Saving Our Soils: Carbon Sequestration, Sustainability and the SDGs
Photo by Nikita Birkbeck
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Improving soil quality is an integral step towards achieving the SDGs on zero hunger (SDG 2), climate action (SDG 13), and life on land (SDG 15), but requires a multidisciplinary approach that incorporates consideration of other development objectives and priorities.

Policy initiatives should be supplemented with an appropriate set of actions towards improving soil conservation, focusing on providing accessible information to smallholder farmers.

Humankind’s existence depends on the health of our soils, which are the foundation of many ecosystem services, our food security, and play an active role in the climate system.1 Conversely, soil degradation can negatively impact agricultural production of farms by reducing yields while requiring more inputs. As development practitioners, we need to find ways to restore soil quality to protect the environment and to lessen the negative effects of soil degradation on developing communities and beyond.

Improving soil quality is an integral step towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically the Goals on zero hunger (SDG 2), climate action (SDG 13), and life on land (SDG 15). However, soil preservation cannot succeed in a vacuum—it will require a multidisciplinary approach that goes beyond silo-thinking and incorporates consideration of other development objectives and priorities.

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Image adapted from source: Lal, R. (2009). ‘Soil degradation as a reason for inadequate human nutrition.’2

An article by Lal (2009) highlights how soil degradation results in nutrient deficiency in plants, which in turn affects crop yields that are available for consumption, human health (i.e. SDG 3.1, 3.2), and overall food security (i.e. SDG 2.1).3 With declining soil fertility rates, developing countries may find it challenging to meet their nutritional needs with regard to microelements and macrominerals that must be supplied through soil.4 Strategies that improve the availability of these essential elements in soils can help meet targets for health, nutrition security, and soil conservation, and reinforce a multidisciplinary approach.

Beyond individual changes at the farm-level, to address the SDGs on climate (target 13.2), land degradation neutrality (target 15.3), and hunger (targets 2.1 and 2.4), governments must systematically enact soil conservation policies to mitigate the harmful effects of climate change and extractive farming practices on soil fertility. In 2015, France released a global soil initiative called, ‘4 per 1000’ Initiative’, which aims to increase the carbon in soils by 0.4% annually to stabilize the climate and to ensure food security.5 The initiative allows different actors to contribute what they feel is within their means to prevent soil degradation, allowing for actions to better fit local contexts rather than national policies or global agreements.

However, this policy initiative needs to be supplemented with an appropriate set of actions towards improving soil conservation, focusing on providing accessible information to smallholder farmers. This information should emphasize why soil preservation is crucial, what actions smallholders can take, and incentives for farmers. The 4 per 1000 Initiative further stresses that policy measures must incorporate sustainable agricultural approaches such agroecology, agroforestry, conservation agriculture, and landscape management that help to replenish organic materials in soils.

In addition to policy formulation, we must close knowledge gaps surrounding the impact of climate change and extractive farming practices on soil degradation at local, national, and global scales. Information on the relationship between soil degradation, agricultural productivity and nutrient quality is paradoxically limited in regions (Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia) where it is most accelerated.6 To address knowledge gaps, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) coordinated a 2015 campaign on the ‘International Year of Soils.’7 The campaign resulted in a report on the ‘Status of the World’s Soil Resources,’ which, inter alia, recommended sustainable soil management practices for farmers.

Although the campaign raised awareness for governments and development institutions, an evaluation noted that farmers were not executing the recommended practices. This challenge could be addressed by providing farmers with training on sustainable agricultural methods to close said gaps, with increasing public funding to support these efforts. Achieving the above will require development practitioners to breakdown silos and think creatively and holistically about how to close knowledge and funding gaps. Ultimately, our capacity to feed 9.8 billion people by 2050, in the context of climate change, will depend on our ability to keep our soils alive.8

1 European Environment Agency (2016). Soil and Climate Change. Retrieved from https://www.eea.europa.eu/signals/signals-2015/articles/soil-and-climate-change.

2 Lal, R. (2009). ‘Soil degradation as a reason for inadequate human nutrition.’ Food Security, 1. Retrieved from http://tinread.usarb.md:8888/tinread/fulltext/lal/degradation.pdf.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 4 per 1000 Initiative (2017). Retrieved from https://www.4p1000.org/.

6 Lal, R. (2009). ‘Soil degradation as a reason for inadequate human nutrition.’ Food Security, 1. Retrieved from http://tinread.usarb.md:8888/tinread/fulltext/lal/degradation.pdf.

7 Status of the World’s Soil Resources: Main Report (2015). Rome: FAO. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/3/a-i5199e.pdf.

8 4 per 1000 Initiative (2017). Retrieved from https://www.4p1000.org/.

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