How farmers can improve soil health and feed the planet: an expert explains

Over half of agricultural land has poor soil health, leading to productivity losses of $400 billion per year and expected food-price increases of 30% by 2035.
Over half of agricultural land has poor soil health, leading to productivity losses of $400 billion per year and expected food-price increases of 30% by 2035.
Image: Gabriel Jimenez for Unsplash
  • Soil health is declining at an alarming rate, leading to productivity losses and food-price rises.
  • Alfred Grand is a pioneer organic farmer and vermicomposting entrepreneur from Austria.
  • According to Grand, we need to take "a holistic and systemic approach about protecting and regenerating" soil, in order to feed the world.
  • The World Economic Forum is committed to taking #BoldActionForFood

Soil is the foundation of all life on earth. Although our lives depend on it, we often overlook the importance of soil health. Threatened by land-use change, intensive agriculture, climate change and desertification, soil health is declining at an alarming rate and could be reaching a point of no return.

Farmers are at the frontline of the soil crisis. They have contributed to the degradation but are also the most affected by it. The current system has transformed agriculture into an extractive industry, one which uses natural resources such as water and soil nutrients unsustainably. As a consequence, over half of agricultural land is already degraded, leading to productivity losses of $400 billion per year and expected food-price increases of 30% by 2035.

Acknowledging what is at stake, some farmers have started to work to reverse this alarming trend. They are taking the lead to restore soil health while securing food supplies for future generations and fighting climate change and nature loss.

Alfred Grand is one of them. He is a pioneer organic farmer and vermicomposting entrepreneur from Austria, who runs GRAND FARM, a 90-hectare research and demonstration farm focused on soil health, agroforestry and market gardening.

"Just like air – the soil does not care if it is polluted. But we humans do care – because if it is polluted, it can no longer provide all the services we depend on. So, we have to be the ones taking care of it."

—Alfred Grand, Organic Farmer and Entrepreneur

We interviewed Alfred to understand why he decided to challenge traditional farming and explore the opportunities beneath the soil, and how he is hoping to inspire a new generation of farmers, consumers and citizens.

Why does soil matter to the world?

When people come to visit our farm, we like to show them what the first metre and a half below ground looks like. And it’s quite an experience! When people see all that activity below the ground, see the life in the dirt, and feel it with their own hands – they grasp (begreifen in German) physically and conceptually the importance of soil and why it needs to be protected and cared for.

Farmers know that soil matters – we see it every day. But there is a great disconnect between farmers and the rest of the world – especially consumers and researchers.

Healthy soils provide us with a range of different services, and we need to take a holistic and systemic approach about protecting and regenerating them. Here is why. Soil supports the production of 95% of global food supplies. It also is home to twice as much carbon as the entire atmosphere. While over the centuries humans released most of this carbon through their activities – including agriculture - restoring soil health and its carbon content can significantly contribute to fighting climate change.

But there is more. Healthy soils are hosts to rich biodiversity - one gram of soil can hold one billion bacteria, most of which have not yet been discovered but are critical to the development of antibiotics and other medicines. Healthy soils also matter for resilience. When it comes to water they absorb and purify water for human consumption and they regulate excess rainfall and prevents floods, which is important when we see the erratic rainfall patterns caused by climate change.

Soil is life, so caring about soil, means caring about life, it’s a simple equation. All current and future generations’ lives on earth depend on soil, so everyone should talk about soil, not only practitioners.

"Farmers need to hear from trusted sources why they need to adopt new regenerative practices, and that there is a business case for that."

—Alfred Grand, Organic farmer and Entrepreneur

Can sustainable farming practices feed the world?

Yes, I believe sustainable farming practices could feed the world, but we cannot forget that there are multiple challenges we face when we think about feeding the world in the long term. Figures project a global population of 9.6 billion people by 2050. Feeding 2 billion additional people with nutritious food will put an enormous amount of pressure on our soils if we keep doing business as usual!

To reduce this pressure, we should reduce food waste and shift our diets to become more plant-based. However, productivity is just one of the issues that we face in our food systems. We must not forget the impact of climate change, biodiversity and nature loss. But this will require a big change in our habits.

