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14 February 2022

The interlinkages between sustainable food supply and soil health

Photo by Rodolfo Clix /Pexels

Soil is the very foundation of food production. In fact, about 95% of global food production depends on soil. It supports a quarter of the planet’s biodiversity not only through supplying food but also by regulating nutrient, carbon, and water cycles. Soils control planetary ecosystem functions and health issues by creating an unbreakable soil-plant-animal nexus. 

Unfortunately, the world’s soils are under increasing pressure. The world population is growing and the rising demand for food and other resources leads to increased competition for land. Climate change and human activities contribute to soil degradation. Still, the topic of soil is too often missing from global policy meetings and conferences, such as the recent COP26. 

The five-day Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA), organised by the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, called attention to the different challenges we face regarding soil and land use. With the initial recognition of the need for worldwide cooperation to find solutions to this challenge for the global food situation, the GFFA set out to promote dialogue and further expand international exchange around the issue, as Cem Özdemir, German Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture, said during his opening talk: “The fight against climate change doesn’t stop at a country’s border, we must all work in the same direction, exchange knowledge, share experiences and develop pathways jointly.” The conference opened in the name of urgency to mitigate climate change, reduce biodiversity loss, and achieve sustainable soil and land management systems to feed the growing population sustainably. 

The concluding event of the GFFA, not open to the public, gathered 70 agricultural ministers and led to establishing a common stance on the subject in a final communiqué.  

What’s the matter with soils worldwide? 

Land grabbing by private investors, listed companies, and investment funds has become a threat to smallholder farmers. The governments of many African countries are continuously supporting such destructive mechanisms. In the past 20 years, about ten million hectares were sold out or leased for large-scale farming.  The promise of yield and food production increase is often not held, profit and not people’s prosperity and livelihoods are aimed at, as stated by Luís Muchanga, Director of the Mozambican farmers’ association União Nacional de Camponeses (UNAC). Dr. Sabine Dorlöchter-Sulser, Rural Development Officer, MISEREOR, backed up this fact, displaying the results of two studies undertaken for her organisation on large-scale land acquisition in Africa, where no significant bettering of the farmers’ situation could be seen. Dorlöchter-Sulser pleaded for a people-centred approach to rural development, focused on understanding farmers’ needs, and considering their agency. 

Furthermore, in many parts of Africa and other low-income countries, local and Indigenous communities, as well as women, often have little to no land rights. This is a crucial barrier against the mass adoption of planet-friendly food production practices (e.g. organic farming, regenerative agriculture, agroecology, etc.). If farmers do not own the land, they might not feel the urge to work sustainably. They are obliged to pay the landlords, for example, and cannot adopt practices that require long-term planning. Benjamin Davis, Director of Inclusive Transformation and Gender Equality Division, FAO, stated that only 3% of land value was captured by poor people, adding that  

Land rights should be perceived as fundamental rights, just as the rights to water, food, or self-determination. The idea must be scaled up and mainstreamed. 

Benjamin Davis, Director of the Inclusive Rural Transformation and Gender Equality Division, FAO, at the GFFA conference

Moreover, a significant amount of public funds directed to the food and agricultural sector supports harmful practices such as excessive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides that contribute to environmental degradation. Stronger regulations and follow-up mechanisms are needed here. 

Rapid soil sealing leading to soil deterioration 

The increased demand versus a shorter growing season and high rate of surface sealing of the most fertile soils caused by rapid urbanization is the main challenge in protecting soil and water resources in the northern countries. Historically, cities have developed around fertile land, and thus “urban growth jeopardises soil functions,” according to Dr. Christina Siebe, Researcher at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. She brought up the adverse effects of land sealing on flood risks, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration. Dr. Bruce Lascelles, President of the British Society of Soil Sciences, pointed out that a common practice is to send soil removed from urban areas to landfills. This unsustainable practice leads to a waste of healthy soils. 

