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A Reflection on World Soil Day

December 3, 2021 | Insights,

 

To highlight World Soil Day, Mariko Thorbecke, expert in climate change and agricultural greenhouse gas accounting at Anthesis, shares her insights into the current situation on regenerative agriculture and soil health.

Mariko is a climate consultant and part-time farmer and soil health enthusiast. With a tiny but mighty 2-acre integrated farm, she raises goats, chickens, and ducks as vital elements for soil fertility and weed and pest control for annual and perennial crops. Her background in Life-Cycle Assessment and corporate climate consulting combined with her passion for local-scale food production gives her a unique perspective on how we approach solutions in this space.

 

As World Soil Day rolls around again, I realise that in the simple blink of an eye, another year has passed. As someone immersed at the intersection of regenerative agriculture and climate change, momentum is at an all-time high. In the last few years, we have seen article after article highlighting the impacts of climate change on agriculture. With regenerative agriculture offering hope for improving the resiliency of our food production in the face of a changing climate, companies are looking to this as a solution to meet agricultural climate targets, while strengthening supply chains of key commodities. This brings excitement and busyness, perhaps at the expense of reflection. Today I sat down with my thoughts, and am now contemplating, are we asking the right questions? Are we solving the right problems?

A Rockefeller Report from earlier this summer found that in the US, for every $1 we spend on food, the true cost of food is three times that. These externalised costs, otherwise known as externalities, related to health, the environment, and other social indicators, are costs being incurred by the public sector, by consumers, and ultimately will be paid for by future generations.

Why should we care about soil health?

A Rockefeller Report from earlier this summer found that in the US, for every $1 we spend on food, the true cost of food is three times that. These externalised costs, otherwise known as externalities, related to health, the environment, and other social indicators, are costs being incurred by the public sector, by consumers, and ultimately will be paid for by future generations.

Human health externalities, largely in the form of lifestyle disease costs, are driven by what we produce and market for sale. For example, the US produces just 15 million acres of specialty crops such as fruits, vegetables, and nuts compared to 250 million acres of row crops such as corn, soy, and wheat. Many of the environmental externalities, however, boil down to how we choose to manage the health of our soil.

The environmental side includes externalities around greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, water scarcity and pollution, soil erosion, and others. Fortunately, a focus on soil health can improve upon many of these externalities. Generally speaking, improving soil health allows for increased and longer-term storage of carbon while improving soil fertility. This can help to address the GHG balance of agriculture, providing an opportunity to create systems that store more carbon than they emit. As the impacts of climate change worsen and are felt locally, healthy soil will be more resilient to, and be able to bounce back faster, from droughts and flooding, improving overall water use efficiency. Additionally, soil health management planning can improve downstream outcomes by reducing erosion and nutrient and chemical leaching, which can have devastating consequences to the surrounding habitats, marine life and even the very safety of our drinking water.

The current situation

The corporate response to regenerative agriculture over the last five years has largely been around launching pilot projects, often directly with farmers, to transition from conventional to regenerative practices known to improve soil health. These often involve direct incentives for farmers to employ practices such as no till, cover cropping, and more diverse crop rotations. These pilots may range in size from 10,000 acres to 100,000 acres, and may span a variety of crops. It is inspiring to see action being driven on the ground. But, how do we get from a pilot representing 100,000 acres (which is less than 0.1% of our ~300 million US row crop acres) to scale at the magnitude and on the timeline that we need? What is our theory of change?

Additionally, how do we ensure that our pilot projects have deep roots that address needed systemic changes? Some questions that I am pondering right now:

  • How did we get here? How did we get to the point where we have a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico equivalent to 4 million acres and where almost 70% of all US cropland acres grow just two crops, corn and soy?
  • Who gets to farm? What inherently allows some people to be farmers and not others? Why is it a profession that is seemingly so hard to break into?
  • What does a balanced agricultural carbon cycle look like? With just 100 fossil fuel producers responsible for 70% of the world’s industrial GHG emissions since 1988, and the requisite that fossil carbon emissions be phased out by 2050 to reach our global goal of limiting warming to 1.5C, the directive for fossil carbon is clear. What is less clear is how we ultimately come to rebalance our natural, biogenic carbon cycle, the carbon that cycles within soils, plants, and animals. How do we move from agriculture as being a part of a vicious cycle, to a virtuous cycle? One that gives more than it takes, and stores more carbon than it emits? There is a harmony of plants and animals that can be achieved in nature. But what exactly does that look like, and how do we get there?

Where do we go from here?

Soil health initiatives with shallow roots are not going to be resilient. To have deeper roots we must make sure we are asking the right questions and thinking critically about the solutions being proposed. Otherwise, we risk our well-intentioned efforts being nothing more than shallow-rooted endeavours that barely scratch the surface of the magnitude of change that we need. Someone somewhere once said that the road to failure is paved with good intentions. It is with great intentions and enthusiasm that my colleagues and I are engaging in this space. But with the world on track to hit 1.5° C of warming by 2030 at current rates of emissions, the time is ripe to reflect and ensure we are on the best path. Companies are making bold commitments to improving soil health and regenerating millions of acres. But with pilot projects costing upwards of $90/acre, this approach quickly reaches its limit on financial sustainability and scalability. Is it time for a new approach?

As we work to engage in the soil health space, whether it be around pilot projects, or whatever creative initiatives we can think up, I encourage everyone to think about the above questions. And add some more to the discussion.

How Anthesis is driving change

Here at Anthesis, we know that this is the decisive decade and that we have less than 10 years to begin implementing actions that will scale to the level of change we need to see by 2030 and 2050. We are asking ourselves the tough questions of how we get there and working with our clients to drive that change by:

  • Setting strategies and targets for retailers to revalue and regenerate agriculture within their global value chains. Developing pragmatic programmes that support water resilience, reforestation, biodiversity, and farmer livelihoods.
  • Developing decision support tools that measure on-farm impact, benchmark performance, share best management practices and drive action on regenerative agriculture.

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