Tobias Bandel on soil health, true cost accounting, and full-hearted agriculture

Tobias Bandel is a German agronomist who was involved in various agribusiness projects in cooperation with the IFC/Worldbank and USAID. He is one of the co-founders of Soil & More Impacts where he focuses on soil fertility projects, emission reduction strategies, and impact assessment.

This is a feature of the Presencing Institute’s “Dialogues on Soil and Society”, a compilation of interviews that frame agriculture as a critical area for curbing climate change and spurring societal transformation. The goal of the series is to identify promising place-based projects and systemic interventions to support sustainable, just, and reciprocal food economies.

What were important steps in your journey that led you to your current way of thinking?

There was one initial transformative experience back in school where a small group of us thought about how to better engage with other students in class. We thought about organizing a conference at our school, which was actually the first Waldorf school on the planet. It was a very good school, but very conservative as well. Teachers at the school said: “no, that’s not going to work” and “what if it goes wrong? Our reputation is at risk.”

But we were persistent. Somehow, we had so many applications that we had to send back 100 of them because we could only take 600. We even had a 10,000 Deutsche Mark profit, which we donated to a project in Brazil. So, that was prompted by the idea of “let’s just do it, and somehow it’s going to work”. This was a very important experience: if you really want it, just start and find good friends to do it with.

Another important step in my journey was when the civil service, as an alternative to the army, took me to Egypt, to an organization called Sustainable and Holistic Development in Egypt (SEKEM). I thought I wanted to become an astronomer, but at SEKEM I was inspired by the possibilities with agricultural waste, such as twigs, leaves, branches and cow manure.

At SEKEM, I learned that you don’t have to burn agricultural waste. Instead, you can return it to the soil through composting. You can actually reclaim the desert.

In Egypt, only two percent of the surface is arable and the rest is desert. When I visited, Egypt was burning 21 million tons of rice straw every year, material that could be easily transferred into fertile soil to support food sovereignty.The second pivotal moment for me was learning, at SEKEM, that there is no such thing as waste in agriculture.

The third important experience happened when I went back to Egypt after studying agriculture in Germany. Upon returning, I was responsible for the cultivation and sales of fruits and vegetables at SEKEMSupermarkets came and wanted to buy from us. They all had wishlists: organic, no residues, no child labor but the fruit should be perfectly looking and above all cheap. In the end, we lost the deal to our neighbor, who just offered organic but was two cents cheaper. I learned, on one level, that I was very angry with retail.

On the other hand, I realized that we are not able to capitalize on the benefits that we produce, because in the end, we’re just competing on prices.

This is now one of my key drivers, also in regard to the true cost. Unless we are able to transform sustainability into money terms, many of those efforts are not appreciated. We cannot present sustainability in a language that nobody else understands. Our homework is to not get stuck in silos and dogmas and be arrogant towards others who apparently don’t understand all the great stuff we do. Instead, we have to put our mission into terms they actually understand.

Photo by Craig Cooper on Unsplash

What is the current intention of your work?

I stayed in Egypt for five years. Then I went back to Germany and started Soil & More Impacts with two others. At the moment we have a window of opportunity because the societal wounds and needs are more than obvious, including in the field of food and farming. Basically, the world is crying and we can offer some ingredients to the solutions.

On the one hand, we focus on soil fertility. We offer practical hands-on solutions to develop and maintain soil fertility without a dependency on supplies. We work with organic and conventional crops on both large and small scales. We do not not sell compost, but we show people how they can produce the compost themselves. Obviously, this is a less profitable business case than if we were to sell the compost and make people dependent on us. But this is why it’s also more scalable.

Our goal at Soil & More is to empower people to produce their own solution.

At Soil & More, we believe sustainability is not just a tool for marketing or differentiating yourself from others. We see it as a business strategy to stay in business under changing circumstances.

Sustainability is a question of consciousness. You have to attune your radar to systems as a whole. Sustainability means that we can see upcoming risks and opportunities early on.

Soil & More offers full-hearted agricultural advice and provides a link to financial markets and resetting the logic there. Financial actors spend time, effort, and money on maintaining soil fertility. They can also access credit, better interest rates, better insurance ratings, and more.

I have an example of this. At Soil & More Impacts we were approached by a conventional bank (the German Volks- und Raiffeisenbank) that was looking for a better way to assess the credit worthiness of farmers. They realized if we talk about a new definition of risk on a farming level, which influences their credit worthiness, we have to look at soil and humus. We are exploring a few pilots with them, to see if we can scale up the program. It is still work in progress, but this example shows that we are getting closer to finding the right narrative and words for people to understand what we are trying to say, even if they are outside our space.

So, with the right logic and the proper science, we can move a step forward. Personally, I am obsessed with really changing the game here. There are a lot of sweeping statements at the CEO level, but on the procurement level it’s really still hardcore capitalism. To them, our ideas represent risks. But actually it is the other way around: sourcing too cheaply is actually a risk.

We need to raise awareness that paying a bit more today will save you a lot of repair costs tomorrow.

What is good soil management? And why is it so important for our future?

