Twenty-four billion tonnes of fertile soil is lost worldwide each year – which has a significant impact on the foundations of food security, not to mention the economic loss this entails, which has been put at 1.5 trillion euros. Around 500 participants met at the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in late June to attend the international conference "Celebrating Soil! Celebrating Life!" and draw public attention to this process and discuss possible solutions. The conference was organised in the context of the “Save our Soils” campaign of Dutch fresh organic fruit and vegetable distributor Eosta as well as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).
Ninety-five per cent of the food produced today comes from the soils; at the same time, one third of all soils is moderately to highly degraded. In sub-Saharan Africa, with its large, as yet unused expanses of land, 70 per cent of the areas were affected by land degradation, Sara Knijff, Director International Agribusiness at the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, noted opening the conference. Ensuring food security for the growing world population was only possible if the natural resources of water and soil were sustainably used. “It is small-scale farmers in particular who frequently cannot assume this task because they lack the necessary knowledge,” Knijff maintained. Also, it was difficult to explain to them the need for investment in measures today the success of which might only become apparent in a few years’ time. It was up to the industrialised countries to spread existing knowledge and available research results on sustainable land management world-wide. Knijff also called on Dutch companies to adopt sustainability standards in their business operations.
The dilemma of private ownership and the commons
One of the biggest failures of the European Union was that of not having common legislation on soil conservation, said Claudia Olazabal of the European Commission’s Directorate Environment. In 2006, the EU Commission submitted draft European soil conservation guidelines, but in 2014, they were shelved – a bitter defeat for the 22 approving countries which had hoped that this would ensure soil protection similar to that for air or water. This is all the more the case since national soil protection legislation is in place in only a few Member States, despite soil already degrading in many European regions. According to Olazabal, the problem was that 75 per cent of all Europeans were living in cities and were not aware of the services soil was performing. “Soil is mostly privately owned but renders services for the whole community. This is a difficult political nut to crack,” she explained, but refused to give up. “We may have lost the battle at political level for the time being, but we will come back!”
More than an empty container
To Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva, it is a fact that the use of private property is also embedded in society and must also be governed by the principle of doing nothing that could harm others. “We must bring back community responsibility,” Shiva demanded, emphasising that soil was not, as chemical industry would have it, merely an empty container serving production requirements. Not only did soil bear a high cultural value in many countries, with the exception of industrialised societies, it was sacred in all cultures. “To be human is to depend on humus!” Vandana Shiva noted, reminding the conference of the etymological relationship between the two concepts.
A plea for a rights based approach
Alexander Müller, Secretary General of the International Institute of Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam/Germany, reminded the participants of the economics of land degradation. Annual economic losses through deforestation and soil degradation are in the region of 1.5 to 3 trillion euros annually, which is three to seven per cent of global GDP. Clearly, soil conservation and soil rehabilitation measures were therefore investment in the future. At the same time, Müller pointed out that the technologies presently in use were not neutral. “Soil rehabilitation has to be based on human rights,” he demanded and above all stressed securing the rights of the most vulnerable people.
However, the political economy of soils had also changed. While farmers were more than ever locked in cheap food prices, land had become a valuable asset. “Here we have two currents that do not fit together. Neither do they lead to sustainable land use,” Müller maintained.
Organic agriculture as the ideal way?
So how can sustainable land use be achieved? The conference participants regarded organic agriculture as the ideal way. It sets out from the premise of promoting soil organic matter. The concept of “organic farming” was developed according to this principle for the corresponding mode of agriculture in the 1940s, as IFOAM President André Leu explained. Soil organic matter has an important role in fixing nitrogen and nutrients for plants. It ensures a healthy soil structure, thus supporting erosion resistance. In addition, the capacity of the soils to store water is raised. This is an important precondition for coping with the impacts of climate change. Leu said that worldwide, there was a CO2 storage gap of 9-12 giga-tonnes a year. “There is good peer-reviewed science on the ability of organic farming to sequester around 2 tons of CO2/ha/year, so that we could fill the gap,” Leu explained, and was convinced that with the right organic techniques, it was possible to reverse climate change. Scaling-up of existing good practices was an important aspect. Here, however, there was often a lack of political will, conference participants stressed again and again.
However, there are exceptions: “I have decided for my country that we will go 100 per cent organic,” said Pema Gyamtsho, First Minister of Agriculture and Forest in the Democratic Government of Bhutan. Two years ago, the then minister of agriculture announced the goal of making the organic cultivation of grain, rice, potatoes and fruit a national duty. The use of pesticides was to be banned. “I don’t think of soil only as a medium to grow food,” said Gyamthso. And with a view to Buddhist belief in reincarnation, he added grinning: “I believe I will be born as a happy earthworm.”
“It is time to put the issue of soil on the global agenda,” said Germany’s former Minister of Agriculture Renate Künast and proposed the recruitment of new allies, e.g. in the global food and feed industry. In order to keep the valuable natural resource of soil for future generations, binding rules on soil management had to be in place. Künast hopes for a strong global movement similar to the anti-nuclear campaign in which farmers, consumers and entrepreneurs can stand up for the protection of this valuable resource.
The conference was concluded with the presentation of the “Amsterdam Declaration”, in which the campaign members call for a sustainable handling of soil: “Decision-makers, governments and representatives of business and civil society have to recognise that organic agriculture is the best way of preserving biodiversity, rescuing the climate and ensuring food security.”
On "Save our Soils"
The “Save Our Soils” campaign was launched in 2012 by Eosta and the FAO to draw attention to the significance of healthy soils. The campaign is supported by more than 200 partners comprising institutions, non-governmental organisations, companies and celebrities. Its patron is Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva. In February 2015, the “Save Our Soils Fund” was set up as part of the campaign. Funds raised are to support farmers worldwide in their efforts to maintain healthy and fertile soils and their engagement in organic agriculture.