By Esther Ngumbi
URBANA, ILLINOIS – On December 5, the world marked World Soil Day. The theme this year, “Stop Soil Erosion, Save our Future,” was chosen to raise awareness of the damage being done to soils around the world and start the process of reversing this trend. But how do we get more people to care about soil?
There is no doubt that they should. The importance of soil to human civilization cannot be overestimated – it is present in everything we touch. Healthy soil underpins agriculture, farm productivity, and national economies. It grows healthy food, reduces nutrient losses to waterways, reduces greenhouse-gas emissions, increases carbon sequestration, and strengthens biodiversity, all while enabling crops to cope with the changing climate. As such, soil should be viewed as a natural, national, and strategic asset that must be managed wisely.
Yet around the world, soils are being eroded, dried out, and degraded, owing to poor land use and intensive agricultural practices that deplete soil nutrients. Other factors contributing to poor soil health and erosion include deforestation, excessive use of nitrogen fertilizers, and overgrazing. Ultimately, these practices literally mine the life out of soils.
It is time to reverse this damaging trend. That means stopping soil erosion and other practices that are robbing our soils – and the billions of microorganisms and organisms that live in them – of their health. The question, then, is how to get more people to care?
One way to ensure that national governments and citizens appreciate soils and the value they hold is to put an economic price tag on them. Compelling recent evidence suggests that there are substantial profits to be made from caring about soils.
For example, a report released in July by the Croatan Institute, targeting mainly investors, agricultural practitioners, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists, highlighted more than $320 billion in investment opportunities for sustainable food and agriculture, including 70 opportunities in regenerative agriculture worth $47.5 billion. Likewise, an article published in 2017 in Nature made a compelling business case that companies’ bottom lines and their ability to remain competitive are closely connected to soil health, implying that mitigation of soil degradation minimizes economic risks.
Putting a price tag on soil is the right way to encourage the necessary efforts. Regenerative agriculture, while encompassing many other principles, comprises sustainable farming practices such as reduced tillage, cover cropping, intercropping, diversified crop rotations, rotational grazing, composting, and mulching. The goal is to build up and diversify soil organic matter, thereby promoting soil health, and mitigate climate change through the sequestering of carbon.
Equally important is the need to highlight the impact and benefits for growers who adopt these practices. We need more documentation about the differences that these practices can make. Metrics for documenting the effects can capture how soil health improves, for example, or how much more regenerative farms are that store soil carbon.
As we highlight impacts, we should also call attention to organizations that are leading the way in improving soils. Food Tank, for example, released the names of 15 organizations from around the world that are working to improve soil health. Their efforts include bringing scientists and policymakers together to address soil loss and soil biodiversity, as well as using storytelling and other forms of creative communication to raise consumer awareness about the connections between soil health, food security, and the climate. In 2018, Food Tank featured organizations promoting regenerative agriculture, including the Rodale Institute, which is best known for its role in advocating for regenerative practices, and Soil4Climate, another leader in efforts to promote soil restoration.
To encourage ordinary citizens to get involved, we need to inspire many more organizations and countries to care about soils, while raising awareness about soils through initiatives like the United Nations’ platform for spotlighting soil health initiatives from around the world.
To maximize the potential of regenerative agriculture practices and other measures to improve soil health, more data-based evidence is desperately needed, including to show pathways for scaling. More than ever, scientists must work together with growers to address questions and remove obstacles preventing more people from adopting such practices.
Reiterating the theme of this year’s World Soil Day, the time is now to reverse the trend of soil erosion. By making a compelling business case as to why growers should adopt regenerative agricultural practices, and putting a monetary value on the impact of such practices, we can save the world’s soils – and, ultimately, our own future.
Ngumbi is Assistant Professor of Entomology and African-American Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.