Soil Systems Farm

Paris, Soil and Climate – its time for business to step up

Over the next eight weeks the world’s focus will be on Paris and every country’s commitment to mitigating climate change. Against this backdrop the French government has just proposed a “4% Initiative”, that governments increase their soil’s organic carbon level by 4% each year. In this article we will look at why this cornerstone organic principle is the future for agriculture and why it is time for businesses to invest in the organic industry.

Food and Agriculture – year of the soil
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has named 2015 the International Year of the Soil. The key messages being delivered this year are healthy soils deliver healthy food, soils are critical for planet biodiversity, soils mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon, they filter and store water and it is a non-renewable resource that needs preservation. For humans to survive on this planet there is nothing more important than protecting the soil.

The 4% Initiative – soils for food security and climate
The French Ministry of Agriculture announced in September a visionary plan under the Lima Paris Agenda for Action (LPAA). They have calculated that a 4% annual increase in the soil carbon stock would stop the current increase in atmospheric CO2. The purpose of this target is to show that small annual incremental increases in building soil carbon can have a significant effect on reducing atmospheric carbon. It is these small changes all across agricultural soils, grasslands, pastures and forest soils that can limit global temperature increases to 2 degrees.

Why is soil carbon so critical?
Over 40% of all the soils on earth are extremely degraded. This has led to soil erosion, destruction of sensitive ecosystems and eutrophication of the waterways. Due to a number of reasons including deforestation, overgrazing, over cultivation and the use of artificial nitrogen fertilisers, carbon levels have plummeted to below half of their original levels. This carbon has been released to the atmosphere and is now speeding up extremes in weather patterns.

As the carbon level in soils decreases the first thing that happens is that soils no longer holds moisture, nutrients leach into the waterways and aquifers, plants grow smaller root systems and crops need more artificial nitrogen to produce food. When seasons become more extreme this leads to more crop failures and reduced yields. This is exactly what is happening right now across the global continents. In addition, low organic carbon leads to compacted and anaerobic soils that release the greenhouse gases nitrous oxide and methane.

The key fact that everyone should understand is that as soil carbon is increased there is also an increase in total soil nitrogen. Once carbon levels get to a certain level the use of artificial nitrogen fertiliser is no longer required. This is why one of the primary principles of organic farming is building organic carbon and humus levels of soil. We are creating a natural mechanism through ecosystem services that feeds the plant and provides healthy clean food. The alternative is to use more fertilisers and sprays, poison the soil and water, reduce biodiversity and make people sicker. We can no longer afford to follow this failed 100 year old experiment. It is economic and social suicide.

Syria is only the tip of the iceberg
The huge exodus of refugees from Syria is a warning to every country of what can happen when climate change, social unrest and war come together. Its roots began 10-15 years ago when the country was ravaged by droughts brought on by overgrazing, low carbon farming, a lack of agroforestry, poor farm design and extremes in weather.

Today in Asia with a population of 4.3 billion the farming communities are under similar levels of stress. Soil carbon levels have plummeted to below 1%, the monsoon seasons have been up to 2 months late and traditional farming practices no longer work. Also, labour costs have stretched the financial budgets of many farmers to breaking point. The only solution for an increasing percentage of the younger population is migration to the cities leaving the older to continue farming the old way. Many of these farmers planted the crop this season up to three times due to failed germination. Imagine at one point in the future if 100 million decided to get on a boat and head to Australia due to extreme environmental and social upheaval. It would make Syria look like a birthday party.

Much of the foreign aid into these regions rarely focusses on the priority of increasing soil carbon. Large amounts of money is often directed to repeating the same mistakes. Use more fertiliser, spray more, produce higher yields but little into protecting environmental externalities or increasing biodiversity. With agriculture consuming 70% of the freshwater supply in the world it is no wonder that farming has such a big impact on the environment. One exception to this is the work of the french international agricultural research organisation CIRAD. In Cambodia they have shown conclusively that you can grow rice crops with green manure crops and mulches, raise soil carbon levels and increase yields while engaging with hundreds of farmers to increase adoption rates. They have adopted organic farming practices that are used extensively around the world by more than 2 million organic farmers and date back more than 5000 years. Wouldn’t it be great if one day we replaced US led military deployments with food aid that benefited our farmers and foreign aid that builds farming resilience in sensitive areas. This is why the 4% initiative is so powerful. It is a tangible solution to food and social security with huge environmental benefits.

cirad 2

Figure 1 – CIRAD has developed farming systems that increase both yields and organic carbon in tropical soils

The business opportunity is organics
The organic industry this year is tipped to exceed US$100 billion worldwide. It has been growing for the last 10 years at an annual rate between 5-15% depending on the country. Driven by educated females, it is a major trend that is unlikely to abate. The links between glyphosate and other chemicals to degenerative diseases, breast cancer, hormonal imbalance and other ill health is not being ignored by the consumer. They are voting with their wallets and sending clear signals to businesses worldwide that enough is enough. Clean nutritious food is a right and not a privilege. Now the links between building soil carbon and reversing climate change are adding weight to the consumers choices. No massaging of the research, word-smithing or advertising will convince them otherwise. It is not a niche but a major cultural change.

Food businesses need to take note that the century of cheap resources and exploitation is over. Real business is all about making a profit while protecting and enhancing the environment. It is founded on social responsibility. Those companies that understand this will prosper while the others will go the way of the dodo.

Adam Willson is the Director of Soil Systems Australia and current Chairman of The Organic Federation of Australia

Join the 4‰ Initiative – Soils for food security and climate

Cirad – Agricultural Research for Development

FIBL & IFOAM The World of Organic Agriculture, Statistics and Emerging Trends 2015

The Myths of Safe Pesticides – Andre Leu



One Response to Paris, Soil and Climate – its time for business to step up

  1. Andrew Michaels says:

    This is so true. Businesses all around the country should be investing in organics and sustainable practices such as wastewater management (, whether they’re in cities like Sydney or out in regional areas. Corporate social responsibility is critical now and if a business doesn’t get on board it’ll get left behind.

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