The lack of well-defined financing options for a shift to sustainable agricultural practices and potential contribution from stakeholders in realising the financial mechanisms are also hindering sustainable soil and land use. As long as soil is seen as a mere input and food as an output, no systematic thinking can occur. Soil and land must be understood in their complexity. 

Solutions to ensure healthy soils and sustainable land management 

Ensuring food security, mitigating climate change, and protecting biodiversity start with preserving and restoring healthy soils. They ensure sustainable food production, mitigate the occurrence and the outcomes of climate extremes, and enhance ecosystem services. Therefore, it is necessary to invest in building healthy soils. Governments and the private sectors should find effective financing models to fulfil the set goals. An example is the 4 per 1000 initiative, aiming to increase soil carbon storage by 4‰ per year through policies and practical interventions implemented by voluntary stakeholders. 

To address the increasing pressure on soils due to urbanization, Dr. Lilian Øygarden, Researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research, emphasised that we need better knowledge about where high-quality soil is located. She further stated that knowledge about soil quality and land use should be converted to guidelines and maps to help planners evaluate and find alternative locations to highways and urban buildings. In the same vein, Dr. Bruce Lascelles, highlighted that

Soils and their health should be at the heart of planning, designing, and executing new developments or changes to existing open areas.” 

Since the urbanization level in the world is expected to rise in the coming decades, Dr. Christina Siebe advocated for a close cooperation between urban planners and soil specialists. 

Photo by Carlo Verso on Unsplash

Besides, substantial hope lies in the proper recycling of organic wastes and wastewater because of their high potential to increase agricultural productivity and carbon storage. Consumers can be involved through awareness-raising, starting with product-labelling based on its contribution to soil health or in a soil restoration project. Limiting excessive consumption is a first step as well. 

Collaboration amongst stakeholders for voluntary scheme implementation 

To diminish the adverse effects of land grabbing on livelihoods, multistakeholder platforms (MSP) have proven to work well, especially to implement voluntary guidelines, such as the Responsible Governance of Tenure. These can be seen as regular meetings between different parties involved in a certain area. For example, in Sierra Leone, Sonkita Conteh, Director of the Program of Namati, mentioned that what had worked best was to hold meetings in local languages and in a familiar setting, where especially farmers are feeling safe and listened to. A drawback with the platforms could be the lack of feedback loops to the policy level that would make agreements binding and allow learnings for other communities, as Cora van Oosten, Wageningen University & Research, mentioned, 

Institutionalising guidelines is great, but the MSP must move beyond the local, must be embedded horizontally and vertically and gain social acceptance and thus legitimacy. 

Traditional farming knowledge and Indigenous practices are to be well preserved and practiced in their own contexts, as well as integrated into other contexts when proven to be efficient. Soil Centric Green Revolution approaches, such as regenerative agriculture and agroecology concept-based production systems, proposed by the Committee on World Food Security, would lead to fulfilling UN-SDGs.  

Global determination demanded to solve the issues  

A final communiqué, agreed upon by agriculture ministers from 70 countries was presented to representatives of four international development organisations at the end of the conference.  

The communiqué, set up in 22 different action points, is offering an overview of important aspects to consider when designing and implementing policies and practices to improve soil health, and thus food security. The ministers agreed upon the urgency to act on soils to mitigate climate change and its effects, and to reduce soil and water degradation by adopting innovative approaches, where practitioners can tap on modern as well as ancient technologies and knowledge.  

Access to land and secured land rights are vital to promote sustainable soil and land management. Land tenure systems must be revised and based on voluntary guidelines. The progress made by the different stakeholders involved will be discussed at the GFFA 2024.  

The GFFA broadcasted the complexity of land and soil management issues and succeeded in bringing together actors from various continents and sectors. The fact that the forum was entirely dedicated to soil is a positive sign for all people depending on this finite resource worldwide, and an urgent call to action to restore and maintain healthy soils for the benefit of the entire planet.  

Reporting back by Marika Kronberg, intern at SIANI, Mohammed Masud Parvage (PhD., Soil Science), intern at SEI, and Magdalena Knobel, Communications Consultant at SIANI.