There are several aspects or attributes when you look at soil. On the one hand, there is the physical structure. It’s like a sponge that holds onto water and nutrients. If we manage the soil properly, the plants have access to water even during the droughts. But if we farm too intensively, for example by plowing, it physically destroys the structure of the soil. The result is that it can hold onto less water. In the short term, it may be good to plow more because you bring more oxygen into the soil and you can control the weeds. But, in the long run, it destroys the efficiency of your production by harming the physical structure of soil.

On the other hand, there is the biological part of the soil, the life of the soil, made up of millions and millions of microbes that store nutrients. When leaf litter or crop residue rot on the surface, it is decomposed by microorganisms, fungi and bacteria. They absorb carbon and nutrients and build up the soil with it. Let’s suppose that this happens during the fall and winter. Then, next spring, when you start planting and the seeds germinate, this sends a sign to the soil and to all these millions and millions of microbes that assimilated different substances. Now these microbes release the nutrients based on the plants’ needs.

It is a very intelligent communication system. One part of it is the well-known network of fungal spores and strings that are connecting all the roots and different components of the soil. So there’s an important biological part of the soil, which is also disturbed or destroyed by synthetic fertilizers because these mostly consist of salts. Ammonia nitrate, urea, basically mineral salts. And we all know that if you apply too much salt to a living organism, they die. Or, at least cease to operate as well as before. So, by fertilizing a lot, you hinder this natural intelligence or operational system in the soil.

There are two ingredients for good soil management: One is to keep the soil physically protected with cover crops, so that, even if there’s heavy rain or strong wind, the soil is protected. The second is to recycle as much of the organic matter on the field as possible, because crop residue, like potato leaves and wheat straws, are full of nutrients. Through recycling, you enrich the soil again. And the organic material also brings the vitality back into the soil with all the microbes detached.

Keeping the soil covered and having an ongoing closed cycle with the crop residue are two very important ingredients for sustainable soil management.

Photo by Ivan Bandura on Unsplash

What are the barriers in the system that hinder us from seeing more stories like this?

I think one of the problems is that we automatically exclude all non-organic farmers, which is the majority of the planet. But there are hundreds and thousands of them who do a brilliant job. But we don’t look at them because they are in a “bad” category because they are conventional. They may fertilize a bit, but still they are doing a good job. So, that’s one barrier to start with.

When travelling, I see more encouraging examples than dis-encouraging examples. Both on the small scale and also on the large scale. Things are possible and are actually happening as we speak.

But we need way more of this. We tend to plan only on a very short term basis, like a season or a year. But this is not how nature works. At least in farming, you need to look at a whole crop rotation. Here we are talking about at least three years, but it could also be seven years. Such a long period requires a lot of consciousness.

We don’t see the long term vision mostly because of our global incentive scheme, be it financial or other. We always look at a single point in time, at a specific crop in a specific region. Therefore we miss looking at the whole agriculture system.

Even though I’m hopeful, I am also sad. We have been ignorant for quite some time and have missed a lot of opportunities and chances to improve. The planetary boundaries, however, force us to look at things differently.

And this is why, apart from being sad, I’m also very hopeful because change is going to happen anyway. Because there is no other option and no better deal for the natural capital, soil, biodiversity and climate. Our task is to accelerate this transition and to avoid doing even more damage.

Photo by Jan Kopřiva on Unsplash

Who are the stakeholders responsible for doing this short-term thinking?

It’s a bit tricky. You could say that the farmers are only interested in that one crop, because that’s what they will profit from at the end of the season, because it’s good to have breakfast before lunch. So, it’s obvious that they are sometimes forced to think short term.

But there are also more systemic things. Financial markets are still designed in a way that goes hand in hand with short term thinking. If something doesn’t work, you just sell it or buy something new. This shows the dilemma that we are in right now. And if you look at it from a less meta level, there are great companies out there with brilliant CEOs giving statements about how to change the world. Sometimes they even talk about true cost. But, at the same time, their Chief Procurement Manager has an annual target of 10% cost reduction in procurement. So, they are definitely not drivers of change.

However, we see change happening in the financial market. The only question is how authentic it is. Even in the corona crisis, our dear Larry Fink sends out nice letters telling the CEOs that our financial market, whose playground is our planet earth, is more fragile than we think. And that only those who invest sustainably will survive. Yet, while he is saying all of this, he is a shareholder of Monsanto.

The thing is, you cannot switch things overnight. But I do believe change is possible. In the end, the economy is also based on physical goods. Working and trading with commodities simply requires fertile soil and at the moment, healthy soil is becoming increasingly scarce. Because of this, preventive actions are becoming more valuable than repair cost. This realization initiates some change.

We also see more and more change in the procurement departments. I just had this call with a big German conventional retailer that just launched this big regionality campaign, spending millions on telling the consumer that they would only buy tomatoes from the region. But now they realize that the prices they pay for these regional tomatoes doesn’t allow the farmers to actually grow the tomatoes in a way that will survive the next dry summer. Because of this, there will be no regional tomatoes after all and this whole marketing campaign was useless.

