Leigh Ann Winowiecki, Research Theme Leader, Soil and Land Health, World Agroforestry (ICRAF).
Photo: ©ICRAF

Food systems transformation must be grounded in healthy soil

A world without healthy soil is a world in which little grows. Yet, for those who live in the roughly 25 to 40 per cent of the Earth’s surface that is degraded, this is what the future could hold.

Healthy soil stands at the centre of all our pressing global challenges and will be crucial in achieving the aims of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, launched in June this year.

Yet, healthy soil will also play an equally significant role in achieving the world’s climate goals in the wake of COP26 — given the Summit’s progress on agriculture-related issues. This not only includes soil’s significant potential to store carbon, but also the capacity of soil to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change, including drought, degradation, and desertification, on land worldwide.

Healthy soil, and the research and partnerships needed to achieve this, is not just key in responding to the land degradation and other challenges brought about by climate change but will also be central in seizing upon the momentum of the UN Food Systems Summit and building a healthy and resilient future food system.

Increasingly, the importance of food systems that provide healthy and nutritious food with benefits for people and the planet are being recognized around the world, yet in order to scale ecosystem restoration in general and healthy soil practices, specifically, we need to overcome a series of barriers.

First of all, we need multistakeholder action around the scaling of soil health practices, integrating science, policy and practice.

This includes, for instance, the Coalition of Action 4 Soil Health (CA4SH), launched at this year’s UN Food Systems Summit, which brings together the research community, Member States, private sector, farmers’ and development organisations who understand that to achieve food systems transformation, we must start with healthy soil.

The main objective of the Coalition is to improve soil health globally by addressing the implementation, monitoring, policy, public and private investment barriers that constrain farmers from adopting and scaling up healthy soil practices. 

Secondly, we must also adopt a holistic approach to soil health research to ensure that the impact of this research is realised on the ground. This includes working not only with international partners, but also directly with farmers and their local communities and the challenges they face.

For example, the Regreening Africa project, led by World Agroforestry (ICRAF), and in partnership with several international development and local organizations, aims to restore 1 million hectares of land and improve the livelihoods of 500,000 households across the continent, turning arid land and soils into green and productive farms.

Likewise, we must also support the adoption of soil health monitoring technology around the world, particularly in areas experiencing land degradation, as vital tools to building resilient and sustainable food systems amidst the challenges of climate change.

Technologies like soil spectroscopy, which have been funded by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) and use infrared light on soil samples to provide timely, affordable and accurate assessments of their properties, are revolutionising soil science, and its impact in the field.

In particular, this technology reduces the cost of soil analysis and enables landscape-scale assessments of soil and land health, for example, through the Land Degradation Surveillance Framework (LDSF), which has been implemented in over 40 countries across the tropics, and most recently in Rwanda.

Finally, we must also ensure that the vast benefits and positive impacts of these technologies are then made accessible to the farmers and local governments who need the data they can provide the most.

Online dashboards, the likes of which have already been developed for Makueni County in Kenya, with support from WLE, can provide invaluable overviews of local soil health data – including erosion, acidity, and more – which may mean the difference between a productive or unproductive harvest for a smallholder farmer.

In the light of this year’s World Soil Day, it’s clear that soil health research can help to address the growing climate challenges, such as desertification and land degradation, that make access to food more uncertain and unstable for many.

After all, just as all life depends on water and oxygen, the life of our food systems cannot overlook the critical importance of healthy soil. 

Leigh Ann Winowiecki, Research Theme Leader, Soil and Land Health, World Agroforestry (ICRAF) Contact

This article first appeared at IDN website

More information:
UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration
Regreening Africa project
UN Food Systems Summit
Land Degradation Surveillance Framework (LDSF)

Further reading: Rural 21, issue 3/21 on "Food systems, nutrition and the SDGs"

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