Currently, 80% of the world’s farms are small-scale and they produce 30% of the food we consume. If we want to feed the world through sustainable agriculture, we should focus on changing the practices of these small-scale farmers. These farmers have the most to gain by adopting regenerative practices that will rapidly increase their yields, regenerate their soil and make them more resilient to climate change.

To achieve this, we will need a lot more research and knowledge exchange going into regenerative agricultural practices, and how to adapt them across very different geographies. And we will also need a generation of consumers who are educated about the value of food and the complexities of our food systems.

GRAND FARM is a 90-hectare research and demonstration farm focused on soil health, agroforestry and market gardening.
GRAND FARM is a 90-hectare research and demonstration farm focused on soil health, agroforestry and market gardening.
Image: GRAND FARM

What made you decide to embark on this ‘pioneering journey’ and what barriers did you encounter?

Many think that embarking on a new, environmentally friendly business venture comes from the ambition to contribute to a bigger cause. But sometimes, doing the right thing just makes business sense.

That was the case for me back in 1997. Vermicompost – or worm compost – is a rich natural organic soil compost produced through the earthworms’ digestion and aerobic decomposition. Vermicompost is the most natural fertilizer, which has been consumed by plants for millions of years – but it cannot be bought.

I was so intrigued by this opportunity and wanted to make business sense of it. At the time there was not much research available, but the real learning took place on the farm, experimenting and looking at the earthworms.

The soil is our main factory, our live-lab and the earthworms are the main workers at the farm, working non-stop to create the compost that will make soil healthy, fertile and productive. That’s why I like to say that I learnt from the earthworms, realising the limits of human knowledge and the importance of giving nature the space to protect and regenerate itself.

Nowadays, the main barrier is the lack of awareness about the risks and opportunities for the farming sector. Farmers struggle to see the self-interest of present and future generations in adopting regenerative practices. When farmers realize that they will be passing on infertile, unproductive land to the next generation unless they do things differently, it normally triggers something… this does mean something to the farmers – nobody wants their children and grandchildren to lose their source of livelihood and the work of many generations before.

I believe that one of the main levers to change this is giving farmers access to independent and state-of-the-art advice, which has invested as much time and resources to investigate regenerative agriculture as it has for chemical fertilizers. Farmers need to hear from trusted sources why they need to adopt new regenerative practices, and that there is a business case for that.

Food

What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

Two billion people in the world currently suffer from malnutrition and according to some estimates, we need 60% more food to feed the global population by 2050. Yet the agricultural sector is ill-equipped to meet this demand: 700 million of its workers currently live in poverty, and it is already responsible for 70% of the world’s water consumption and 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

New technologies could help our food systems become more sustainable and efficient, but unfortunately the agricultural sector has fallen behind other sectors in terms of technology adoption.

Launched in 2018, the Forum’s Innovation with a Purpose Platform is a large-scale partnership that facilitates the adoption of new technologies and other innovations to transform the way we produce, distribute and consume our food.

With research, increasing investments in new agriculture technologies and the integration of local and regional initiatives aimed at enhancing food security, the platform is working with over 50 partner institutions and 1,000 leaders around the world to leverage emerging technologies to make our food systems more sustainable, inclusive and efficient.

Learn more about Innovation with a Purpose's impact and contact us to see how you can get involved.

You are also involved in a series of organizations advocating for soil health – what can private and public sector players do to support soil-health regeneration?

It is no longer a question of what ‘can be done’. Time is ticking and we must ask what ‘must be done’. Everyone needs to collaborate across different sectors, from production and logistics to consumption. This will entail a massive change in society over the next 30 years – without being afraid of change!

At the European level, there have been several efforts to develop policies that push for regenerative agriculture – from the EU Green Deal, the Farm to Fork Strategy, to the EU Mission Soil. But the implementation must happen on the ground, with countries adopting local solutions to deal with local challenges, and thinking in a holistic, systemic way.

As humans, we need to realise our limitations, and vermicomposting is a good metaphor for that. Humans cannot produce that same biodiversity and soil richness that the earthworms create. However, we can help produce that perfect environment in which earthworms thrive and generate the best natural compost. And that’s what we should do: allow nature to show us the way and refrain from over exploiting present resources, spoiling them for the generations to come.

The World Economic Forum’s 100 Million Farmers is inspiring government leaders and key stakeholders around the world to transition towards net-zero and nature-positive food systems.

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