Contributing author: Jared Kaufman
One of the most important tools to combat climate change is right under our feet — soil. Unfortunately, the planet’s soil is being eroded at a rate of about one soccer field every 5 seconds, according to the United Nations. The theme of this year’s World Soil Day 2019, December 5, is “Stop Soil Erosion, Save Our Future” highlighting the role that soil plays in ensuring a healthy future for the planet.
Sequestering carbon in soils is more important than ever, as the impacts of climate change become more evident. “The fragility of soils, the thin layer of the earth which is the foundation of nearly everything growing and almost all that we eat, puts the “sustainability” of industrialized agriculture into question,” according to a 2019 report from the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP). “The potential for carbon sequestration in soils via agriculture can play an important role in mitigating climate change.”
Agriculture is responsible for 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the report notes, but soil carbon sequestration can reduce this number while boosting soil health, yields, and nutrient density.
In honor of World Soil Day, Food Tank is highlighting 15 organizations around the globe working to use soil to reverse the damaging effects of climate change, stop soil from disappearing due to erosion, and improve farmers’ well-being and connection to their land.
The 4 Per 1000 Initiative, launched by the French government in 2015, promotes an innovative model for mitigating climate change by increasing soil organic carbon. The aim of the initiative is to annually increase soil organic carbon in agricultural soils by 0.4 percent — 4 per 1,000 — to help curb greenhouse gas emissions. More than 50 countries, organizations, and universities have committed to a voluntary action plan to maintain and enhance soil carbon stock by funding or adopting more sustainable agricultural methods and land management.
The African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100) is a continent-wide effort to bring 100 million hectares of deforested and degraded landscapes into restoration by 2030. AFR100 uses a Forest Landscape Restoration (FLR) approach to implement practices that restore an agreed balance of ecological, social, and economic benefits of forests and trees. Through forest restoration, AFR100 aims to build resilient African landscapes that reduce desertification, improve soil fertility, and enhance agricultural productivity and food security. Twenty-eight participating countries have already committed to restoring more than 113 million hectares.
American Farmland Trust works to advocate for farmers, protect farmland, and change agricultural policy to help farmers stay on their land. As climate change and industrial development threaten soil health, AFT encourages farmers to adopt conservation practices that will save their land and our environment. “Roughly half of all the carbon that has been released to our atmosphere since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution has come from the soil due to poor farming practices. We can put that carbon back into the soil by following smarter farming practices,” John Piotti, president of American Farmland Trust, told Food Tank. And through their No Farms No Food campaign, they raise awareness of the importance of farmers and healthy agricultural land for our food system.
As the effects of climate change on Antarctic permafrost become more pronounced, scientific knowledge about its properties remains fragmented or nonexistent. ANTPAS is a collaboration between expert groups from the International Permafrost Association (IPA), Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), and International Union on Soil Sciences (IUSS) that aims to develop an international database to monitor Antarctic soils and centralize research. ANTPAS also identifies gaps in research on Antarctic permafrost and soils, and promotes scientific guidelines for further research.
The Biome of Australian Soil Environments (BASE) is the first program to map soil biodiversity at a continental scale. Working with Indigenous Australian custodians and landowners, researchers sampled soils from more than 1,500 sites across Australia and the Antarctic, spanning deserts, agricultural lands, the tropics, alpine regions, and coastal areas. By measuring and modeling the biological and functional diversity of Australia’s soil, BASE provides important data to achieve sustainable outcomes for Australian agriculture and the environment.
CIAT helps farmers in the Global South improve crop production, incomes, and natural resource management. Its research focuses on sustainable management of tropical soils and policies for coping with challenges including climate change, environmental degradation, and gender inequities. CIAT also hosts the Soil Organic Carbon App, an online tool to measure soil’s ability to sequester carbon, and the Latin-American Soil Information System (SISLAC), an open-access database of soil profile maps.
The Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative (GSBI) is a central forum that brings together scientists and policymakers to address the loss and maintenance of soil biodiversity. GSBI holds a Global Soil Biodiversity Conference, which promotes international collaborations across a range of soil health topics, such as sustainable agriculture and curbing climate change. GSBI has also developed the Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas, a reference publication for policymakers, researchers, and the general public. The Atlas covers all aspects of soil biodiversity, from soil habitat to policy, education, and outreach efforts.
The Global Soil Partnership (GSP) is an initiative of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to promote sustainable management and improve governance of soils across the globe. In addition to recognizing December 5 as UN World Soil Day, the Global Soil Partnership established the Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils and collaborated with FAO to build national soil information systems in seven Latin American countries. The project seeks to strengthen local decision-making and advise farmers and landholders on how to restore degraded soil and tackle environmental challenges.
Established in 2013, Kiss the Ground is a nonprofit organization that seeks to share a story of hope for the climate built by soil. Kiss the Ground aims to increase soil carbon and biodiversity on 500 million acres of land by 2050. Through storytelling videos, presentations, and educational materials, Kiss the Ground hopes to foster a deeper understanding of the role soil plays in the food system. The organization also funds training programs for farmers to transition to regenerative practices.
The Land Institute is committed to accelerating polyculture farming solutions and promotes growing food in tandem with nature. Polyculture is the farming practice of using multiple crops within the same space, promoting biodiversity by emulating natural ecosystems. The Land Institute’s aim is to change the short-term high-yield focus of modern agricultural practices to avoid the soil erosion and degradation that can result from it.
11. Rodale Institute
Founded in 1947, the Rodale Institute conducts research about the advantages of natural, organic farming practices. Today, the institute focuses particularly on compost, soil health, weed and pest management, livestock operations, organic certification, wastewater treatment, and climate change. “If you focus on the soil and focus all your resources and energies on building the soil, resting it, watering it, recovering it, the outcome — it produces healthy food, but it’s more than that: It’s healthy people,” Rodale Institute Chief Growth Officer Jeff Tkach told Food Tank on the podcast Food Talk with Dani Nierenberg. “Our job as farmers is not to produce healthy food; it’s to produce healthy people.”
12. Save Our Soils
The Save Our Soils campaign was initiated by Dutch organization Nature & More to raise consumer awareness about the importance of soil for health, food security, and the climate. By raising the urgency of the problem of soil degradation, the campaign encourages consumers to eat and buy organic food and to garden organically. Save Our Soils is also a member of the FAO’s Global Soil Partnership.
13. Soil Association
Based in the U.K., the Soil Association has been identifying links between farming practices and the health of humans, plants, animals, and ecosystems for more than 50 years. Today, the organization works closely with communities to create and inspire trust in organic farming methods and the food that they produce.
Soils, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC) is a participatory, farmer-led organization in Malawi that uses local indigenous knowledge and agroecological methods to improve food security and nutrition. Using a farmer-to-farmer approach — with over 6,000 farmers in 200 villages — SFHC promotes agroecological farming methods and the use of local crop varieties to increase soil fertility and crop yields.
The Terraton Initiative, launched by Indigo Agriculture, is centered on one specific goal: to remove 1 trillion tons of carbon from Earth’s atmosphere and cut atmospheric CO2 to pre-Industrial Revolution levels. To accomplish this goal, the Initiative aims to use “the awesome potential of the soil beneath our feet to absorb one trillion tons of atmospheric carbon,” David Perry, CEO of Indigo Ag, told Food Tank. The Initiative incentivizes farmers to adopt regenerative agriculture methods, which allow plants to store carbon in the ground, revitalize soils, and generate oxygen — instead of releasing carbon into the atmosphere.