‘Soil health can save us all’ – World Food Prize winner

A growing number of experts argue that by protecting and valuing our planet’s soil, we can help mitigate climate change, boost agricultural productivity, and feed our growing human population

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Prioritising soil health must be profitable and sustainable. This is the plea of soil rock star Rattan Lal, the winner of the 2020 World Food Prize, who shares his insights with Food For Mzansi.

Perhaps the greatest hope for a more sustainable future lies underfoot: our planet’s soil. Recently, the first United Nations Food Systems Summit has brought stakeholders together to strategise about bringing positive change to the world’s food systems.

Soil health is not only at the foundation of our food systems but remains critical for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Healthy soil is essential to our collective well-being, food security, and environmental stability including climate, water, and biodiversity.

Responsible for approximately 95% of the food that we eat, just one teaspoon of soil holds more microbes than there are people on this planet. It is a precious, essential asset: It sequesters carbon, and improves crop yields, nutritional values, and livelihoods. There can be no food without healthy soil, and there can be no life without food. It is a triple asset for people, planet, and profitability.

Over his career spanning more than five decades and four continents, Rattan Lal has promoted innovative soil-saving techniques benefiting the livelihoods of more than 500 million smallholder farmers, improving the food and nutritional security of more than two billion people and saving hundreds of millions of hectares of natural tropical ecosystems. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
Over his career spanning more than five decades and four continents, Rattan Lal has promoted innovative soil-saving techniques benefiting the livelihoods of more than 500 million smallholder farmers, improving the food and nutritional security of more than two billion people and saving hundreds of millions of hectares of natural tropical ecosystems. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Yet, just as human activity has contributed to climate change, feeding a growing population and producing enough food has impacted the planet’s soils. In some low- and middle-income countries, soil cultivation for agriculture has reduced the natural carbon content of some cultivated soils by up to 75%.

Rising temperatures, combined with drought and floods, exacerbate soil degradation and erosion. The world loses upwards of 24 billion tonnes of topsoil each year, some of which is deposited in waterways and reservoirs with severe adverse impacts on the global economy and environmental quality.

These effects include the depletion of carbon content in soils, which is necessary for agricultural productivity, loss of plant nutrients, and diminished water quality.

This affects around 3.2 billion people, most of whom live in Africa and South Asia.

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That’s why a growing number of experts argue that by protecting and valuing our planet’s soil, we can help mitigate climate change, boost agricultural productivity, and feed our growing human population.

If done correctly, the Earth’s diminished soils could reabsorb 80 billion to 100 billion metric tons of carbon between 2020 and 2100 – helping improve farmers’ livelihoods, strengthen supply chains, and support corporate targets on net zero emissions.

It could also help limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius if non-carbon fuel sources can be adopted. Despite this, soil is often overlooked in policy and investment decisions.

Our ambition is to change the conversation.

We, a range of companies and non-profit organisations in the agricultural value chain, endorse the United Nations-inspired Coalition of Action 4 Soil Health, a multi-stakeholder effort to facilitate the widespread adoption of practices that will improve soil health through financial investment and policy action.

Our bold ambition is to work side-by-side with farmers – especially smallholder farmers who produce much of the world’s food – to put soil health squarely back at the centre of the farm. Here are some ways through which we can improve soil heath.

1. Work with farmers, the agents of change

The first step is in knowing that real change starts on the farm. With that in mind, we must continue to pursue, promote, and expand scientifically robust tools and practices that support their work. We must also help amplify farmer-led sustainability efforts, such as soil erosion reduction practices.

By defining a set of financial mechanisms and investment solutions – including insurance and transition finance – tailored and scaled to different regions, farmers can expand environmental best management practices.

2. Introduce new models

We must offer new business models for farmers and landowners that include compensation and reward schemes for ecosystem services and advance public-private soil health stewardship programmes involving research institutions and farmers.

Soil carbon sequestration is a potential income source for farmers through the use of verifiable and creditable carbon markets that allow farmers to benefit from sustainable practices. Carbon markets should be designed to also benefit smallholders and help them escape the poverty trap they often find themselves in. Farmers should also be compensated for their provision of some critical ecosystem services, such as water restoration projects and soil carbon sequestration.

3. Make soil health profitable

Soil is a biological system that requires customised solutions for each field or plot. Prioritising soil health must be profitable and sustainable across multiple markets and food systems, and take productivity, data measurement, and technology into account.

As such, governments should align their policies with global soil health goals to ensure that farmers benefit from the long-term investment. Making consumers aware of the links between healthy soil, sustainable and safe food, and healthy diets will also help. 

As a group, we call on all stakeholders – governments, businesses, farmers, and consumers – to prioritise soil health. A natural resource at the heart of our food system, only healthy soils can ensure a sustainable and nutritious future.

It’s time that we stop taking for granted this precious asset that lies beneath our feet. The future of the world depends on good food, and without good soil we cannot meet the SDGs.

  • Rattan Lal, born in India and a citizen of the United States, will receive the 2020 World Food Prize for developing and mainstreaming a soil-centric approach to increasing food production that restores and conserves natural resources and mitigates climate change.

ALSO READ: World Soil Day: 3 simple steps to boost soil health

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