The fate of the world’s economy is not decided in banks, boardrooms, or on stock markets. It is decided by the ground beneath our feet. Investing in soil health today is not only an ecological necessity but an economic one, too.
Soil is the planet’s life support system. There is approximately three times as much carbon in the soil than in the atmosphere, and about four times the amount stored in all living plants and animals. Similarly, there is no food security without healthy soils; we rely on the organic matter concentrated in them for the food that sustains our societies.
Similarly, healthy soils and water are highly interconnected. Water filters through the organic matter in soils and collects as pure groundwater, upon which 2 billion people worldwide rely for their primary drinking source.
Today, the United Nations predicts that some 40% of the world’s soils are eroded. Already, this threatens further crop failure, loss of livelihoods, water pollution, and ecosystem collapse that impacts farmers, foresters, and local communities.
This has dire ramifications for the business world, too. Soil and land degradation creates commodity price volatility, leading businesses to front the costs, or pass this increased cost onto the customer. When soil health deteriorates, it leads to a reduction in the production of basic food items. We’ve already seen how reduced grain and wheat exports from Ukraine has triggered global food supply instability. We can expect such volatility to become commonplace if soil degradation continues at the rate it is.
You might also like: How Wheat Shortage Is Sparking a Global Food Crisis
Yet, we must not succumb to fatalism. We must understand that there is a huge opportunity to buffer both local farmers, and the wider global economy from both the impacts of soil degradation and climate change. This is possible through large-scale adoption of simple yet effective soil management practices by farmers. By adopting such practices we can improve the soil’s organic matter, which in turn contributes to overall soil health. Healthy soils also make farming efficient, profitable, and more resilient to climate shocks.
As stated by Dr. Alisher Mirzabaev, chair of Production Economics Group at the University of Bonn, at the expert roundtable hosted by Save Soil: “Soil health is a highly profitable investment. Every euro invested in land restoration can return 2-9 euros of profits over 30 years.”
By investing in better soil education, management, research, and technology that increases soil’s organic matter and thus its health, we can not only protect the natural resource upon which our economies are based, but we can also maximise crop yields, and therefore trigger a bottom-up economic stimulus.
Here is one such example.
In 1998, a team of UN experts predicted that by 2025, nearly 60% of Tamil Nadu, of which the previously fertile Cauvery river basin runs through, would become a desert as a result of intensive farming practices.
The Rally for Rivers, one of the largest people’s movements in India supported by 161 million people, encouraged farmers to transition from mono crops to tree-based agriculture. As a result of this transition, farmers saw their income increase by between 300% and 800%, which triggered a huge economic empowerment amongst the whole community.
The project has resulted in the planting of over 60 million trees. For context, the US Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service estimates that over a 50-year span, a tree generates $162,000 in benefits –$31,250 worth of oxygen, $62,000 worth of air pollution control, recycles $37,500 worth of water, and controls $31,250 worth of soil erosion.
Similarly, in a recent soil and water conservation project funded by the global federation of companies Mahindra in India’s Madhya Pradesh, nearly 10,000 hectares of farmed land was treated with the “Ridge to Valley” approach. As a result, 4,071 farmers benefited from a two-meter rise in average groundwater levels, which doubled per capita income.
Of course, such investments protect businesses, too. The reality is that for most modern businesses, soil underpins their entire supply chain. Businesses that sell food, fibres, biofuels, and fashion rely on healthy soil for the production of raw materials they require for their products.
Supply of clean drinking water, especially in the tropical world, is heavily dependent on healthy soils that sequester the rainwater and recharge the surface water bodies like lakes and groundwater aquifers like wells and tube wells.
This is why our policies must have the goal of retaining the minimum 3-6% of organic matter that characterise healthy soils. The Save Soil movement, an initiative by the Isha Foundation and supported by the WHO, UN SDG lab, and IUCN, suggests a three-pronged strategy to make that happen.
First, we must encourage farmers to shift away from traditional practices; they must be financially incentivised to adopt healthy, regenerative agriculture methods. Secondly, the private sector must collaborate with governments to ensure that farmers can easily access the complex carbon credit market. Finally, we should develop a labelling mechanism that is based on the organic matter of the soil in which food is grown. This would raise consumer awareness of the benefits of healthy soil and would help facilitate more environmentally-conscious choices. All these initiatives will rely on the private sector working alongside the public sector in order to protect this crucial natural resource.
Fundamentally, we have to understand that profit is only made on the bedrock of the world’s natural resources. Ultimately, our soils have sustained us for millennia. We must now return the favour.
You might also like: 5 Challenges the Agricultural Sector Faces in 2023