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Why is soil health important for food production?

Soils carry out a range of functions and services essential to all life on Earth, yet intense food production activities have damaged and depleted soil health. Regenerating soil requires a full systems approach, so what are the challenges and solutions?

01 Sep 2022
6 min reading time

With approximately 95% of our food estimated to be produced in or on soils (1), the soils beneath our feet play a huge role within our food system. Soils are the basis of all agricultural activity, from growing crops to rearing animals, and, when managed sustainably, can perform crucial functions and ecosystem services.

What is soil?

Soil is not just dirt - it is a complex structure composed of a range of different organisms, mineral materials, organic matter, air and water (2). Developing gradually over time, soil is formed as the Earth’s surface naturally weathers and combines with decaying organic matter. Because of its rich organic content, soil provides environments necessary for many plants to grow and organisms to survive in (3), the exact structure and content influenced by elements such as climate, land surface and activity from organisms above and below ground (2).

    What is soil health and why is it important?

    Changing land use and the rapid advancement of agricultural technology and machinery, combined with increased demand for food due to the growing population, has put soils under immense pressure (1). Intensive land use and crop production have depleted soils worldwide, reducing their productive capacity and, therefore, their ability to meet the needs of future generations (1).

    There needs to be physical spaces within soil to allow for water drainage, air movement and root growth, and the arrangement of these varies in different soils. Healthy soils, which have a ‘good structure’, can retain water and nutrients and better perform the crucial functions and ecosystem services needed to sustain life (3). However, the structure of soil can be damaged if it is regularly disturbed, eroded and compacted by agricultural activities without being given time to regenerate, and this in turn impacts on soil functions (3).

    A high level of biodiversity is essential for soil health. This is important for a number of reasons, including to ensure there are enough organisms within the soil to convert dead and decaying matter into nutrients, control plant diseases, insects and weed pests, and ultimately improve healthy and efficient crop production as a result (1).

    Healthy soils can also store carbon, preventing it from entering the atmosphere as CO2. In fact, soil is the world’s largest terrestrial carbon sink (4), and carbon can remain stored in healthy soils for thousands of years (5). However, it is estimated that the world’s cultivated soils have lost up to 75% of their original carbon stock due to land degradation and unsustainable management (5).

    As climate change alters environments across the world, soil is also more frequently being faced with erosion via stressors such as flooding, droughts and storms. This means that soil is losing its ability to perform the crucial functions and services outlined above, highlighting the urgent need for food system solutions that protect and regenerate our soils.

    6 reasons why soil health is important:

    1. Maintains soil structure
    2. Improves water retention
    3. Boosts healthy crop yields
    4. Helps resist against plant disease and pests
    5. Maintains biodiversity
    6. Increases carbon sequestration

    Soil and food production: what can we do to increase soil health?

    Food production relies on healthy soils to produce high and healthy crop yields. Agricultural techniques which minimise the use of heavy machinery and compaction, maintain a protective organic cover on the soil surface, and cultivate a greater level of biodiversity can promote the growth and maintenance of healthy soil (6) and, as a result, healthy food produce.

    It is estimated that the EU could reduce its agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 6%, restore soil health by over 14% of its total agricultural land, and add between €1.9-€9.3 billion annually to farmers’ incomes if farmers are sufficiently supported to take climate-smart actions (7).

    Working with farmers to develop solutions

    Farmers play a key role in the uptake and development of solutions which increase soil health. As custodians of the land with a deep connection and understanding of the soil in which they farm, farmers are leading the charge in soil regeneration and are setting a precedent for the future of soil-friendly farming. As our understanding of the importance of soil health increases, farmers are implementing a range of different soil-focussed agricultural approaches such as agroecology, organic farming, zero tillage farming, agroforestry and regenerative agriculture (1).

    Regenerative agriculture, which aims to regenerate soil and increase biodiversity on farms by combining crop and livestock production in circular ecosystems, is one of the key routes for farmers to increase soil health. Transitioning to regenerative agriculture, however, takes time and resources, and guides such as the Regenerative Agriculture Manual aim to support farmers moving away from ‘conventional’ methods of agriculture and provide them with tips for introducing new practices, navigating policy and managing resources. Learn more about the steps for starting a regenerative farm with farmer and Founding Director of the Sustainable Food Trust, Patrick Holden, and Agriculture Project Manager at EIT Food, Philip Fernández, on the Food Fight podcast here.

    The whole food system also has a role to play in collaborating with farmers and supporting them in transitioning to these new practices. Networks such as the Carbon+ Farming Coalition aim to maximise the benefits of soil health by identifying barriers and challenges for farmers, and designing solutions with economic, practical and ecological benefits for all. The Coalition aims to incentivise 100 million farmers to adopt regenerative and climate-smart practices, while empowering one billion consumers to demand and support this type of agricultural production.

    The relationship between farmers and consumers is also important. The EIT Food Trust Report revealed that farmers are the most trusted players in the food system by consumers (8), meaning they can have great influence over the food decisions made by consumers.

    Enabling agrifood innovation and education

    Innovation is also crucial to this equation. By supporting startups and scaleups and connecting them with farmers, new innovations can be trialled and tested on farms. The Test Farms programme is doing this by connecting farmers with startups, which is enabling farmers to learn new skills and startups to receive financial support to scale their solutions. For example, Agrodrone, a Portuguese crop solution startup, partnered with a farm in Spain to test its soil correction products that add essential nutrients to soil, and analyse the effectiveness of how this intervention maximises crop nutrition over time.

    Education is important to ensure farmers and food producers have access to the right amount of support and knowledge for increasing soil health on the land they manage. Educational initiatives such as the Grow Workshops aim to establish regional and European networks of farmers to support the uptake of sustainable and circular solutions, and to increase the understanding of emerging practices and technologies. Online courses such as the Future Learn course ‘How farmers produce food sustainably’ ensure knowledge is transferred across the whole food system, and increase consumer understanding and trust in novel solutions.

    We already know that nature, health and food are all interconnected. By supporting producers and protecting and regenerating our soils, we can limit the impacts of climate change, reduce biodiversity loss, and increase the efficiency and resilience of farming. Food productivity will not only become more profitable with healthier soils, but food will become healthier, more sustainable and plentiful.

    To learn more about the solutions working to increase soil health and build better relationships between food and nature, find out how you can get involved with the EIT Food community here.

    References

    1. FAO: Healthy soils are the basis for healthy food production
    2. FAO: What is soil?
    3. The Royal Society: Soil structure and its benefits
    4. United Nations Climate Change: FAO Maps Carbon Stocks in Soil
    5. FAO: Recarbonization of global soils
    6. FAO: The future of food and agriculture: Trends and challenges
    7. WEF: Transforming food systems with farmers: a pathway for the EU
    8. EIT Food: Less than half of European consumers trust the food system, reveals pan-European study
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    Key takeaways

    Soil health is crucial Open Close

    Solutions are needed to increase soil health Open Close

    Farmers are important custodians of the land Open Close

    Innovation and education can support soil regeneration Open Close

    Sustainable Development Goals

    Responsible Consumption and Production
    Life On Land

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