Agriculture, Food and Beverage

Why it's time to stop treating the soil like dirt

farmer tending crops and soil

Healthy soil is a resource of incredible magnitude. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Svein Tore Holsether
President and Chief Executive Officer, Yara International
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Agriculture, Food and Beverage

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

• We risk losing the world's topsoil within 60 years.

• Tens of millions of farmers could provide an incremental transformation of soil care.

• Businesses are underestimating the impact of nature loss.

One of my greatest joys is to see first-hand the many solutions already created to help solve the climate crisis. One of my greatest frustrations, however, is our inability to apply these solutions at scale.

2019 was the year that nature and land use made it to the top of the global agenda. It became clear that we will not meet the Paris Agreement if we don’t solve broken food and land-use systems.

Have you read?

Land degradation is affecting 3.2 billion people, and for far too long this has gone under the radar. This must change in 2020. If not, we risk that all the world’s topsoil be eroded in the next 60 years.

Healthy soil is a resource of incredible magnitude. It captures and stores water and carbon, increases biodiversity, and it preserves and increases food security.

The only way we can improve soil health is by really understanding human impact on nature and working with the farmer.

In November, I met Govind Agrawal and his wife Anju in Khandoli village in the Agra district of India. They have a four-hectare plot, growing potatoes. With the right crop nutrition programme, they have increased their yield by 15%. They combined knowledge and products into solutions. Precision and balanced nutrition with the right forms of nutrients, coupled with actively managing soil organic matter, and related practices such as cover cropping, implementation of soil conservation structures, reduced/no-tillage, etc. are key to conserving or improving soil health.

This is only one example of an individual farmer cultivating his land to improve the produce, livelihood, soil quality and carbon footprint. It may seem small, but if you multiply this by tens of millions of farmers, we’re talking incremental changes with world-changing impact.

There is this idea that farmers only work with their hands. Nothing could be further from the truth. Farmers work with their heads. I can’t think of anyone whose job is more complex: Forget about programmers, accountants, engineers and CEOs – we are nowhere near having to tackle as many challenges under the time constraints farmers are facing, including having to adapt to unexpected seasonal weather, storms and floods, caused by climate change.

Soils under threat
Causes and consequences of soil loss

For most of us, the weather forecast plays a minor role in our daily lives. It might determine whether we bring along an umbrella or not. But for a farmer it means make-or-break on an investment in this year’s harvest – and next year’s ability to invest or even just get by.

Companies worldwide are taking steps to transform their business models to solve issues we are facing, and changing mindsets to embrace both purpose and profit. Innovation drives change, and we see increasingly how business goals are aligned with societal goals. Whether it’s cleaner air, more carbon and biomass in soil, or reduction in rural poverty.

At the same time, many businesses are underestimating many of the risk elements. While there has been an increased awareness of climate risk, the risks related to nature loss are still far from being included. It is rather there as a hidden risk.

The new World Economic Forum/PwC report Nature Risk Rising: Why the Crisis Engulfing Nature Matters for Business and the Economy concludes that nature loss is a serious risk for businesses and the economy. The costs related to nature loss are now emerging as unanticipated business risks and systemic risks to economies. If not dealt with in a forceful way, we will fail to achieve the SDGs.

Mankind has had a hugely negative impact on nature and soil health, which means that that's also where the biggest potentials for improvement are.

I think former Unilever CEO Paul Polman was spot-on when he said that “we have to stop treating soil like dirt”. I couldn’t agree more. In my view, we have to treat soil as a solution.

Because the solution is in the soil.

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Related topics:
Agriculture, Food and BeverageClimate ChangeDavos AgendaIndiaFuture of the Environment
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