Stop Treating Soil Like Dirt

This is our sixth blog about CI’s Nature Is Speaking campaign. Read all blogs in this series.

farm in Oklahoma during Dust Bowl

Homestead and farm in Texas County, Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. (By USDA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Less than 100 years ago, a catastrophe of enormous proportions left thousands dead and millions homeless across the United States. The worst part? We could have prevented it.

The Dust Bowl is a stark example of how poor land management — and particularly poor soil management — can unravel a natural system. As farmers spread across America’s grasslands in the 1920s, they plowed the land until they broke up the structure of the soil and removed natural grasses and vegetation, leaving the soil exposed and making it more susceptible to erosion. When a drought hit the weakened landscape, it fed massive dust storms that blanketed entire states with soil.

The more soil was lost, the harder it was to grow anything — and the harder it was to grow, the longer soils were left exposed to the elements and the harder it was to stop the problem. We created a downward spiral. True, a drought sparked all of it, but the drought played upon conditions resulting from humans’ poor management of natural resources.

The question is: Have we learned our lesson?

In some cases, yes; in many other cases, signs point to no. The U.S. farming sector has made significant strides in reducing soil erosion — but improvements in managing soils and other natural resources like forests have been inconsistent, and more needs to be done.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), about 25% of the world’s farmland is highly degraded. The cost of soil loss in the U.S. alone is hundreds of millions of dollars per year; the loss of just one inch of topsoil could take centuries to replace.

In 2013, record levels of haze from fires associated with clearing land in Indonesia led to dangerous air quality conditions in Singapore and Malaysia, resulting in closure of many schools and businesses, negatively impacting public health and economic development.

Clearly, we are — as Edward Norton says below — treating the soil like dirt.

I view agriculture as the central playing field where the needs of people and nature meet. Across the globe, millions of square kilometers have been converted to agricultural land in order to feed a growing population. Some farms are owned or managed by small farmers, others by large agribusinesses, yet all healthy crops depend on services from nature such as freshwater provision, pollination and pest control. If ecosystems are too degraded, crop yields may decrease over time — and much of this depends on what’s happening in the soil.

Soil isn’t just Earth’s skin. It’s also our planet’s sponge, filter and life source. A lot of ecosystem services take place in soil: carbon storage, nutrient cycling, water filtration. There are thousands of species in a handful; it’s a microcosm of life.

Many smallholder farmers, however, are plagued by poverty and may not have alternatives to practices that degrade the land. They need to focus on putting food on the table tomorrow.

Larger farmers may have access to better management practices, but work in a market system set up to reward tons of food produced without necessarily reflecting the external costs of water pollution, deforestation or other environmental degradation that may be a result of poor farming practices.

In order for change to happen at scale, market and regulatory systems need to reward and incentivize farmers to use more sustainable farming methods. Fortunately, we are beginning to see food and agricultural markets placing greater value on sustainability, and CI and our partners have played a role in this shift.

boy makes seedling planters, Tanzania

In Tanzania, a boy packs plastic tubes with soil as makeshift planters for seedlings. (© Benjamin Drummond)

CI has always felt strongly that in the globalized world we live in, helping large corporations incorporate environmental considerations into how they engage with their suppliers is one of the biggest ways we can make an impact. If a company like Starbucks, Walmart or McDonald’s makes even one small change, it can have a huge impact that reverberates across continents and supply chains.

I am particularly excited about the progress being made in the coffee and palm oil sectors. When we started discussions within these industries 10 years ago, we were met with pure hostility by some companies. There’s still some tension and plenty of challenges in both sectors, and yet I think there’s much wider recognition of the fact that these are issues we need to resolve. There’s less debate around if we need to take action, and much more focus on the how.

In over 10 years of partnership with Starbucks, CI helped the company develop and expand its Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) Practices, a coffee-buying program that promotes positive environmental, economic and social practices among coffee farmers. Our analysis shows that at least 81% of participating farms used organic matter or cover crops to improve or maintain soil fertility (PDF).

This program has so far benefited more than 1 million farmers on four continents. In 2013, Starbucks bought 94.9% of its coffee through C.A.F.E. Practices. It’s on track to reach 100% in 2015.

Other coffee companies are taking action, too. Recently Nestle pledged to eliminate deforestation from its supply chains by 2030. Similarly, Keurig has committed to 100% sustainable coffee by 2020. We’ve also seen much more support from coffee traders who play a critical role in the value chain.

coffee plant, Chiapas, Mexico

Coffee grows in the shade of forest trees in Chiapas, Mexico. (© Cristina Mittermeier)

The palm oil sector has also made tremendous advancements toward sustainability. Palm oil production is one of the largest causes of deforestation in the tropics, and growing demand for its use in food, personal care and more recently the biofuels sector means we need to find a quick solution.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was founded in 2004, and just 10 years later it has certified 18% of global production as sustainably produced. While that is still the tip of the iceberg, recent sustainability commitments by palm oil traders that represent about 60% of the global palm oil trade suggest these figures will continue to grow.

Although both these industries have had sustainability initiatives going on for years, it feels like we’re approaching some real tipping points that could — and must — lead to major behavior shifts regarding how people treat the land.

The FAO estimates that the world will have to double its food supply by 2050 in order to keep up with a growing population. I have no doubt that human ingenuity can help get us there. Yet I also know it’s only possible if we restore and protect the Earth — and earth — that feeds us.

John Buchanan is the acting head of CI’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business. To learn more about what you can do to help, check out our Nature Is Speaking website. In addition, every time you use the hashtag #NatureIsSpeaking on social media platforms, HP will donate $1 to CI (up to $1 million); learn more.