Just a question; when you entered your house, when you ate your fries, when you drank a glass of water, or whilst driving your car, did you ever wonder what provides the basic services that are required for all these daily activities? No?
It’s the soil.
The soil is a unique living ecosystem that provides all these amazing services. It provides the ‘ground’ under our natural and urban ecosystems, it regulates the water cycle, it stores and filters water, it provides the resources to produce food and fuel, it facilitates the natural recycling of waste streams and stores CO2. It is fair to state that the soil is the basis of our economy, and literally the basis of our life. Healthy soils are the primary answer to the world-wide challenges formulated in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
The soil is the driving engine behind the realisation of the SDGs.
So far, 193 countries have adopted the SDGs, often including a range of related initiatives. The “4/1000 Initiative, Soils for Food Security and Climate” aims to ensure that agriculture plays its part in combating climate change. The UN Decade on Biodiversity serves to support and promote implementation of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity to significantly reduce biodiversity loss. And in 2017, the 100 Million trees partnership reached its target of 100 million trees planted in 150 countries.
Many sustainability initiatives exist, and each of these initiatives puts a demand on the services of the soil. It is clear, to be able to reach the SDGs, large changes in the way we deal with Biodiversity, Climate, Food, Energy and Economy are a prerequisite. However, realising these ambitions through separate actions will require more land than is available and will put too much pressure on the soils that we have. Hence, multifunctional use of soil and land should be the starting point in initiating all transitions that are needed to reach the SDGs.
Multifunctional use of the soil is the key to start all actions for the SDGs.
Which actions do we need to take before 2030, the targeted date for the realisation of the SDGs? As a start, it is good to realise that we do not have to start from scratch. Already in 2012 the Global Soil Partnership was established, with a mandate to improve governance of the limited soil resources of our planet to guarantee agriculturally productive soils for a food secure world, as well as support to other essential ecosystem services. And in 2015, the Wageningen Soil Conference underpinned the significance of soils and soil sciences towards the realisation of the SDGs and the scientific community agreed to urgently identify actions for soil-based solutions towards achieving the SDGs (paper 2015). As shown in the WSC2017, this research is progressing (book of abstracts 2017).
Morrien et al (2017) found that during the course of nature restoration on abandoned arable land, a shift in soil life composition enhanced efficiency of carbon uptake. This result implies that during nature restoration, the efficiency of nutrient cycling and carbon uptake can increase by a shift in soil life composition and/or activity - an insight that may become very instrumental when thinking about new land management approaches. Keesstra et al. (2018) found that following a Nature Based Solutions approach, soil-vegetation solutions in land management stimulate soil health and can restore ecosystem services in watersheds.
Putting soil knowledge into practice, SoilCares has developed a portable, easy to use and fast soil scanner that can be taken into the fields to develop on the spot, customised fertiliser recommendations using local conditions and farmer preferences. With high adoption rates among the Kenyan farmers in 2017, it is safe to assume that locally adjusted fertiliser recommendations open the way to halting and reverting soil fertility decline at scale. These new insights in the functioning of the soil, provide perspectives to improve the soil condition worldwide. This is a necessity, because the soil needs to be in a the best possible condition to function.
To provide all its services in an optimal way, soil must function at an Olympic top level.
Not only the scientific community has realised the importance of the soil. Following the ‘think global, act local’ slogan, many local initiatives have started, considering a healthy soil the basis for local food production, a healthy environment or a potential for storage of carbon. For instance, in the Netherlands the Dutch farmers organisation LTO Noord is very active in promoting healthy soils. They have set up a range of projects (information in Dutch) to stimulate sustainable soil management with farmers collaborating with scientists, and regional policy makers. However, LTO Noord did not stop at the level of local initiatives. With an overarching goal of stimulating exchange of experiences and knowledge between and about these projects, they set up the water caravan. Reaching not only the project participants, but also showing the impact to stakeholders at regional and national level, like policymakers and managers of water boards. This is also possible in developing countries. For instance by applying the PIP approach, the PAPAB project in Burundi managed to increase the application of sustainable soil management practices, and thus increased food security and livelihood of 33,000 farmer's families. These initiatives provide a great example of how knowledge of the soil, availability of practical solutions, and collaboration between scientists, local population, authorities and NGOs, can actually have a large contribution to the SDGs at local level, and have a large potential for scaling.
Local initiatives, with scientific support, can highly contribute to the SDGs.
Evidence for successful upscaling of locally developed soil based technologies, integrated in an approach to improve livelihood of farmers, can be found in the CASCAPE project. In South Ethiopia, CASCAPE (more than) doubled yields of malt barley through the introduction of new varieties and by introducing soil specific fertiliser regimes. CASCAPE also helped local cooperatives to negotiate directly with the breweries, thus doubling the price farmers get for their barley. This fourfold increase in income created a true malt barley revolution, with 17,125 farmers in 10 districts switching to malt barley over the last year alone. The average farmer got € 300 from an average plot of .25 ha. On the scale of an Ethiopian smallholder farmer, this is a tremendous success. The large success of CASCAPE lies in the fact that it integrates a bottom-up approach of finding successful local solutions, facilitating testing and scaling up together with the local stakeholders and extension services and universities and embedding the overall approach of increasing agricultural production in the national agenda’s like the agricultural growth program of Ethiopia.
The previously described examples show that sustainably managed soils and multidisciplinary use of land are the answer to the challenges of the SDGs. At this moment we have all required cards in our hands; scientific knowledge on soils, success stories with impact, funding opportunities through the Land Degradation Neutrality Fund; smart business models like the CommonLand 3 zones 4 returns approach and a worldwide sense of urgency to act. Acknowledging that the soil is the basic driver of our economy, and the engine behind the required transitions, the soil scientific community can kick-start the engine and assure realisation of the SDGs in 2030.
So, next time when you step out of bed, brush your teeth with water, eat your breakfast of cereals, and exit your house to go to work with your car, think about this: without sustainable soil management, none of this would be possible. The soil is the basis of our living planet, and of everything we do on it.
It's the soil, the engine to our future.