In recent years there has been a surge in research, education and advocacy efforts to catalyse agricultural policies that help farmers actively improve the health of their soil. Healthy soils are essential to agricultural and rural prosperity, to improving food security and nutrition and to enhancing vital biodiversity and ecosystem services. Unprecedented policy and soil data developments are helping to fill critical gaps in soil governance. However, concrete action and strong leadership are still needed at the regional, national and global level to guarantee healthy soils for a food-secure future.

The foundation of life

Countless cycles of birth, death, fertility and decay have transformed soil into the matrix of life on Earth: just a handful of terrestrial soil contains more organisms than there are people on the planet. These microorganisms work endlessly to provide a range of ecosystem services that are vital for the functioning and resilience of the environment. The Earth’s soils function as its largest water filter and storage tank, filtering and cleaning tens of thousands of cubic kilometres of water that pass through them each year. Soils store more carbon than is contained in all above ground vegetation, while regulating emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Soils also consume, digest, cycle and store nutrients that serve as the molecular building blocks for plants, animals and all forms of life.

Recognising the fundamental value of soil, a handful of forward-looking countries, such as Switzerland and Germany, established national legislation decades ago, to protect this natural resource. However, according to senior soil expert Dr. Luca Montanarella, the world’s soils have largely been considered a second-tier priority. As a result, the state of global soils has rapidly deteriorated, with human pressures on soil resources reaching critical limits. Extractive processes like coal mining and fracking contaminate soils with heavy metals and radioactive materials, urban sprawl is paving over fertile, food-growing valleys and industrial agricultural practices are skinning the planet of precious topsoil. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), 25-40 billion tonnes of topsoil are lost to erosion annually around the world, and in most cases, soil conditions are “getting worse in far more cases than they are improving.”

Driving sustainable soil management

In response to the mounting evidence of declining soil fertility, legislators are introducing public policy measures to encourage landowners and farmers to increase and support soil security. The UK Government is introducing an unprecedented bill mandating measures and targets to actively preserve and improve soil health. Rebecca Pow, parliamentary private secretary to environmental ministers, told The Guardian that while the regulation is still being developed, it was likely to set a target of reversing soil degradation and restoring soil health across the UK by 2030.

UK Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, George Eustice explained the Government’s soil commitment is “at the heart” of its 25 Year Environment Plan. “We see a central plank in this huge new policy being around soil, and the connections between the way we manage our soils and our air quality, the way we care for our soils and our water quality,” Eustice said. Other expert stakeholders have welcomed the Government’s ambition to achieve “sustainably managed soils” by 2030, but called for more detail on the legislation, advocating for incentives for farmers and increased government investment in education, research and innovation.

United States (US) Representative Tim Walz has introduced the Strengthening Our Investment in Land Stewardship Act, oSOIL Stewardship Act, to make soil health a priority in the upcoming US Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is an extremely broad piece of legislation, renewed every five years; it governs federal farm, food and conservation policy across the US. The SOIL Stewardship Act will ensure programmes are implemented that prioritise conservation activities which benefit soil health and soil carbon storage within the Farm Bill’s two major conservation programmes. The bill encourages the adoption of existing and new soil conservation practices, such as the use of cover crops and rotational grazing strategies for livestock, and financially incentivises farmers to engage in comprehensive conservation planning.

With the US government withdrawing from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, the next Farm Bill presents an important opportunity to address climate change by introducing soil management practices. The recently released draft House Farm Bill, however, would eliminate the Conservation Stewardship Program — the biggest conservation programme in the country — and has failed to include reforms for programmes and policies that support improved soil health. In the absence of federal leadership, some states have already taken action and implemented climate-agriculture policy measures. In 2017, Hawaii became the first state to pass legislation officially supporting the Paris Agreement, including a bill to create a Carbon Farming Task Force. The task force works to identify and encourage agricultural land and marine policies and practices that promote increased carbon sequestration, build healthy soils and help balance greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. In the same year, Maryland passed the Maryland Healthy Soils Program to increase soil biological activity and carbon sequestration by providing incentives and assistance to farmers to implement practices that build healthy soils.

In Canada, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs released a Draft Agricultural Soil Health and Conservation Strategy for public input in 2017. The strategy will serve as a blueprint for Ontario agriculture to protect and improve its soils through four key areas: soil management, soil data and mapping, soil monitoring and evaluation and soil knowledge and innovation. The development of the soil strategy included input from farmers, indigenous peoples, government, agribusiness stakeholders and farm and conservation organisations via written submissions and public engagement events. The final strategy, to be released later this year, will be a long-term policy framework spanning 2018-2030 that provides guidelines for sustainable soil management, research and investment.

Think global, act local

There is growing international momentum to further develop policy mechanisms that address soil degradation and promote sustainable soil management. In 2011, the FAO and European Commission launched the Global Soil Partnership (GSP) to “support and facilitate joint efforts towards sustainable management of soil resources for food security and climate change adaptation and mitigation.”

Advising the GSP is the Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils (ITPS), composed of 27 leading soil experts representing each region of the world. In 2015, the ITPS produced the first comprehensive assessment of global soil resources and launched the pioneering Global Soil Organic Carbon map on World Soil Day 2017. Acknowledging that nation-states and local decision-makers are primarily responsible for enacting soil policies and practices, the ITPS developed Voluntary Guidelines for Sustainable Soil Management with specific focus on agricultural practices and policies. These resources provide a wide range of stakeholders with information to help monitor soil conditions, identify degraded areas and set soil health restoration and carbon sequestration targets.

Articulating the need to bridge soil, agriculture and climate policy, the 4 per 1000 Initiative promotes a transition to sustainable farming techniques, such as agroecology and conservation agriculture, as a means to combat climate change. Launched by the French government in 2015, the Initiative calls for the annual increase in soil organic carbon by 0.4 percent in the top 30-40 cm of agricultural soils, as even such small annual increments can have large-scale positive effects on agricultural productivity and greenhouse gas balance. In effect, it would help offset the anthropogenic emissions from agriculture by sequestering more atmospheric carbon in soils. Awarded the Vision Award in the 2017 Future Policy Awards, 4 per 1000 is described as “path-breaking in changing the discourse” around climate change and agriculture, while improving awareness of soil health. Approximately 40 countries and hundreds of grass-roots organisations have signed on to the initiative.

Despite these initiatives, there have been clear setbacks in introducing international agreements on soil governance. Some European countries have argued that as soils are largely privately held and fixed in local environments, their governance is a matter for local or national authorities, rather than an overarching transnational body. These arguments underlined the European Commission’s decision to withdraw a proposal for a soil governance framework after nearly eight years of debate among member states.

Strengthening soil governance

Soil Association founder, Lady Eve Balfour, once said that, “The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible.” Similarly, a commitment to improving soil health must be wholly adopted by the global community – not in parts. It will require international and national collaboration between government ministries, research institutions and competing industries while being implemented in widely differing socio-economic and environmental contexts. While awareness of soil health is increasing, current global agricultural regulations and policy and market incentives do not lead agriculture toward a sustainable future. A few countries are moving in the right direction by placing sustainable soil management at the heart of agricultural policy, but much greater political action is still needed to make soil health a top-tier global, priority.

Photograph: Natural Resources Conservation Service Soil Health Campaign