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Caring for soil is caring for life! Ensure 75% of soils are healthy by 2030 for healthy food, people, nature and climate

The new European Commission interim report sets out the vision and the blueprint to reach this ambition through a combination of research and innovation, training and advice, as well as the demonstration of good practices for soil management. To be successful, the mission will also improve the monitoring of soil health and the pressures acting on them, mobilise investments, and encourage changes in policies. The mission will be a joint endeavour by stakeholders, researchers, policy-makers and citizens alike that will put Europe on a path towards sustainable land and soil management as part of a wider, green societal transition.

Caring for Soil is Caring for Life” is the title of the mission proposed by the  EC Soil Health and Food Mission Board.

  • The mission’s goal is to “ensure that 75% of soils are healthy by 2030 and are able to provide essential ecosystem services”, such as the provision of food and other biomass, supporting biodiversity, storing and regulating the flow of water, or mitigating the effects of climate change.
  • The target corresponds to a 100% increase of healthy soils against the current baseline.

DID YOU KNOW:

  • Drier and hotter conditions are likely to occur in Southern Europe but also in the Middle East, the Western US and large parts of Asia, South America and Africa, the latter continent having the highest projected population growth.
  • Large areas at high Northern latitudes, like Northern Canada or Siberia may, in theory, become more suitable for agriculture, but soil conditions are generally poor in these areas and there is no agricultural infrastructure. What is left are areas with currently moderate climates.
  • Globally, little research has been done to properly assess the effects of climate change on future agricultural production, emphasizing the role of soils.
  • Pioneering studies by Italian scientists predict alarming drops of productivity of up to 40% by 2070 and this is particularly evident in soils with poor health, due to various degradation processes like compaction, loss of organic matter or pollution. Of course, genetic improvement of crops can help to make crops less sensitive to extreme weather conditions but this will not be adequate to face predicted climate conditions.
  • Market Gardening, ecological farming and vertical farming in city settings may produce significant quantities of vegetables, herbs and fruits in future but this may not be enough and does not cover crops like wheat, rice, sorghum and others that are grown at scale in the field and are the main food staple.

How can the ambitions of the Mission be made more concrete and be quantified?
The following seven focal areas of necessary innovation are proposed:
1. Change the traditional more static soil paradigm to: Living soils form the vulnerable skin of the earth, contributing to essential ecosystem services for mankind
We emphasize the role of soil health in terms of contributing to ecosystem services that, in turn, contribute to SDGs and the Green Deal. Live on earth is governed by nature and by the ecosystem services provided by soils. Modern agriculture and forestry should not be focused only on the ecosystem service biomass production, but should satisfy the other ecosystem demands as well. Different scientific disciplines have to combine forces to assess and improve such services at different spatial levels and realizing soil health is the best contribution that the soil science discipline can make. ....Soil health we define along this line as: The continued capacity of a certain type of soil to contribute in providing ecosystem services for all forms of life, in accordance with the goals of the SDGs and the Green Deal....read further from the report available in 24 languages
2. We advocate a model that starts with an interactive, joint-learning approach by stakeholders and researchers focusing on “lighthouses” and “Living Labs” as seeds for replication
Much research is available covering numerous aspects of land use systems but we face the problem that too often such research is not implemented because of socio-economic reasons or because the overwhelming complexity of real-world adaptive management is too difficult to be expressed in general decision rules.We therefore suggest to turn the traditional research-chain around and start with identifying innovative and successful case studies of circular value chains for soil regeneration that can act as “lighthouses” (‘showcases’) of what is developed and successfully in practice. Many examples do exist at this point in time! They are an opportunity to experiment how to produce more with less: a key future societal challenge. Another instrument are ”living Labs” (or try outs) endeavours on field experiments. ......The concepts of ”Lighthouses” and ”Living Labs” are not new but our explicit recommendation above, applying sets of modern sensing and monitoring methods will deliver the quantitative documentation of ecosystem services as concrete results.......more from the report
3. We present operational targets and indicators for soil health
We define, in contrast to the state-of-the-art, a simple set of indicators for soil health and also indicators for a series of ecosystem services mentioned under point 1. So far, targets and indicators for the SDG’s as an objective point of reference and that are largely adopted by EUROSTAT and also by the Green Deal. So far, these did not mention soils and soil health at all. We therefore propose six soil-related indicators plus two at the landscape scale (Annex 2). We also list twenty three indicators which link the mission with the SDG targets (in accordance with eleven SDG’s, Annex 5) and provide convincing reasons why soil health is important in this context. We also define operational procedures to quantify the various indicators.
4. We suggest to define new research by filling gaps in knowledge perceived when applying existing expertise
Much useful data and information on soils and their functioning has been accumulated in more than hundred years of research. The urgency to face up to the enormous challenges implies that no time can be lost. When studying soil contributions to ecosystem services, existing expertise and methodology should be applied first before new research is initiated. The latter should be focused on filling gaps in knowledge appearing when applying existing expertise. “Curiosity driven” interdisciplinary research is needed to fill such gaps.
5. We advise to better link food quality and safety to chemical and biological soil conditions and processes
A large body of literature has been published on the relation between food quality and human health. However, much less is known about the relation between food quality and soil health. It is important to identify suitable and unsuitable soils for growing various crops or vegetables and to define critical thresholds of chemical pollutants in soil, such as heavy metals, remnants of pesticides, medicines, drugs and plastics. Soils are not only the positive source of new antibiotics but also a negative source of organisms that threaten human health. Their occurrence and development in different types of soil is still largely unknown and needs more attention. And also pay much more attention to the effects of methods of conservation, packaging, storage and transportation in the food chain, in relation to soil health in order to prevent ongoing contamination and waste.
6. We propose to apply systems analysis to explore whether there will be enough healthy soils in the world by 2050
Currently, there is enough food in the world. Widespread hunger is the result of war, poor distribution or inappropriate governance. But what will be conditions in 2050 as many soils will become too dry and hot while fertile areas near rivers and seas may flood due to climate change and sea level rise? How to feed 10 billion demanding people by 2050? This question remains unanswered at this time. An exploratory cross-sectorial systems analysis, applying soil-water-atmosphere-plant simulation models, can indicate which soils are likely to be still healthy in 2050.
7. Ensure the EU global soil footprint is reduced
Any action in the EU has a positive or negative impact in non-EU countries due to complex supply chains. We must avoid outcomes which could imply exporting our problems associated with poor soil health or importing products produced on unhealthy soils. This observation is particularly relevant in the current health crisis where international food supply chains are being challenged.

The Mission proposes new, operational methods to assess soil health and to apply simulation models for the soil-water-atmosphere-plant system to explore future effects of climate change on crop production. This way, areas can be identified where soils are likely to remain healthy enough and where climate conditions still may allow adequate production levels in future, considering climate change scenarios. And most importantly and urgent: this should lead to immediate efforts to protect these soils for future generations. The EU can play a leading role here initiating a global effort.

How can we support soil health through research and innovation? What is the impact of land degradation, desertification, soil carbon etc on soil health, you may wish to find in more from the report

Further reading  from our library collection on:  Sustainable Land Management; Land Degradation Neutralityfood securitywater footprintdrought , genderurbanization and land;  food loss and food wasteland footprintconsumptionSUSTAINABLE LAND MANAGEMENT : Creating employment opportunities and jobs

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