September 5, 2015

Raising the Soil Profile

Aiden IrishEcoAgriculture Partners

Soil is the “great connector of our lives,” but we’re treating it like dirt.

Despite the fundamental – literally foundational – role of soils in healthy ecosystems, their presence on the international environmental policy stage has been surprisingly limited. Rectifying this dearth and spurring discussions around policy opportunities for soil conservation were the subjects of the “Soils and Landscape Management” roundtable on August 27th, hosted by EcoAgriculture Partners and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The event brought together an array of policy and development participants, ranging from US departments of State and Agriculture to a range of nongovernmental organizations. From the topics discussed, two broad themes stand out to me as critical, particularly as the United Nations moves to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the post 2015 development era.

“[For soil management and landscape level planning], it is important to promote coordination not only among ministries and local governments but also with local communities and farmers, who themselves don’t live in silos and bring a local perspective.”

800 million, 0.3, and 2.6 present a big challenge

Perhaps the most critical theme of the roundtable is the fundamental importance of soils. Listening to the opening statements by Sally Bunning of the FAO and Keith Weibe of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), three numbers stood out to me as epitomizing our relationship with soil; 800 million, 0.3, and 2.6. 800 million is the number of people globally who are currently undernourished; 0.3 is the estimated percentage decrease in the value of agricultural productivity due to soil erosion; and 2.6 is the multiplier that describes how much more carbon is stored in soils compared to the atmosphere.

These numbers outline three simple truths; we need healthy soils, we’re losing them, and we’re paying the price (literally). Or, as Wendell Berry more eloquently states it, “soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all.” As the world finally recognizes the need for sustainable social, economic, and environmental development – an emphasis most recently enshrined by the SDGs – soil conservation must take the central position that it demands.

Soil management starts within communities

The second fundamental theme of the roundtable concerns where conservation takes place. While large scale discussions and policies supporting conservation practices are undoubtedly important, those practices do not happen in board rooms, but in local communities and farms. In contrast to the Green Revolution, where agricultural practices were, by and large, administered to communities, effective soil conservation requires local practices within communities.

This change demands a parallel shift in the role of international institutions from prescribers to supporters. In this role, institutions help to preserve, facilitate, and augment the local knowledge already contained within local communities. As Tonya Rawe of CARE stated during the roundtable, “[For soil management and landscape level planning], it is important to promote coordination not only among ministries and local governments but also with local communities and farmers, who themselves don’t live in silos and bring a local perspective.” Such network connections are critical to supporting local soil conservation. While such statements represent a shift, the work is already well under way.

Soils underpin the SDGs

EcoAgriculture Partners recent participatory action research project to build climate smart landscapes in Kenya and Uganda is a prime example of such locally supportive soil conservation work. The adoption of the United Nations’ new Sustainable Development Goals offers an opportunity to make such locally-based management a global practice. The challenge, however, is to bring to the forefront of global awareness what the 12 participants of this roundtable already recognize; that locally based soil conservation is essential to effective sustainable development.

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