Agricultural soils are a strategic resource for states, as they are indispensable in feeding the population, and are thus important for food security. If, on the one hand, they can support solid economic activity, which is particularly important in rural areas where agriculture constitutes the spinal column of human activity, they are also a fragile resource. Soil is like a living being that has to be nourished, balanced, and cannot be exhausted, at the risk of becoming “dead earth.”

Agricultural activity, in order to be sustainable, must first be able to protect soils. This means maintaining a sufficient level of organic matter, fighting against depletion in minerals and erosion, and also improving water retention. That also plays a role in the resilience of agricultural systems. Agronomic practices that are more in line with the soil cycle and environmentally effective (such as agroecology, organic farming, regenerative agriculture, conservation farming…) enhance the ability of these systems to adapt to climate change, to store carbon in soils, and, more generally, to increase the production capacity of soils while also respecting the environment, thus increasing global food security.

While agricultural models and different agronomic practices differ from one area to another, from one country to another, the problems of soil health are ultimately rather comparable, and there is much to gain in exchanging practices, examples and challenges.

For this purpose, the Embassy of France held a conference June 19, 2018, with the financial support of the French Ministry for Agriculture and Food.

Photos copyright France in the US

Recap of the conference

The conference was moderated by Lori Arguelles, from the Ferguson Foundation, to exchange ideas on soil health to help share experiences in this field, and was organized around two roundtables.

The first roundtable dealt with the relationship between the development of scientific knowledge and spreading it through the development of best practices both by countries (coming up with adequate policies) and project developers (like NGOs or community organizations). This demonstrated a consensus about the critical importance of knowledge and training, aiming to raise awareness among farmers about the importance of increasing organic matter in soils, and the benefits that come with it. These benefits, through the storing of organic matter (and thus carbon), are environmental through increasing both the resistance of soils to erosion and their role in water retention, which is particularly crucial for avoiding water runoff at the origin of catastrophic flooding. But even beyond the environmental aspects, the benefits are also of agronomic value thanks to an improvement in soil fertility. Creating more fertile soil allows to increase yields, with a parallel decrease in need for fertilizers, and on a more macroeconomic scale, contributes to improving food security and the ability of countries to feed their population and that of the planet, both now and in the future. The continuous improvement of scientific knowledge is necessary to ensure the implementation of policies that are continuously more sustainable and effective, aand a better evaluation of these policies’ impacts and benefits. Instituting a more long-term policy vision is also increasingly crucial, as maintaining good practices is required to protect and grow organic matter stocks. A policy presentation by the U.S. federal government and by France highlighted the similar approaches of the two countries in terms of concrete objectives.

The second roundtable presented, through the broad range of diversity of the participants involved, the different points of view on implementing policies that benefit soil health. These ranged from the scale of a state (California presented its efforts on the issue from the past several years, particularly as it relates to the state’s increasingly frequent drought conditions), to an international organization, an NGO, a farming association, and a company. These points of view show that, even if farmers are the first in the line of combat for increasing organic matter in soils, actors at all levels have a responsibility on this issue that they must acknowledge and act upon. It is crucial for all to be cognizant of the importance of this subject, and to rethink our methods of convincing and aiding farmers in implementing these policies in the long term. These presentations also showed to what extent the different interests and objectives of all actors are similar.

Two participants also highlighted through examples the different themes discussed during the roundtables:

  • The first, as the opening remarks of the conference, indicated the importance of implementing measures that improve soil health at the sub-national level, showing the example of policies in the state of Maryland.
  • The second, between the two roundtables, presented the international 4 per 1000 Initiative, which aims to bring all people working to increase organic matter in soils into contact with one another, and to improve scientific knowledge on the issue, as well as to come up with a common, shared analytical framework.

To conclude the conference, the moderator reminded the participants that in the fight against climate change, carbon is not necessarily bad in and of itself, but that it is what is done with it and where it is located (atmosphere or soil) that is crucial. That is why it is important for all economic entities to be conscious of the consequences of their actions, and the need to refine and perfect scientific knowledge on this issue. To this end, it is important to promote agricultural systems and practices that increase the amount of organic matter stored in soils, through tactics such as agroecology, regenerative agriculture, conservation agriculture, agroforestry, organic agriculture, and others. These systems have beneficial impacts both in terms of the environment and in food security.

This issue is of both local and global importance. A global response, involving everyone, is thus critical: It is not simply the responsibility of farmers to solve this problem, but of us all.

Program and panelists’ presentations

Click on the links below to open the presentations