. The call to action to the Argentine government and private sector to urgently halt conversion has already been signed by over 100 NGOs and academic institutions, and over 10,000 individuals. That said, success will only be achieved with further support, particularly from international traders and retailers handling Argentine soy.
It must be stressed that food production is not incompatible with good land management and healthy soil. To the contrary, solutions to sustainably increase productivity do exist and are some of the best ways to deliver healthy soils and a climate-resilient food system. Sustainable agriculture exists and is thriving in many places.
For instance, in Northern Thailand farmers have shifted from intensive maize production to more sustainable agro-forestry approaches. By planting perennial trees, fruit trees, vegetables and herbs in a mixed agriculture system, and reducing the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, the farmers have halted soil erosion and restored ecosystem services. More than 700 smallholders have participated in the programme to date, and over 500 hectares of maize monoculture is being evolved into sustainable agroecological systems.
In Paraguay, the native yerba mate tree in particular has been used to battle soil erosion in the Atlantic Forest and combat challenges communities have had in coping with extreme weather events. Alongside other edible, medicinal and aromatic plants, 250,000 yerba mate trees have been planted by local landowners, creating a friendly landscape for nature, preventing erosion, and covering degraded soil allowing it to recover fertility and productivity. In addition to helping protect and restore the Atlantic Forest, watersheds and its species, families have been able to improve their diets by increasing the variety of crops they cultivate, and, by using artisanal methods to convert yerba mate raw leaves into a variety of products, created a sustainable source of income. The recent discovery of mate powder as a new potential superfood is creating additional market opportunities, through the generation of a high aggregated value and by capturing a part of the plant that once was considered waste.
It can take up to 1,000 years to produce just two to three centimetres of soil and a lack of more urgent action could leave as much as 90 per cent of the planet’s soils degraded by 2050. We must protect natural ecosystems and advance the development of resilient landscapes which integrate sustainable food production with other ecosystem services and benefits for people. Soil health must be a core issue on the climate change mitigation agenda and as governments start to define their updated Paris Agreement Nationally Determined Contributions for 2030, they would be well placed to include commitments to improve soil health, both domestically and considering imported impacts from where their food may actually be grown. The private sector likewise can implement agroecological programmes, and support farmers in doing so, which will enhance our abilities to mitigate climate change, halt biodiversity loss and achieve food security for a growing population. Collective action is required for healthy soils and a healthy future for our planet.