Science and commerce – a path for global soil health

Published: 2 November 2021

Science and commerce – a path for global soil health

Lord Kelvin is best remembered for his contributions to physics achieved as Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Glasgow over 53 years.   He was also deeply involved in the world of commerce, not least the maritime trade, indeed he was knighted for his contributions to the trans-Atlantic telegraph.  So he may well have been quietly satisfied to know of a COP-26 forum held in the Kelvin Hall at the University of Glasgow yesterday – the Global Soil Health Programme may well be a global first in bringing some of the world’s largest corporates together with some of the world’s leading soil scientists. 

The purpose?   To make a material improvement to the health of the world’s soils over the next decade.  Of the three great biospheres – atmosphere, oceans, and soil – soil is the only one we have a fighting chance to improve materially over that timeframe.   

The problem?  Nearly half the world’s soil is already degraded, and the IPCC estimates that could rise to 90% by 2050 if nothing is done. Even moderately degraded soil produces 30% less food and stores around half the water of healthy soil. Yet by 2050 we will need to produce up to 70% more food while nearly half the world’s population may live in ongoing drought conditions. 

The potential?  Improved soil fertility and water retention would be a great start.  As well, soil holds three times more carbon that the whole atmosphere and so is a major regulator of climate change. Degraded soil only accelerates the climate crisis; restored soil can be an important mitigant. 

The players?  We are a consortium of corporates, universities, scientists, and not-for-profits.   The real excitement though comes from the fact that between all of us we have a reach of perhaps 70% of the world’s farmers – these are the custodians we really need to work closely with. 

Translating this into progress will not be straight-forward.   Current global efforts are fragmented and of variable quality, not helped by inconsistent guidance standards and the fact that the current cost of verifying impact is prohibitive.   One of our first projects under way is to work on monitoring, reporting, verification (MRV).  

There will be the need to work across institutions, geographies, stakeholders.   In particular, it will be critical to win the trust of farmers, working with them as full partners on terms with which they are happy.   

There is also the uncertainty about the science of soil – it is still quite incomplete.  Luckily we know enough to get started, we need to share knowledge and improve the science while at the same time delivering impact on the ground. 

Finally, the scale of the challenge means our work needs to make business sense. Long-term commitment and investments from all stakeholders will require the Programme to be self-supporting – our success will depend at least in part on the business case.     We have been very encouraged by the support of impact investors in recent months, the tone here has changed very quickly. 

What gives us most heart?   The shared commitment to combining science with the practical action on the ground.    Representatives from each of Bayer, BASF, and UPL spoke to this theme under Lord Kelvin’s implicit watch.   As Arlene Cotie, the Innovations Lead in Sustainable Agriculture at Bayer put it: 

“There is no other way to tackle these issues of global soil health in a sustainable way other than by listening to and following the scientists.   Not only have we established a Scientific Committee but we have done this on the basis that there should be no activity of a scientific nature undertaken in the Programme’s name where the Scientific Committee is not in agreement.   We really do need to let the science do the talking. 

We don’t for a moment underestimate the challenges of any of this – the magnitude of the task, the uncertainties in the science, the challenges of corporates working together in the pre-competitive space, the difficulties of following through with change on the ground.  But equally when we hear the optimism of scientists like John Crawford and Rattan Lal, we are inspired by what we can be able to achieve.” 

As former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney put it in his 2021 book Value(s) “International cooperation is solidarity at its best when it pursues pragmatic solutions to concrete challenges:

  • a focus on outcomes based on values
  • a willingness to work across boundaries with multiple stakeholders
  • greater use of soft forms of cooperation short of legally binding global standards
  • mechanisms to help national approaches develop in a way that is as aligned as possible." 

That is our brief.  We suspect Lord Kelvin might have concurred. 

The Global Soil Health Programme is led by the Professor John Crawford of the University of Glasgow and Professor Hugh Harley of the University of Sydney.   Corporates include Bayer, BASF, UPL, and PwC, with discussions under way with four other global brands across technology, energy, and finance.   Other participants in the Consortium who spoke at yesterday’s forum include Professor Rattan Lal (winner of the 2020 Global Food Prize), Ronald Vargas (Secretary of the FAO’s Global Soil Partnership) and Leigh-Ann Winowiecki (Coalition for Action on Soil Health), and Bryan Taylor (Global Alliance for a Sustainable Planet).

First published: 2 November 2021