The first volume of the ATR

The first issue of the ATR focuses on the subject of reinventing soil stewardship: progressing from conservation to improvement. The analysis concludes that the present-day state of soil science, soil management, and soil policy is fragmented, sketchy, and inconsistent – though many encouraging initiatives and examples illustrate sustainability oriented and sustainable practices. What is critically lacking is public awareness, political priorities, public long-term and comprehensive research, bold legal and administrative rules on the national as well as international level, and economic incentives and tools in order to promote caring and sustainable use and enhancement of fertile soils. Most of all, a new consciousness for the sensitivity of the pedosphere and adequate care is needed.

What are the key messages of volume 1 of ATR:

  • Make rehabilitation, improvement, and conservation of living soils a cross-cutting top priority for policy at national and international level.
  • Soils are technically and biologically a de facto non-renewable resource. Human utilization of soils thus must be aligned with the responsibilities of stewardship instead of consumerism.
  • Agricultural practice and policies must follow the guiding principle: Feed soils, not crops. Healthy soils need a balance between cultivation (withdrawal) and regeneration (restitution) of inter alia nutrients, trace minerals, organic matter, and moisture. All-season cultivation of diverse plants including trees is by evidence an appropriate practice.
  • The institutional fabric as to fertile soils is fragmented and rather weak. The Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils (ITPS) should be transformed into an Intergovernmental Panel on Living Soils (IPLS) with a mandate to report and assess regularly status and changes, to facilitate international and regional cooperation and especially impart successful practices to enhance fertile soils.
  • As degradation and destruction of fertile soils increasingly become obvious as relevant driving elements of violent conflicts in many continents, cooperation and coordination between all parts of the UN system as well as between national governments is imperative.
  • Ramp up cooperation and coordination between existing institutions. Build effective national frameworks and implementation. As long as no comprehensive UN Framework Convention on Living Soils (UNFCLS) is emerging, cooperation and division of work between UNFCC, CBD and UNCCD should be expanded. National Soil Policy Frameworks (NSPs) should be designed. 
  • End agricultural subsidies worldwide that are harmful for soils and the environment in general. Soils in most countries are damaged by excessive use of mineral fertilizers and pesticides. Higher costs for energy will cascade through the system and make things that today seem ‘efficient’ and ‘rational’ appear like lunacy. In this way, many of the fallacies of today’s system will ‘automatically’ disappear, in particular production systems based on external-input-dependent, highly specialized production. The thus ‘freed’ financial means from reduced energy subsidies can be redirected towards compensating (or rather rewarding) farmers for providing environmental goods and services. Incentives for carbon sequestration in soils, for instance, may have the triple purpose of mitigating climate change, arresting soil erosion and encourage farmers to implement other regenerative agriculture practices.
  • Science eventually must tackle the challenge of understanding the systemic complexities of living soils and soil improvement. Soil science is a truly trans-disciplinary field of scientific endeavour which until today is neither institutionally nor financially appropriately endowed. International research networks with coordinated agendas should be promoted, based on accordingly funded and maintained national capacities. A crucial element of agenda setting and research design is the practice of participatory research.

LEAD ARTICLE: Reinventing soil stewardship. Processing from conservation to improvement.

This article is intended to contribute to a necessary political, scientific and practical rethinking – how can soil stewardship become an integral part of all agricultural practice and how to advance from conservation to improvement?

Starting from the UN year of soils 2015 we were thinking: what is really turning soil management into a long lasting, friendly to life future?

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Humankind is living from four essential natural resources: fertile soils, clean air, fresh water, and biodiversity. The global land area amounts to 13.2 billion hectare (ha) of which 3.7 bn ha (28%) is forest, 4.6 bn ha (35%) is grassland and woodland ecosystems, and only 1.6 bn ha (12%) is used for agricultural crops (FAO 2011). It is a really startling phenomenon: although considering today's multiple challenges with soil degradation, medium-term growing global population and mounting impacts of climate change, in many societies, countries and national states fertile soils are still treated tremendously carelessly or even in a destructive way, just so as if it didn't matter to preserve and regenerate this pivotal element of essential natural resource and fabric of human societies. Let us lift the whole issue onto another level: At the latest from Howard (1947) we know that there is a fundamental link between fertile soils and human health. Since then scientists have found growing additional evidence that soils with rich diversity of life are ipso facto capable to produce nutrient-rich food. Furthermore, there is a correlation between bacteria in soils and in the human gut (Wall et al. 2015). And everything in the food system between the soil and human gut may touch our health, from farming methods and crop varieties to food processing, cooking and eating. When we change one thing in an interplay-ecosystem, we change many more (cf. Roberts 2008; Rundgren, 2015). So, from all we know, there is more than enough reason to treat soils very carefully, to use, maintain and eventually – that is one of our key points – improve every hectare and every square kilometre. >>> Read more

COMMENTARY BY EVELYN MATHIAS

Pastoralism: Keeping soils alive through herd movements and careful grazing management.

