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Healthy Soils for Sustainable Development

Soil is essential to life: it’s the base on which we walk and the source of our food. We take soil for granted; it is always there for us wherever we are. Maybe that is why we often forget about the health and quality of soils. The uncomfortable truth is that soils are currently suffering in silence. We lose some 24 billion tonnes each year through erosion and degradation. A total of 24% of the world’s productive land area is already unusable and billions of people are suffering as a result. To ensure sustainable development and global food security we must protect our soils.

From 11 – 13 February, representatives from research, industry, governments, NGOs, consultancies and other stakeholders assembled in Tutzing for a conference entitled “Soils, Food Security and Sustainable Land Management for Sustainable Development Post-2015” for discussions focussing on the neglected issue of soils.

As currently drafted, neither the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) nor the Post-2015 Agendaactually refer to soil protection, even though healthy soils are crucial for many of the goals. It has been difficult to embed “soil” into these goals because there is no consensus on what constitutes a healthy soil or what criteria can be used to measure its quality. During the 3-day conference experts tackled burning issues such as “whether high productivity automatically equates with good soil, what indicators should be used to identify soil quality and what monitoring should be developed to ensure soil health”.

As an introduction, delegates such as Michael Brander of the Biovision Foundation, Ivonne Lobos Alva from the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) and Knut Ehlers from the German Federal Environment Agency (UBA) explained the extent to which their work is feeding into the Post-2015 Agenda. For example, the IASS is submitting proposals for the Sustainable Development Agenda, the UBA is development indicators and Biovision, through its project Changing Course in Global Agriculture, is seeking to achieve concrete action through the political process.

Speakers identified gaps in both the SDGs and the mechanisms for soil protection. They also highlighted problems relating to soil health in general. For example, Knut Ehlers from UBA pointed out that “the German sustainability strategy makes no reference to “Soil Organic Carbon (SOC) as an indicator of soil quality”. In addition, there was very little monitoring. Christoph Bals from the organisation Germanwatch drew attention to the fact that we use an enormous amount of land not just in our own country but also in other countries where our demand for food results in the overexploitation of soils. This means that we cannot guarantee that soil is used sustainably. Biologist and environmental activist Christine von Weizsäcker stressed in her presentation the need for partnerships when implementing measures. BMZ, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development gave a presentation on its initiative “One World No Hunger“ and its six projects designed to bring about sustainable improvements in food security and the livelihoods of those living in Africa. One of the guests at the conference was Robert Sabiti from Uganda who talked about the work of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS). CFS is developing methods and strategies designed to achieve the sustainability goal of Food Security. It analyses the effectiveness of individual campaigns and so provides valuable input data to policymakers. CFS is planning to incorporate the issue of soil in its future programmes. There was also considerable interest in the presentation by Professor Zeyaur Khan from icipe – a Biovision partner – on the Push-Pull method. With this method, maize is grown in combination with napier grass and desmodium: This combination suppresses the striga weed and keeps the stemborer pest away from the maize. Desmodium also fixes the nitrogen in the soil. The Push-Pull method has doubled the maize yields of many small farmers in East Africa. In addition, napier grass and desmodium are valuable as animal fodder. The system does not involve ploughing or the use of artificial fertilizers and so is particularly effective at conserving the soil and resources.

One of the high points of the conference was the public lecture by Dr Hans Herren attended by more than 150 people from the region. At the start of his talk, Herren stressed the importance of the SDG`s. “We have an energy problem; climate change is knocking on our door and resources are disappearing with every passing day. This must change,” said Herren emphatically. Solutions exist; they just need implementation. The dissemination of knowledge – as pursued by Biovision with its project Farmer Communication Programme – is a step in the right direction. In addition, we need to bring together the right people and ensure that they remain in constant dialogue. Following his presentation, there was a lively discussion and questions, such as whether GMOs could make an important contribution to global food supplies and why doesn’t everyone in Africa grow maize as it is simple to plant and quick-growing.

The conference “Soils, Food Security and Sustainable Land Management for Sustainable Development Post-2015“ was an ideal opportunity for a wide range of different interest groups to exchange views, develop new ideas and identify problems.  Healthy, functional soil is an essential element of sustainable development and global food security. It can only provide its unique services such as water filtration, biomass production and the sequestration of carbon in eco-systems if it is.  The discussions showed that the Post-2015 Development Agenda and the SDGs place insufficient value on soil. During the workshops, delegates discussed a range of approaches, e.g.  how soil health could be embedded in the SDGs and what indicators should be used for monitoring purposes. There are already many ways in which soil could be given a voice. However, they can only be realised if there is targeted cooperation between relevant stakeholders from a range of backgrounds, strong global partnership, the involvement of the public as a whole and holistic communication strategies. The delegates returned home bearing important messages and we hope that some of these will flow into the SDGs and the Post-2015 Agenda.