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Op-Ed: Why 2024 Is a Pivotal Year for Our Soil

Our soils are one of the largest carbon sinks in the world. However, in many regions around the world, degraded soils are starting to emit more carbon than they can store. That is why at this year’s UNCCD plenary session as well as at the COP16 and COP29 summits, regenerative soil policy cannot be overlooked.

Soil is one of our planet’s most crucial vital organs. Healthy soil is necessary for filtering water, preventing droughts and erosion, and acts as one of the largest carbon sinks on the planet: there’s more carbon in our soil than in our atmosphere, and in all plant and animal life combined.

It is not just the health of our planet which soil is responsible for – it is our health, too. As the foundation of our agricultural systems, it has an indispensable role in feeding the world. Healthy soil is a direct necessity for 95% of the food production for more than 8 billion people.

Analysing the state of our soil is like checking the vital signs of our ecosystem. Right now, it is not looking good.

52% of our soil is already degraded. In a grim look to the future, projections suggest that degradation levels could rise to 90% by 2050 if we do not act immediately. The impacts of this would be devastating.

Degraded soils cannot function in the same way healthy soils do: they cannot grow our food, filter our water, and clean our air. ⁠⁠Yet, while the vital signs of our soil are extremely worrying, there is still reason for optimism.

At last year’s UN COP28 summit in Dubai, negotiations finally acknowledged soil degradation as an urgent matter, and we saw some cautious signs of progress. For example, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action showed that global attention was finally being given to our food systems. The declaration, a long-awaited start, was signed by 158 nations, making it one of the most unanimous decisions to date. However, there was a critical omission from the final Global Stocktake Report: the word soil. 

While addressing sustainable agriculture, the Global Stocktake failed to make the link to soil health.

The final report calls for nature conservation, protection and restoration and even goes as far as to mention the economic, social, and environmental benefits of sustainable land-management practices, such as improved climate resilience and well-being.

What it overlooks is to highlight that soil health is central to all of these issues. The simple action of promoting and supporting healthy soil would already lead to significant progress on the majority of these issues. 

Michel Desperto from Desperto Regenerative Cultures Centre

Michel Desperto from Desperto Regenerative Cultures Centre in São Paulo, Brazil. Photo: Save Soil Movement.

Dr. Manickaraj T M and Nagarathnam, from Marutha Vanam and Seetha Vanam Farms in Thondamuthur, Tamil Nadu, India

Dr. Manickaraj T M and Nagarathnam, from Marutha Vanam and Seetha Vanam Farms in Thondamuthur, Tamil Nadu, India. Photo: Save Soil Movement.

This year, we have a unique opportunity. Not only do we have COP29 in Azerbaijan; we also have the chance to make soil the central issue at two other crucial events: the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCCD COP16) in Saudi Arabia and the UN Biodiversity Conference in Colombia.

Soil has a critical position in the climate conversation at all three conferences.

Soil must be integral to COP29. Last year, we saw growing recognition of soil’s importance and the need to protect it. This year, the conversation must be about soil’s potential and how to utilise it.

Soil is a key ally in combating climate change through carbon sequestration.

Currently, there are more than 2,500 gigatonnes of carbon stored in global soils. However, the potential soil represents is more than this: according to a Save Soil’s analysis, the collective potential of all the land currently under the care of farmers amounts to an estimated 27% of the reduction in carbon emissions needed to limit our post-industrial warming to below 2C.

On our current trajectory, Australian soils are set to become net emitters of carbon dioxide (CO2). This means that, instead of being a vital organ supporting the health of our planet, degraded soils could inflict serious damage to our already fragile system. 

Adam Chappell is the owner of Chappell brother Farms and a founding member of the Arkansas Soil Health Alliance, which teaches farmers how to be profitable and sustainable through soil health.

Adam Chappell is the owner of Chappell brother Farms and a founding member of the Arkansas Soil Health Alliance, which teaches farmers how to be profitable and sustainable through soil health. Photo: Save Soil Movement.

Soil can help us achieve our mitigation and abatement targets: COP29 needs to take this into account. And needless to say, a discussion about desertification is a discussion about soil. At both the UNCCD plenary session and at COP16, it will be crucial for nations to outline global incentives and support farmers in adopting regenerative practices. Only this can prevent our soils from degrading further. 

Soil is key to biodiversity, home to more than half of Earth’s species. It is home to 90% of the world’s fungi, 85% of plants, and more than 50% of bacteria. This makes it the world’s most species-rich habitat, and cannot be ignored at the UN Biodiversity Conference.

2024 is the year we should reach a global agreement on soil protection, and put legislation in place that strives for a minimum of 3-6% organic content in our soils. This would not only support biodiversity but also increase productivity and aid climate resilience.

Last year, the word “soil” was left out of the narrative. This year, it needs to be on everyone’s lips. We need to capitalise on the momentum built at COP28 and ensure that soil is treated not as yet another climate vulnerability but as a solution.

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