Around 95% of the food we eat grows in the earth. However, more than one-third of the world’s soils are degraded; without rapid action, this figure could rise to 90% by 2050.
Against the background of this sobering statistic over 800 people gathered virtually this week to discuss how to unlock the potential of better soil and root health to help transform food systems.
The One Earth Root and Soil Health Forum brought together experts from farming, international organizations, NGOs, academia and the public and private sectors. Together they called for collective action in science and technology targeting the early stages of plant growth.
The main emphasis this year was on Africa, which has around 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land. However, parallel workshops focusing on Turkey, the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and South Africa enabled tailored discussions in regional languages. Plenary keynote speakers were Erik Fyrwald (Syngenta group CEO and chairman of the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture) and Dr Ismahane Elouafi (chief scientist at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization).
Erik Fyrwald underlined that “everything starts with soil. It is the foundation of productive farming practices – with healthy soil, you can have healthy plants, healthy people and a healthy planet. By acting on soil health through regenerative agriculture practices, we are acting on climate change, biodiversity loss and food security, as well as improving farmer livelihoods. The One Earth Soil and Root Health Forum helps an international community shift towards achieving this – together.”
Dr Ismahane Elouafi noted that “healthy soils are the foundation for agriculture, as they provide 95% of our food. Soils also provide fuel, fiber and medical products, and play a key role in the carbon cycle, storing and filtering water, and improving resilience to floods and droughts.”
Speaking on the opening panel, Michael Misiko, Africa agriculture director of The Nature Conservancy, noted that “climate change is inseparable from the life and health of our soils and the roots that must thrive within them.”
Underlining the importance of awareness raising action, Dr Abdelfattah Dababat (senior scientist and country representative for Turkey of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre) underlined that “growers basically do not recognize soil or root health to be a problem. Most of them are not aware of the root rot diseases and soil health issues in their fields, affecting their yield. This is why the term ‘hidden enemy’ applies perfectly. Root and soil health management is therefore not practiced and those yield losses are simply accepted.”
Speakers also underlined the link between soil and root health and the long-term economic productivity and the welfare of societies. Other points raised included technologies measuring soil health and their role in enabling informed decision-making by farmers and scientists. The importance of empowering smallholders and enabling access to modern technologies was also underlined as was the importance of public-private sector collaboration in achieving this.