You still need to connect the dots to see where change is happening, but there are many dots to connect out there. And, in the end, it is enough to drive change.

Photo by Roman Synkevych on Unsplash

What do you think is possible by 2030?

I think it is important to remember that we shouldn’t expect everything to happen at once. That’s speaking not only time-wise, but also sector-wise.

Even within the farming sector, seeing changes in corn, wheat or soy production may take longer than in coffee, tea, cocoa and banana production.

And that’s something I find a bit annoying in scientific discussions. They show that there is a problem in coffee bean production but they don’t mention it could also apply to strawberries. We have to accept that there exists a time discrepancy and that some things are going to happen sooner than others. In the end, it’s not about the majority, like in social innovation processes, but rather about tipping points.

I believe that once we have a few precedents, where companies get devalued because they do not have up to date risk management related to the climate, that will snowball change in that sector.

As we speak, there are already things happening with crops like cocoa, coffee, tea and bananas. We need some early-on, practical examples. We need someone to walk us through this process from A to Z in order to see how it actually works. This, in turn, will provide prototypes in order to show us that it’s doable. And this can trigger change on a larger scale.

If we look at reports like the land report of the FAO and United Nations, it might seem as though we were looking at a horror movie. They estimate 300 million deaths caused by the climate if we continue on with ‘business as usual’. It could get quite dramatic. As those problems increase, I’m hopeful that people start to get moving. But, as I said before, we need those practical prototypes to show it’s possible.

Another important point is that our incentives should be built into business by actually spending more money today in order to save more tomorrow, as opposed to somebody donating something or getting a grant. We have to prove the business case of sustainable farming.

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How can true cost accounting be adapted to local contexts?

True cost accounting is not a silver bullet. It’s just an ingredient or tool that works on different levels. Firstly, it is a tool for strategic raw material security or sourcing security. It can be used by enterprises on a large scale to make sure you can source stuff from Brazil, Argentina, or wherever you buy things from. Secondly, there’s a business side to it because it translates sustainability data into management information. Sustainability data is usually perceived as a cost because you need to have a sustainability manager. They produce a report which is very expensive and which nobody reads. It’s required as a common practice, but it’s highly questioned inside an organization.

But, if you translate this into procurement risk and say: “forget about the carbon footprint, take soil carbon as a major lever for whether there will be potatoes or not”. Then, all of a sudden, you’re talking to the CEO instead of the sustainability manager, because they see how it is central to the business and future cash flow.

On the other end of the extreme are regions in Africa or Southeast Asia, where farming is deeply rooted and embedded into the community. Here, everybody is linked to society, there’s no point in assessing one hectare for corn and knowing the true cost of corn in that specific hectare. Rather, you have to look at the impacts and dependencies on the level of the community and society. For example, you can say: “in the short term you can increase crop yields, but that will spoil the drinking water you have”. It’s more an exercise in consciousness. So, in this kind of context, true cost accounting can be used to show the cause and effect of certain things, which allows people to remember the bigger systemic connections rather than just saying: “our yield is low”. The concept has different facets or different forms.

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Who needs to work in solidarity to bring about systems change for food and farming?

We ourselves, as individual people and as a community, are very important stakeholders in this.

This means that we have to fundamentally change our way of thinking. But, in order to make real change, we also have to change a few rules in the economic system.

And this starts on a personal level. It’s a philosophical perspective, but I think it’s very important.

Additionally, we need cross sectoral collaboration. I would be very curious to get some deeper insights from other people in the financial market, in farming, and in trade. I would like to know what they really think about it, and what they are prepared to do. Because they live in this day-to-day reality where they have to pay salaries to employees as well. So they can’t make this move too abruptly. But, we also know that if we wait for too long, it might be too late.

The next step that I would be very enthusiastic to get engaged in is to actually take this from a meta level to a very practical level. So far, we mainly discuss theories and possibilities. But I think that practical experience is key to stimulating change.

Let’s say that there are two basic setups. One is a more macroeconomic setup, like a city or a town with tax payers, farmers, a local community, government etc. Here, you can look at what the true cost and benefit of a farm in that region is to the community. You would be able to see that, if they farm in a certain way, the society in that region has to pay for it. But, if they farm in a different way, the society might benefit from this.

The other setup is more of a microeconomic setup, which is basically trade. You take a supply chain that is independent of regulations and policies. Here, we would observe if the entrepreneurs and shareholders stay in business. In this example, the topic of soil health and natural capital is too important for their business as to leave it to the politicians. You might hear: “We have to take action ourselves, so let’s put those most obvious natural capital risks on our sourcing radar”.

So, basically, both setups have to do with the same questions: water, biodiversity, climate, etc. But one is more a macroeconomic perspective, and one is more on a micro, business level. Personally, I feel more connected to the second one, because it’s my environment. But the other one, on the level of cities, is equally important.

Tobias Bandel: Reclaiming the Desert from Presencing Institute on Vimeo.

Many thanks to Tobias Bandel, Julia Pollak, Katrin KaeuferZoë AckermanHannah ScharmerRandi Kaeufer, and others who participated in the creation and curation of this interview!