Seedlings sprouting in soil
Policy Analysis

How Farm Policies Can Help Protect Our Soils

By Facundo Calvo on March 11, 2022

We rely on soil for over 90% of the food produced for human consumption worldwide. Soil filters pollutants and is our planet’s most important carbon sink. Yet the world’s soil is facing several challenges, including degradation and a changing climate, that could have damaging implications for global food security. 

This was the introductory message of the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA) 2022 held earlier this year, a global conference that normally meets annually in Berlin to discuss global agricultural and food policies, and which this year chose the relationship between soil and food security as its theme.

The need for healthy soils is an issue that is not just drawing the attention of policy-makers. It is also capturing the imagination of filmmakers and the participation of environmental activists. Outside of the policy arena, the award-winning documentary Kiss the Ground (2020) also put front and centre the capacity of soil to sequester carbon efficiently. The documentary hints that farm policies can do more to protect our soils and promote a more sustainable agricultural sector.

The need for healthy soils is also capturing the imagination of filmmakers and the participation of environmental activists.

“The solution I’m talking about is right under our feet, and it’s as old as dirt. We call it soil, earth, or ground,” actor and activist Woody Harrelson says. While our soil may often be taken for granted, bringing renewed attention to the role it can play in tackling food security (and what farm policies can do to protect soils) is an important task.

As we look ahead at ways to tackle challenges such as food insecurity, hunger, and environmental degradation, we need to understand which policy options can promote healthy soils, and which ones can get in the way.

Understanding Farm Subsidy Impacts and International Policy Options

This year’s GFFA took place against a backdrop of a growing body of research linking sustainable soils and agricultural policies, including the harmful role that government subsidies can play in perpetuating practices with negative health and environmental impacts. There is also an ongoing conversation underway about the role that trade policy can play in encouraging governments to reconsider their approach to subsidies.

First, we need to understand which subsidies are the most environmentally harmful to soils. A study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, for instance, found that payments based on unconstrained variable input use, such as fertilizers and pesticides, are one of the most environmentally harmful forms of support given to farmers. This is because they reduce the cost of these inputs and create strong incentives for farmers to use fertilizers and pesticides more extensively. 

The pollution caused by synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers has worsened, due to increasingly intense agriculture production, according to a report by the World Resources Institute, the United Nations Environment Programme, and the World Bank. More recently, a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the United Nations Environment Programme, and the UN Development Programme highlighted the harmful impacts on human health from the overuse of pesticides and other chemical inputs. The same report recognizes, however, that while under certain conditions input subsidies can boost agricultural productivity, their costs and benefits would ultimately depend on country context. 

Experts and policy-makers are also openly debating how they could repurpose some forms of agricultural support to help achieve more sustainable approaches to agricultural production.

This discussion is not only taking place in the research literature. Experts and policy-makers are also openly debating how they could repurpose some forms of agricultural support to help achieve more sustainable approaches to agricultural production. This was one of the topics that took centre stage at a high-level panel organized by IISD, the International Food Policy Research Institute, and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in December. 

Ideas discussed at this event included the role of the World Trade Organization (WTO), given the long-standing negotiations among its members on how to reform rules on domestic farm subsidies. One option would be for WTO members to take steps to repurpose agricultural support toward achieving better environmental and health outcomes, while also developing rules on transparency and monitoring that could promote trust and help governments coordinate their efforts in repurposing these subsidies.

Domestic Policy Options to Promote Healthy Soils

Trade talks at the WTO are a valuable place to start, but they face a long and uncertain road ahead, as shown by the history of agricultural negotiations at the institution. In parallel to these efforts, which other policy options exist at the domestic level that can help improve soil health?

First, farmers should be compensated fairly for putting in place carbon sequestration practices. In other words, agricultural policies should be designed in a way that accounts for the societal value of soils, which refers to the monetary equivalent of the ecosystem services that a unit amount of soil can provide. 

Examples of these ecosystem services include reducing water runoff and soil erosion, offsetting greenhouse gas emissions, and helping communities adapt to the impacts of climate change, to name a few. Professor Rattan Lal, recipient of the 2020 World Food Prize, suggests that farmers should be compensated for the provision of ecosystem services at a rate that is well above what they currently receive, on average, for contributing to climate change mitigation, increasing water quality, or enhancing biodiversity. Without attributing the correct value to soils, Professor Lal argues, there will not be enough incentive for protecting soil health.