Pastoralism is an ancient way of animal husbandry, using natural resources in areas less-suited or unsuited for crop agriculture: drylands in temperate, subtropical and tropical regions, mountainous and high-altitude zones, as well as some very cold areas (FAO 2009, Mathias 2011).

Worldwide there are probably about 200 million pastoralists; estimates vary between 50-500 million, depending on how broad the definition is. Pastoralists account for a large proportion of the livestock numbers in many countries, especially in the Sahel, East Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia (FAO 2009). But there are pastoralists in Europe too, such as the mobile shepherds in central and southern Europe, cattle producers who take their animals to graze in the mountains in summer, and the reindeer herders of northern Scandinavia. Extensive livestock raisers such as the hill farmers of Britain and Ireland also share many of the characteristics of pastoralists.

In some areas, pastoralists and their livestock have continued what wild herbivores started millennia ago: moving long distances from one place to another, following seasonal rainfall and avoiding seasonal disease problems. Examples are reindeer herders in the tundra of the northern hemisphere who drive their animals towards the coast during the short arctic summers and to the inland forests in winter; and the many pastoralist groups in Africa’s savannahs, who follow the rains and avoid areas with tsetse flies. In other regions, mobile forms of livestock keeping may have evolved as byproduct of intensifying crop agriculture: to prevent animals from eating crops, they were taken away for grazing. With the expansion of crop agriculture, pastoralists were increasingly driven to inhospitable regions with harsh climates and difficult terrain (FAO 2009). >>> Read more

COMMENTARY BY Gunnar Rundgren

The dream of food without dirt.

That is the best description of how we will get food in the future if we would believe the impressive number of food tech start-ups which will produce food without soil or animals. But few of them deliver on their exaggerated promises.

There is no doubt that technology has improved life for huge numbers of people. Plant and animal breeding have given us a variety of useful crops and livestock products. Mechanical devices and tractors have made farming a lot easier. Food processing methods have made food safer to eat and sometimes tastier (e.g. cheese). Sometimes, innovations have improved nutritional quality and the environment, but probably more often not. It would be no exaggeration, and should not come as a surprise that many of the technological advances also have had a down-side. After all it is not surprising in a world where profitability and increasing human labour productivity are the main drivers for technological change that nature and sometimes human health has suffered.

Because of how badly we humans have treated soils and animals it is understandable that people now are looking for other ways of producing food. Under banners of digital ecosystems, open source, individual foods, actionable intelligence, disruptive food systems and digital transformation, there are legions of entrepreneurs (mostly with background in the IT sector) seeking venture capital and researchers looking for grants. >>> Read more

COMMENTARY BY ULRICH HOFFMANN & GUNNAR RUNDGREN

How to cope with largely dysfunctional market signals for soil stewardship?

The examples on reproductive soil management provided in this report are undoubtedly a sign that transition can and, at small scale, is happening. One needs these examples and related success stories, and one needs the stuff that just started without waiting for permission or big pushes. But these harbingers of transition cannot be uncoupled from an analysis of the bigger economic and policy issues for sending the right signals and incentives to farmers.

The reading of this report reinforces the apprehension that the pressure for action on soil stewardship is very high, but there is a clear lack of adequate and effective behavioral change of farmers despite the fact that suitable soil management approaches and techniques are well known and readily available. The main causal factor for that inaction is the absence of economic (and to some extent cultural) incentives for applying reproductive agricultural practices. There are no market mechanisms for agricultural production that encourage ecosystem and reproductive soil management. >>> Read more

Special Efforts

Nothing is more inspiring than good examples

The following illustrations – though by far not exhaustive - are intended to demonstrate that against all degradation and destruction in many places around the globe dedicated people, organizations, and institutions are successfully working for rehabilitation and regeneration of, and improvements in soil fertility. Clearly there are feasible real life alternatives to the powerful vested interests in a further fossil industrialization of the world's agricultures. >>> Read more

GLOBAL AGRICULTURE

Synopsis of politico-scientific networks & information tools

The multitude of studies and assessments on soil fertility issues remind rather to a many-voiced, not exactly harmonious choir. Similarly soil-related networks and information tools represent a juxtaposition of different and sometimes diverging approaches, strategies, interests, and goals. Altogether, availability and volume of knowledge and data during the last two decades has grown significantly. For many problems and issues feasible and substantiated answers and devices are at hand. As part of the digitization of knowledge some technological and/or social-economic hurdles of access remain, especially in countries with poor infrastructure and many poor people. Likewise the trouble of selection and appraisal of information must be managed. >>> Read more