Against this background, the Global Soil Partnership of the FAO provides a valuable space for looking at how carbon sequestration practices could fit into the broader agenda of sustainable soil management. FAO’s RECSOIL (Recarbonisation of Global Agricultural Soils) mechanism helps with the provision of technical support and financial incentives to farmers who agree to implement sustainable soil management practices. By using financial mechanisms such as voluntary carbon credits, RECSOIL aims to enhance soil organic carbon stocks.

Second, farmers need support in transitioning to a more responsible and efficient use of fertilizers and pesticides. This year’s GFFA communiqué took the notable step of including a specific reference to the International Code of Conduct for the Sustainable Use and Management of Fertilizers. This code of conduct was designed to support the implementation of the Voluntary Guidelines for Sustainable Soil Management produced by the Global Soil Partnership, namely by promoting a series of practices that could help reduce the overuse and misuse of fertilizers. More specifically, this code includes recommendations for government regulations related to the sale, distribution, and labelling of fertilizer products. 

Organic fertilizers such as compost or manures, while often more expensive, slower in releasing nutrients, and probably insufficient to meet the food demands of a growing world population, can offer an additional tool to improve soil’s structure in an environmentally friendly way.

Third, more research and support are needed for farmers to adopt those farming practices that can also help protect soil. Kiss the Ground highlights some examples of practices that have shown promise to date, such as agroforestry, which consists of combining the production of food and the planting of trees in the same area. These farming practices can help avoid soil erosion and water evaporation, while improving soil fertility, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration. 

Governments can also play a more active role in the promotion of agroecological approaches among their country’s farmers. In this regard, the policy recommendations on agroecological approaches and other innovative approaches developed by the Committee on World Food Security could provide useful guidance for promoting recycling, optimizing the use of external inputs or reducing reliance on the same, and facilitating the regeneration of soil health. These approaches can contribute to more climate-resilient agriculture through the application of a series of principles, such as enhancing soil health for improved plant growth. This could be done by managing organic matter and enhancing soil biological activity, as pointed out by a report from the High-Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition.

Along the same lines, a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development states that soil carbon sequestration on agricultural lands could sequester 4% of average annual global greenhouse gas emissions over the rest of the century. The study suggests implementing regulations to prevent the loss of soil carbon, knowledge transfer policies to increase carbon stocks and profits for farmers, and voluntary incentives via market-based policies to enhance soil carbon sequestration.

The Way Forward: Coordination and partnerships

“I’ll make you a deal. I won’t give up, and neither should you,” proposes Woody Harrelson at the end of Kiss the Ground. That injunction could take the form of deepening this conversation within and outside the policy community and exploring new approaches to coordination and partnerships that can help translate these policy options into practice. 

Only time will tell if governments will design agricultural policies in a way that protects our soils and supports farmers in their efforts to do the same.

For example, increasing funding for soil research projects could help improve our understanding of soil properties and the ecosystem benefits it can generate. We need better data on soil structure and composition for implementing evidence-based policy decisions. In this regard, existing institutional arrangements such as the Global Soil Information System, managed by the FAO, should continue playing an essential role by gathering soil data collected by national soil systems across the world.

Bringing together stakeholders from different areas is also crucial. One example is the 4 for 1000 Initiative, which aims at increasing soil carbon stocks by 0.4% per year (or 4 parts per 1,000) in the top 30–40 cm of the soil with the goal of slowing the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This initiative involves public, private, and non-governmental actors, who work together to promote the implementation of soil carbon storage actions through practices such as agroecology, agroforestry, conservation agriculture, and landscape management, to name a few. The 4 for 1000 Initiative is voluntary, and each member decides how it wants to contribute to these goals, which are complementary to existing global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Only time will tell if governments will design agricultural policies in a way that protects our soils and supports farmers in their efforts to do the same. But there are promising examples underway of individuals and institutions looking for new opportunities to act together on these issues, improve their understanding of what’s at stake, and take steps on both the domestic and international stages to raise the profile of our soils and the value they bring in tackling sustainability challenges.